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Why should the decision of the British government to send depleted uranium to Ukraine be condemned?

Originally published: Al Mayadeen on June 21, 2023 by Natasha Hawa (more by Al Mayadeen)  | (Posted Jun 23, 2023)

In March of this year, the British government announced that it would provide Ukraine with armor-piercing rounds that contain depleted uranium. This announcement was condemned by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the UK. The group stated that depleted uranium emits three-quarters of the radioactivity of natural uranium and it is thought that the use of these shells leads to an increase in rates of certain types of cancer. The UK has already committed £2.3 billion pounds to Ukraine in 2023 and provided the same amount to the country in 2022. In addition to financial support, the UK has also supplied Ukraine with rockets, defense systems, armored vehicles, weapons, ammunition, and training.

Depleted uranium is a type of uranium with a lower content of the fissile isotope. It is very dense and is much heavier than steel shells of the same size. The material is therefore very strong and can penetrate equipment such as heavy armor.

Depleted uranium has been used frequently by NATO allies in various conflicts in the past. For instance, the UK used depleted uranium in Iraq and Yugoslavia. According to the UN, the U.S. used approximately 300 tonnes of depleted Uranium in Iraq. Dutch peace group PAX indicated that the U.S. fired depleted uranium on civilians and troops in Iraq. The group highlighted that more than 3000 sites in Iraq were contaminated by depleted uranium, with an expected cost of approximately $30m to clear up the contamination. Furthermore, prominent doctors and scientists in Iraq pointed out that the use of depleted uranium and other military-related pollution caused a sharp rise in congenital birth defects, cancer cases, and other illnesses.

Similarly in Yugoslavia, which experienced a 78-day bombing campaign by NATO forces, the military alliance was responsible for dropping nearly 420,000 bombs equating to 22,000 tonnes, 15 of which included depleted uranium. In the decades following the campaign, 30,000 people suffered from cancer while 10,000 people died.

Moreover, there are long-term effects on the environment from using such bombs. According to some studies, it has been estimated that 13 tonnes of depleted uranium were deposited in the region of Kosovo. There are also estimates that 176 tonnes of depleted uranium were used in the U.S. occupation of Iraq since 2003. Depleted uranium in the soil can be incorporated into vegetables as well as meat and milk from animals and can also contaminate humans via the food chain. Furthermore, depleted uranium also affects the central nervous system of animals and can cause them reproductive problems.

Thus, throughout history, we can see that the provision of depleted uranium bombs can pose a significant threat to civilians and the wider environment. In terms of the depleted uranium provided to Ukraine, the Russian government stated that the destruction of depleted uranium ammunition did cause a radioactive cloud to drift toward Europe. According to the Russians, increased radioactivity was detected in Poland. It is alleged that Russia struck a depleted uranium ammunition depot in Khmelnytskyi last month leading to a significant increase in radiation levels in the region. A huge mushroom cloud was seen rising from the sky as a result.

Given the dangers of such weapons, why have the British provided depleted uranium to Ukraine? Clearly, it poses a threat to human populations and wider environments. If the UK really care about the population of Ukraine they would be seeking to resolve the conflict diplomatically. Instead, they choose to aggravate the situation even further and undoubtedly cause long-term suffering by sending such dangerous weapons to Ukraine and therefore prolonging the war there, with the ultimate hope that Ukraine will be able to defeat Russia and regime change takes place in Russia.

President Putin of Russia did warn the UK not to send depleted uranium to Ukraine, accusing Britain of deploying weapons with a nuclear component. The United Nations nuclear watchdog also urged caution when handling depleted uranium weapons due to the possible dangers of being exposed to it. However, the British government responded by stating that depleted uranium is a standard component and has nothing to do with nuclear weapons. Clearly, the British government failed to review history and acknowledge the damage that has been caused to countries and their people through the use of depleted uranium.

Perhaps the UK should look to countries such as China and Turkey who have expressed their desire to end the current conflict with Ukraine. China, for instance, has issued a twelve-point plan for the settlement of the crisis in Ukraine. Elements of this plan include ceasing hostilities, resuming peace talks, protecting civilians and keeping nuclear plants safe. Surely, this should be a priority for any reasonably minded person: will it be the end of suffering, conflict and reduction in threat of possible nuclear war?

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