By Amos Chapple

(RFE/RL) – After US President Joe Biden told his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky on September 21 that a new arms shipment would arrive in Ukraine “next week,” Zelensky responded that the package “contains exactly what our soldiers need now.” .”

The focus of the new shipment is the first shipment of US-made Abrams tanks, which are expected to arrive with their controversial ammunition of 120mm depleted uranium cartridges.

Depleted uranium (DU) is a byproduct of the process of enriching uranium for use in nuclear fuel or weapons. The United States has huge stocks of this material, which is essentially nuclear waste 60 percent as radioactive as raw uranium. Starting in the 1970s, the material began to be tested in sabot projectiles – dart-like projectiles fired from tank cannons and designed to penetrate the massive frontal armor plates of Soviet tanks of the time.

The advantages of DU as an armor-piercing projectile are many, as are the controversies that have always surrounded its use.

Uranium is the heaviest naturally occurring element on Earth. A 10-centimeter cube of the metal weighs about 20 kilograms, giving it virtually unstoppable momentum, and when alloyed with small amounts of titanium, DU gains steel-like strength.

Unlike tungsten projectiles, which crush or “mushroom” when they hit steel, DU anti-tank arrows “sharpen themselves” by shearing their sides as they punch through armor. A final, more macabre property of the material is its tendency to vaporize into a superheated aerosol, which explodes into a fireball after entering the target vehicle.

It is this toxic, radioactive aerosol in particular that has led to decades of research, activism and fear about what DU is doing to the environment and people. After the first Gulf War, the metal was blamed for serious health problems among war veterans that became known as “Gulf War Syndrome.”

A 2008 study by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs found no link between DU exposure and widespread health problems and NATO came to the same conclusion in 2005. However, later research has done so linked wartime DU exposure to extensive health problems including an increase in cancer rates among soldiers and civilians exposed to the metal.

Britain has been supplying Kiev with DU ammunition to be fired from its Ukrainian-crewed Challenger tanks since the beginning of 2023.

In March, the Kremlin reacted angrily to news that the grenades, which Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed had a “nuclear component,” were being delivered to Ukrainian forces.

Putin claims that Russia has “hundreds of thousands” of DU projectiles in its arsenal and that “Russia must respond accordingly” to the supply of ammunition to Ukraine.

  • Amos Chapple is a New Zealand-born photographer and image researcher with a particular interest in the former USSR

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