The UK authorities confirmed that they will provide depleted uranium shells to the Ukraininan forces.

As usual to divert the attention from the metal toxicity they pointed out the low radioactivity. Trouble is that Uranium should be on top of this list and none of the other items in the list is radioactive. An example of what Uranium can do was seen in a firing range in Sardinia. The area is open to the local population when not in use. There the US forces made the first tests of the depleted uranium shells while they were under development.

Now I am wondering if the point of this war is to free the territory to allow the Ukrainian population to go back there in the future why contaminate it?

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    Voted not to close - it is a reasonable question as Russia still occupies Ukranian territories and so these munitions could be reasonably used in Ukranian territories too. If such munitions will indeed make an area uninhabitable (even if temporary) it does beg the question whether the end justifies the means.
    – sfxedit
    Mar 22, 2023 at 16:33
  • Why is this question only focused on the UK and Ukraine forces? It isn't like the UK is the only one supplying that type of ammunition and Ukraine is the only one using it in that conflict.
    – Joe W
    Mar 22, 2023 at 17:55
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    @JoeW Setting aside what Russia has been up to with its own, DU-capable, tanks, DU ammo is used in very specific contexts, using very specific weapon platforms. Mostly in tank on tank fights by modern MBTs, as well as Phalanx and A-10's Gatling. It might very well be that the Challengers will be the first NATO equipment using DU there. I think none of the big ticket stuff delivered so far can make use of it. In any case, it's Putin's latest and greatest spin, so that is what is making the news and being asked about Mar 22, 2023 at 18:15
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    For context theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/19/…
    – user44167
    Mar 22, 2023 at 18:23
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    "Should be at the top of this list". You mean the list of toxic metals, where it doesn't appear? I'm sorry, we only deal with facts, not alternative universe facts. And the "firing range in Sardinia" lists only the allegations of toxicity, not any actual evidence. Mar 22, 2023 at 20:04

5 Answers 5


Depleted uranium is used in shells for its other useful physical properties in this context (such as high density). Toxicity after this use is a side effect, not the purpose. If Ukrainian forces use depleted uranium shells in a location where contamination of Ukrainian territory is possible, I suppose that would mean simply that they judged the tradeoff to be worth it.

Lead is also a toxic heavy metal but has a long history of being used as material for munitions.

Per the article that you linked, the statement by the UK discussed radioactivity because it was addressing the allegation that depleted uranium shells have anything to do with nuclear weapons.

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    Trouble is that the experience has shown that uranium is a lot more toxic than lead. Although from the physical and chemical point of view it is a wrong comparison I think uranium could be put at the same level of mercury vapour.
    – FluidCode
    Mar 22, 2023 at 14:18
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    @FluidCode I would be very interested in the source of that "experience", considering the acute problems lead has caused and continues to cause. (Including, in the context of this discussion, in lead-based primers for munitions.)
    – Cadence
    Mar 22, 2023 at 17:10
  • This does not attempt to answer the question. You're restating rationale of using uranium and explain toxicity is a side effect. But the question is "why use toxic shells" not "why are the shells toxic".
    – Agent_L
    Mar 23, 2023 at 8:46
  • @sumelic exactly, this answers "why the shells are toxic". The question was "why use them if we know they're toxic".
    – Agent_L
    Mar 23, 2023 at 9:16
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    @FluidCode I'm not a specialist, but I found toxicology guides by US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease (uranium, lead, mercury). From what I understand from these, it seems that lead is actually more toxic than depleted uranium. They also have more in-depth profiles (uranium, lead). Mar 23, 2023 at 12:18

DU ammunition is used for 2 reasons, neither of which have to do with nuclear/radiation based weaponry effects. These make it into a top-performance solution for anti-armor applications. Albeit one with some long term environmental downsides which has caused ongoing R&D and deployment of alternatives in recent years (the exact risks are a matter of debate, but are much amplified by playing on "nuclear" fears):

  • it is very much heavier than even lead, making it very good at storing kinetic energy over distance and reducing projectile drop

  • against armor, DU has interesting properties in how the shaped charge "sharpens itself" into the target. Tungsten, in the same weight class, has the opposite behavior, "mushrooming" instead.

