The international outcry over claims that the use
of depleted uranium during the Kosovo intervention caused leukemia
in 24 European members of the peacekeeping force is unfounded.
Numerous studies of depleted uranium--the byproduct of the process
of extracting fuel for nuclear reactors and weapons from
uranium--have not found any link between its use by the military
and any form of cancer or other health problems. The controversy
that erupted after the soldiers were found to have leukemia is
threatening to undermine the alliance structure in Europe. It is
imperative that the facts about depleted uranium are not lost in
FACT: The health risks posed by the
military's use of depleted uranium are extremely low.
Depleted uranium is a byproduct of the
manufacturing of fuel for nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons.
Simply, it is what remains after the highly radioactive uranium-235
has been removed from uranium-238 for use in these applications.
The remaining ("depleted") uranium is very dense and produces
minimal radiation. Like lead, depleted uranium is a heavy metal
that can be toxic if it enters the body, but nothing has linked its
use as a weapon to disease. In fact, 15 Gulf War veterans with
fragments of depleted uranium in their bodies are being closely
studied by the Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center in Baltimore,
Maryland. In the decade since that war, not one has developed
Exposure to radiation from the military
weapons that use depleted uranium, or from the dust it produces,
has also been cited as a potential risk. In truth, however, the
most dangerous gamma and x-rays are removed during the extraction
of uranium-235, leaving the more benign alpha radiation that cannot
penetrate the skin to cause internal injury.
FACT: No evidence has been found to link
the use of depleted uranium in weapons in Kosovo or other wars to
cancer or leukemia.
February 2001, experts at the World Health Organization reported
that they had found no firm evidence linking individual medical
cases in Kosovo to exposure to depleted uranium. In a September
2000 study, the Institute of Medicine concluded that there was
"limited/suggestive evidence of no association" between disease and
exposure of no less than 20 rem (a unit of radiation), at least
four times the highest exposure estimated for Gulf War veterans.
And Dr. Frank von Hippel of Princeton University has concluded that
even if a ton of depleted uranium dust were spread all over Kosovo,
the resulting radiation level would be within one one-hundredth of
1 percent of the normal level. In fact, the health risk from
radiation emitted from depleted uranium is so low that it is used
in radiation shielding for hospitals. However, because the body of
knowledge on the long-term effects of exposure to depleted uranium
is very small, research in this area should continue.
FACT: Depleted uranium is an effective
military asset that would be difficult if not impossible to
U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force rely heavily on depleted uranium
munitions for anti-armor operations. Indeed, the ability of
depleted uranium munitions to destroy main battle tanks in Iraq and
the Balkans earned them the nickname "silver bullet." Depleted
uranium's advantages over potential alternatives are that it is 65
percent more dense than lead, which enables it to pierce armor that
would flatten other metals, and that it ignites on contact
(pyrophoric effect), sharpening itself as it penetrates the target
and ignites the fuel and ammunitions on board.
Tungsten, another heavy metal, is the
nearest alternative. Used by the U.S. Navy, Germany, Italy, and
Spain, this extremely dense substance lacks depleted uranium's
pyrophoric effect, making tungsten rounds much less effective.
Moreover, tungsten is in short supply. The United States has not
produced tungsten since 1994, importing it instead mostly from
China and Russia, the two largest producers. It also is
significantly more expensive than depleted uranium, which is almost
Technologically advanced seek-and-destroy
munitions, when finally developed, could become an alternative to
depleted uranium. The idea for these weapons is that a tank would
fire a round that scans the ground and launches a molten metal slug
at the most important target. However, this weapon would be costly
and complicated, and would lack the penetrating power of depleted
uranium. Furthermore, it would rely on tantalum, a heavy metal that
has not been studied extensively but is known to be highly toxic,
especially when vaporized.
FACT: America needs depleted uranium to
counter the large armored forces that its potential adversaries now
America's potential adversaries operate
thousands of armored vehicles. North Korea, for example, maintains
well over 6,000, while Iran and Iraq have a combined total of
7,500. China sustains a force of over 13,000 tanks and armored
personnel carriers. These same nations are using depleted uranium
to develop advanced armor and anti-armor munitions. Countries like
Russia and China continue to proliferate technologies like depleted
uranium without regard to America's security interests.
The controversy that exploded after some European peacekeepers
began to develop non-combat-related illnesses, including leukemia,
after serving in the Balkans caused some allies such as Germany and
Italy to call for a moratorium on the use of depleted uranium and
friendly nations such as Switzerland to call for a total U.N. ban.
Others have suggested the United States should be charged with a
war crime for its use--an idea considered by the U.N.'s Chief
Prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former
United States cannot afford to allow an effective, low-cost, and
necessary weapons system to be held hostage by unfounded concerns
while its adversaries build better weaponry. While it should make
clear that it will discontinue the use of depleted uranium should
science reveal provable health risks, the United States and allies
who agree with it--including the United Kingdom and France--must
not allow the dispute to undermine the critical alliance structure
Jack Spencer is
Policy Analyst for Defense and National Security and Michael
Scardaville is a Research Assistant in the Kathryn and Shelby
Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage