ARLINGTON, Va. — The Pentagon announced Sept. 6 it will send depleted uranium rounds to Ukraine in its latest military assistance package to the embattled country.
The rounds will arm previously committed Abrams tanks, 10 which reportedly will arrive later this month. In addition, their ability to bust through armor could aid Ukraine’s counteroffensive, now starting to show promise, amid Russia’s invasion.
Depleted uranium’s armor-piercing potential comes from its material — the dross left over when uranium is enriched. This results in a density twice that of lead, and hence greater umph.
But some are concerned about its use. Depleted uranium is 40% less radioactive than natural uranium, according to a United Nations report last year, and the radiation it does emit shouldn’t pierce the skin.
Still when ingested or inhaled, the substance can cause radiological damage — including, among other things, cancer and kidney failure. The rounds burst into a cloud of dust after impact, making such a risk possible, though less dangerous over time as the aerosols drift away.
Depleted uranium rounds have been used since the 1990s, in the Gulf War and later battles in the Balkans. Soldiers hit with depleted uranium fragments were studied and showed no long-term health consequences, according to an International Atomic Energy Agency report.
The U.S. hasn’t sent depleted uranium rounds to Ukraine yet, but insists that they aren’t a humanitarian issue.
The United Kingdom has provided Ukraine with such rounds, along with the Challenger 2 tanks it sent earlier this year. The material “is a standard component and has nothing to do with nuclear weapons”, the Defence Ministry said in a statement after sending them this March.
Wednesday’s announcement follows a trip by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Kyiv, where he unveiled $1 billion in further humanitarian and economic assistance to Ukraine.
The European nation’s counteroffensive has recently arrived at the second in Russia’s three defensive lines in the southern region of Zaporizhia. Russia is surging reinforcements to the area, but if Ukraine’s progress continues, it would be a major advance toward its main objective: breaking Russia’s so-called land bridge to Crimea, the peninsula Moscow annexed in 2014.
Noah Robertson is the Pentagon reporter at Defense News. He previously covered national security for the Christian Science Monitor. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English and government from the College of William & Mary in his hometown of Williamsburg, Virginia.