Note that Russia also fields DU ammunition on tanks (it is unclear if Russia has used it in Ukraine)

The information that one of the shells has the depleted uranium core was confirmed to TASS by military expert, Editor-in-Chief of the Arsenal of the Fatherland journal Viktor Murakhovsky. "It has the alloy of the depleted uranium and tungsten," he said, adding that the open sources mentioned it as "the Material B."

The use of depleted uranium ammunition does not violate any international treaties, the expert said.

A number of countries have reduced their use of DU. The DU rounds in the Challenger 2 are "legacy rounds", not produced anymore.

Now, depending on who you listen, DU is either no problem BBC:

He said depleted uranium rounds used by Challenger 2 tanks contained only trace elements of depleted uranium.

He added it was "laughable" to suggest depleted uranium rounds were in any way linked to nuclear weapons, which uses enriched uranium.

Be careful when reading on this topic. Almost everyone is going to try to talk risks either up or down, depending on what view they want to promote. For example "only traces", is complete BS (though you might stretch that to claim instead that there is only trace radioactivity). It wouldn't make any sense to have trace quantities of DU since the first benefit, reduced ballistic drop, requires a significant proportion of the projectile to be DU.

Looking at the M1's better documented round, it contains about 6.8kg DU * .

DU is not particularly dangerous as a primary effect during combat (i.e. you'll be killed by other effects). However, it burns and leaves a dust residue which is environmentally dangerous long term, making it a big problem (again be careful wrt impartiality, this is the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons after all):

The US, UK, Russia, China, France and Pakistan produce uranium weapons. 14 other states are known to at least store uranium weapons. As far as known, these weapons have been used only by two states so far: the US and Britain. Large quantities of DU were fired in Iraq and the Balkans. When DU bullets hit an armored surface, they are burned by the high temperatures generated by the impact. This creates a very fine dust that is radioactive and chemically toxic. Through food and respiration, this toxic dust is absorbed by the body. In the body, the radiation and the chemical poison cause serious damage. Many diseases can be caused: alteration and damage to the genome, malformations of the human body in the womb, impaired fertility in men and women, cancer in almost all organs, kidney failure and behavioral problems.

Bullets that miss their target also corrode very slowly, releasing their toxicity to groundwater and soil, poisoning the environment and humans. The use of DU creates a long-term health threat for civilians and the military alike, obstructs reconstruction through ravaged areas, spreads fear and is difficult and costly to remove. The properties of DU weapons make it impossible to completely decontaminate contaminated sites where they were fired. Even without a special prohibition contract, the use of DU ammunition with its consequences is contrary to applicable standards of international humanitarian law, human rights and environmental protection. This is where ICBUW’s efforts are aimed at banning these weapons and addressing their consequences for humans and the environment. In concrete terms, the distinction requirement of international humanitarian law, the human right to a healthy environment, especially protection against toxic substances, and, in particular, the precautionary principle / approach are violated.

The land the DU ammo will be used on belongs to Ukraine, so it will be their problem and it's their decision.

The rounds being delivered are a standard part of the Challenger 2's existing anti tanks ammo suite and similar rounds are used throughout NATO and indeed by Russia. They are standard anti-tank rounds, even if countries are now trying to limit DU use in upcoming ammunition manufacture. They are not some "custom hellbrew" to be especially mean to Russian soldiers somehow. One can certainly be of the opinion that DU use should be limited to high-intensity warfare of critical importance, but they are part of the toolset in those circumstances.

The environmental risk is a trade off Ukraine is aware of and willing to tolerate in this instance. For rather obvious reasons.

Remember, these are large 120mm shells used for tank-on-vehicle direct fire. They will be used, for sure, but they won't be shot at high volume throughout the country side. And remember too that the actual level of toxicity is a matter of some debate.

Short term radiological effects are immaterial and pure Russian disinformation but certainly are useful to Russian information campaigns.

