Uranium weapons: two decades of uncontrolled contamination

Doug Weir
Coordinator of the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons
Doug Weir

Doug Weir

It is 20 years since the first major use of depleted uranium munitions in the 1991 Gulf War, which resulted in significant contamination in areas of Iraq and Kuwait. Two decades on, and in spite of a global outcry against their use, the controversial armour-piercing weapons, fired from armoured vehicles and aircraft, are still employed or stockpiled by around 20 states1 A by-product of uranium enrichment for the nuclear industry, radioactive and chemically toxic depleted uranium has been shown to be a human carcinogen and its use is carefully managed and regulated in those same states that produce and use the weapons. The UK and US militaries both acknowledge that depleted uranium is hazardous, and since 1991 have warned their troops to ensure that exposures to contamination are avoided wherever possible. However, time and again this principle has not been extended to civilians forced to live in areas affected by the munitions.

The health impact of the weapons is still hotly debated, with the users denying any harm, against a background of reports from health professionals across Iraq and elsewhere of increases in cancers and birth abnormalities. Critics argue that no wide-scale epidemiological survey has shown a causal link to ill health, while fully aware of the considerable difficulties inherent in this kind of research in post-conflict environments. These difficulties include, but are not limited to: population movements, the collapse of health services and registration, security problems, lack of technical expertise and equipment, a lack of transparency concerning where the weapons have been used and competing health priorities.2

Uranium weapons are not currently banned by Arms Control Law. However, as their use clearly runs counter to several principles of International Humanitarian Law, there is a growing acceptance among states and policy makers that a solution is required to outlaw their use. This may require a shift in thinking away from the simple cause and effect impact of landmines and cluster munitions towards a new paradigm based on precaution.

Progress towards this goal is underway, as shown by the introduction of domestic bans in Belgium and, earlier this year, Costa Rica. The growing disquiet over uranium weapons was also reinforced by a third landslide resolution at the UN General Assembly last year, where 148 states backed calls for more transparency over where the weapons have been used.3

Full transparency is a crucial issue when seeking to minimise the hazards to civilians from the use of uranium weapons. While varying in their approach to the risks from depleted uranium, the World Health Organisation, International Atomic Energy Agency and United Nations Environment Programme all highlight the importance of hazard awareness and remediation work on contaminated sites. The failure by users to make targeting data swiftly available makes a mockery of these recommendations. For example, transparency is urgently needed in Afghanistan where US denials over the use of uranium weapons have been challenged by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who recently alluded to radioactive contamination from US operations in the country.

The use of US A10 aircraft in the intervention in Libya has also thrown the issue of transparency to the fore. While speculation was rife that bombs and cruise missiles used in the conflict were contaminating the country, detailed analysis of these weapons has found no evidence to support these assertions.4 Indeed, so much attention was focused on these weapons that many missed the real story: the potential use of uranium rounds by the US A10 and Harrier aircraft employed in the early stages of the conflict. As with Afghanistan, the US denied that the A10s were using uranium rounds, instead being armed only with high explosive rounds.5 If this is true, it could indicate that the US has finally acknowledged that the use of uranium weapons in what it claims are humanitarian interventions is counterproductive. It is notable that the Gaddafi regime swiftly sought to generate propaganda from the allegations.

The veracity of the US's recent claims is still in question but the growing international opposition to uranium weapons is not. The uncontrolled release of radioactive materials in warfare places a heavy financial and political burden on states recovering from conflict, presents a health threat to civilians, spreads fear and runs counter to the most basic radiation and environmental protection norms. This unacceptable practice must, and will, be stopped.

For more information visit or watch our introductory animation When the Dust Settles at Keep updated at:

1. DU users and stockpilers: (Back)
2. A Question of Responsibility: (Back)
3. 148 states call for transparency over depleted uranium use in UN vote: (Back)
4. Claims that DU is used in missiles still appear to lack foundation: (Back)
5. US denies depleted uranium use in Libya, but refuses to rule out future use: (Back)