New Scientist May 1, 1999
Pg. 21

HEADLINE: Radioactive shells

Even commentators who support NATO's airborne military action against Serbia have expressed alarm that the alliance forces have not ruled out the use of depleted uranium in their armour-piercing munitions. It is one of the densest naturally occurring elements - almost twice as dense as lead - which makes it ideal for penetrating armoured targets such as tanks. It has found its way into weapons such as the nose cones of cruise missiles and munitions for Apache helicopters and Harrier jump jets.

Depleted uranium is a radioactive waste material produced in the uranium enrichment process, with a half-life of 4.5 billion years. Britain's National Radiological Protection Board ( refuses to comment on the use of radiological sources in weapons for national defence, but can comment on the properties of depleted uranium as a material. It says depleted uranium is a strong source of beta radiation, emitting 2 millisieverts per hour.

"That's a big dose if you're in contact with it," says an NRPB spokesman. "It's not a matter of life or death, but it (depleted uranium) is a significant radiological source." A day's worth of skin contact would give the maximum allowable contact dose for a year.

Depleted uranium was first used openly in the Gulf War. According to the American Gulf War Veterans Association, hundreds of tonnes of munitions employing depleted uranium were used against Iraqi artillery and armoured vehicles. Check their site at

Since the initial Gulf conflict, it has been unofficially blamed for increases in leukaemia cases recorded in Iraq. The veterans estimate that around 600 000 troops were exposed to depleted uranium in the Gulf. Antenna, a Dutch social affairs site, hosts pages that attempt to document the alleged effects of depleted uranium weapons. Check them out at

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