And, in any case, as far as Ukraine is concerned, residual DU will be one of many, many, problems they will be facing, environmentally, so I rather doubt it will count for all that much.

When a range of munitions have been used, soil toxicity can be persistent and challenging to remove so locations must be prioritised depending on the level of damage, says Hinwood. Excessive bombing in places like Mariupol, a port city with multiple types of industry and urban development, poses enormous challenges in terms of crop remediation, she says. "If you have damage to urban infrastructure, wastewater infrastructure, maybe chemical manufacturing plants, you've got multiple environmental impacts there," she says.

And that's before one gets into Russia's use of cluster bombs and anti-personnel mines (Russia has not ratified the Ottawa Treaty banning them, but Ukraine has).

More on the state of DU in 2022:

p.p.s. when reading about DU, keep in mind that any reference to Gulf War Syndrome can be ignored, as the cause for that has recently been determined to be sarin.

* (based on .627 * (.027 /2) * (.027/2) * 3.14 *19000 kg/m3 volume for a 627mm long 27mm diameter DU penetrator)

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    To add some additional context to the situation, Ukraine is also home of the Chernobyl disaster. The country has some of the most experience in the world in regards to handling radioactive contamination. It is of my opinion that this experience would play a part in Ukraine's decision making process to use such material.
    – David S
    Mar 22, 2023 at 16:34
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    According to some photos/claims reddit.com/r/warinukraine/comments/10ytdlv/… the 3BM60 Svinets-2 was seen in Ukraine. And TASS claims the Svinets-2 "features the uranium alloy core", but this is only attributed to "open sources". tass.com/defense/1036958 Mar 23, 2023 at 8:47

The reason to use depleted uranium shells is to penetrate armored military equipment, thus speeding up elimination of the invading and highly environmentally damaging Russian army.

The environmental damage caused by the Russians in Ukraine far exceeds the damage that could be potentially caused by Ukraine using depleted uranium shells. The Russians caused ecocide in Ukraine, damaging soil, water and air, and releasing a variety of nuclear and chemical contaminants. Uranium shells thus represent some of the most expedient means of saving the Ukrainian environment from being destroyed by the Russians.


After nearly one year, Russia’s invasion has inflicted more than $51 billion in environmental damage on Ukraine, according to the Ukrainian environment ministry.

The invasion, which began on February 24, 2022, has scattered wreckage across roughly 3,500 acres, with rockets and shells scorching some 150,000 acres of forests and plantations, which the ministry said could take decades to recover, even in the most optimistic scenario.

Some 687,000 tons of petrochemicals have burned as a result of shelling, while nearly 1,600 tons of pollutants have leaked into bodies of water. Hazardous chemicals have contaminated around 70 acres of soil. Water and soil pollution could make it temporarily impossible to grow crops in affected areas, the environment ministry said. Complicating matters further, some 15 percent of farmland in Ukraine has been littered with land mines.

Officials are concerned that a recent discharge from the Russian-controlled Kakhovka Reservoir could imperil the adjoining Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.

"One Year In, Russia’s War on Ukraine Has Inflicted $51 Billion in Environmental Damage", E360 Digest, Yale School of the Environment, February 22, 2023: https://e360.yale.edu/digest/russia-ukraine-war-environmental-cost-one-year

An explosion due to the shelling of a tank filled with nitric acid in Severodonetsk, 31 May 2022

An explosion due to the shelling of a tank filled with nitric acid in Severodonetsk, 31 May 2022

As of April 1, 2022, more than 36 attacks were registered on fossil fuel infrastructure, 29 attacks on electricity stations, 7 — on water infrastructure, and 6 on nuclear sites. More than 60 fires happened on Ukraine's oil refineries by June 2022. [...] An attack on Lysychansk refinery ignited the 50,000 tonnes tank of oil sludge, two reservoirs with 20,000 tonnes of petroleum, and a sulphur store.

