Russia threatened to escalate the attacks Ukraine after the British government announced it would supply Ukraine with a type of ammunition that Moscow falsely claims contains nuclear components.
Britain’s Ministry of Defense confirmed on Monday that it will supply Ukraine with armor-piercing depleted uranium ammunition.
Such shells were developed by the US during the Cold War to destroy Soviet tanks, including the same T-72 tanks Ukraine is now facing to break a stalemate in the east.
Depleted uranium is a by-product of the uranium enrichment process needed to create nuclear weapons. The cartridges retain some radioactive properties, but they can’t elicit a nuclear response like a nuclear weapon would, said RAND nuclear expert and policy researcher Edward Geist.
That didn’t stop the Russians from loudly warning that the rounds would open the floodgates to further escalation. In the past they have hinted that the war could escalate to the use of nuclear weapons.
Both the British Ministry and the White House have rejected the Russian allegations. But the ammunition carries risks, even if it is not a nuclear weapon.
A look at depleted uranium ammunition:
What is depleted uranium?
Depleted uranium is a by-product of the process of making the rarer, enriched uranium used in nuclear fuel and weapons. Although depleted uranium is far less powerful than enriched uranium and incapable of initiating a nuclear reaction, it is extremely dense – denser than lead – a property that makes it very attractive as a projectile.
“It’s so dense and has so much momentum that it just keeps going through the armor – and heats it up so much it catches fire,” Geist said.
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When fired, a depleted uranium munition “essentially becomes an exotic metallic dart fired at extraordinarily high velocity,” said Scott Boston, senior defense analyst at RAND.
In the 1970s, the US Army began manufacturing armor-piercing depleted uranium shells and has since added composite armor plating to reinforce them. It has also added depleted uranium to the munitions fired by the Air Force’s A-10 air attack aircraft, known as tank killers. The US military is still developing depleted uranium munitions, particularly the M829A4 armor-piercing munition for the M1A2 Abrams main battle tank, Boston said.
In response to an Associated Press inquiry, Pentagon spokesman Marine Corps Lt. Col. Garron Garn in a statement Thursday that “The Department of Defense has procured, stockpiled and used depleted uranium cartridges for several decades, as these are a longstanding element of some conventional munitions.”
The rounds have “saved the lives of many military personnel in combat,” Garn said, adding that “other countries have also had depleted uranium munitions for a long time, including Russia.”
Garn did not want to discuss whether the M1A1 tanks being prepared for Ukraine would include depleted uranium armor modifications, citing operational safety.
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President Vladimir Putin warned on Tuesday that “as the collective West begins to use weapons with a ‘nuclear component’,” Moscow will respond accordingly.
The British “have lost their bearings,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, warning that the munitions were “a step toward accelerated escalation.”
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the announcement was “another step and there aren’t that many of them left”.
The White House condemned Russia’s claims as disinformation.
“Make no mistake, this is another straw man the Russians are driving a stake through,” said US Security Council spokesman John Kirby.
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Russia also has depleted uranium munitions and simply doesn’t want Ukraine to have them either, according to a White House official who was not authorized to comment on the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Pentagon spokesman Air Force Brig. Gen. Gen. Pat Ryder said Monday that, to his knowledge, the US would not send any depleted uranium munitions from its own arsenal to Ukraine.
Not a bomb, but still a risk
While depleted uranium ammunition is not considered a nuclear weapon, its emission of low levels of radiation has prompted the UN nuclear regulator to warn of caution in handling and the potential dangers of exposure.
Handling such munitions “should be kept to a minimum and protective clothing (gloves) worn,” warns the International Atomic Energy Agency, adding that “therefore a public information campaign may be needed to ensure that people avoid handling the munitions.” Bullets.
“This should be part of any risk assessment and such precautions should depend on the volume and number of munitions used in an area.”
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The IAEA notes that depleted uranium is primarily a toxic chemical as opposed to a radiation hazard. Particles in aerosols can be inhaled or ingested, and while most would be excreted, some can enter the bloodstream and cause kidney damage.
“High concentrations in the kidneys can cause damage and, in extreme cases, kidney failure,” says the IAEA.
The low radioactivity of a depleted uranium cartridge “is a defect, not a characteristic” of the ammunition, Geist said, and if the US military could find another material with the same density but without the radioactivity, it would likely use that instead.
Depleted uranium munitions were used against Iraq’s T-72 tanks in the 1991 Gulf War and again in the 2003 invasion of the country, as well as in Serbia and Kosovo. US military veterans of those conflicts have questioned whether their use led to grievances they now face.
Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of the lower house of the Russian parliament, said shipments of depleted uranium cartridges could lead to “a tragedy of global proportions, which will mainly affect European countries”.
Volodin said the use of such US munitions in the former Yugoslavia and Iraq led to “radioactive contamination and a sharp increase in oncological diseases”.
Associated Press writers Aamer Madhani in Washington, Frank Jordans in Berlin, and Menelaus Hadjicostis in Nicosia, Cyprus contributed to this report.