The number of attacks on industrial centres made international observers and Ukrainian government identify them as ecocide. [...] As early as February 24, 2022, the moving of heavy military vehicles raised nuclear dust and resulted in a spike of gamma radiation level in Chernobyl region 28 times higher than normal. [...] According to UN estimation, in 2022 only in Donbass more than 530 ha are considered an area of ecological catastrophe. [...] Ukraine's national parks and reserves are a part of pan-European chain of protected sites titles 'the Emerald Network', they are a home to many endangered species. Preliminary assess showed that more than 1.24 mln (more than a third) ha of protected sites in Ukraine were affected by war.

Environmental impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine - Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Environmental_impact_of_the_Russian_invasion_of_Ukraine

  • Another answer sidetracked by "why are the shells toxic".
    – Agent_L
    Mar 23, 2023 at 8:49

Depleted uranium is not toxic the way chemical weapons are, and it is not radioactive the way nuclear weapons are. While it is actually both toxic and radioactive, these effects are weak enough to consider this bearable. Even war veterans that had significant contact with depleted uranium dust (near vehicles hit with friendly fire; entering or near burning vehicles; near fires involving DU munitions; or salvaging damaged vehicles) do not suffer from this really significantly. No kidney damage has been observed, even if there are suspicions that reduced bone density may be related to this exposure. Simply riding in a vehicle with depleted uranium weapons or shielding does not expose a service member to significant amounts of uranium or external radiation (source). It shows little mobility in soil and mostly enters the body as the dust from the air that is likely near the burning damaged vehicle but probably much less years afterwards (source). The current consensus is that the danger exists only in absolutely exceptional circumstances like, for example, picking up a fragment with a hand on which there was an open wound. In Spain, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry said that Spain has had 32,000 people stationed in the Balkans since 1992 and that the two confirmed cases of leukemia represented a statistical average for the population (source).

As a result, while obviously there is nothing great about this contaminant, the effects of contamination are probably considered bearable and will not make territory where such shells have been used impossible to live. Talks that it is dangerous to such degree are likely a fake.

Unexploded munitions are likely to take much bigger toll.

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    "Even war veterans that had significant contact with depleted uranium [...] do not suffer from this really significantly". This is not true. Put the following keywords in a search engine "italian soldiers cleaning depleted uranium kosovo". Soldiers from many nation participated in that cleanup operation. But AFAIK the Italian soldiers were the only ones assigned to this task with little protective gear.
    – FluidCode
    Mar 22, 2023 at 21:41
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    @FluidCode To say that it is a matter of some controversy is to say little. Unfortunately it's hard to find a disinterested third party to give an unbiased assessment, but so far all that we have are a collection of anecdotes. Mar 23, 2023 at 6:59

Now I am wondering if the point of this war is to free the territory to allow the Ukrainian population to go back there in the future why contaminate it?

Because destroyed land is still better than occupied by enemy.

This issue is completely unrelated to DU. Humans have long history of using strategy that damage the local population long after the war is over. E.g. land mines still take toll on civilians in post-war regions all over the world. Unexploded ordnance is common and unavoidable, and it WILL kill civilians. Even destroying the crops and burning cities down had negative effects lasting years or decades in more ancient history.

The rationale is simple: land occupied by enemy is used by them to keep attacking your "healthy" land. Peaceful wasteland at least allows you to thrive in remaining regions. Think of it as amputating infected limb - living without an arm is still preferable to gangrene spreading over the rest of your body.

This strategy is called "scorched earth".

This means that even if DU was way more deadly than you describe, it would still be considered in a defensive war.

On the other hand, most official sources consider DU much safer than you do, so they're not even acting with such intent. So far, as the war in Ukraine goes, other sources of post-war kills, like mines and unexploded ordnance are predicted to be much, much more serious problem. So unconfirmed possibility of few cancers from DU don't appear as important issue in the light of hundreds or thousands of people expected to be killed post-war by more "standard" weapons.

And of course there's an issue of Russians having DU ammo as well, they're just not advertising it the way West is. So there's a possibility that the issue is completely moot, as DU could be already there.

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