The US has recently delivered the first batch of M1A1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, as part of its military aid to the country amid the ongoing conflict with Russia. The tanks are equipped with depleted uranium (DU) shells, which are designed to pierce through conventional tank armor. However, some experts and activists have warned that the use of DU munitions could pose potential health and environmental risks to civilians and soldiers in the region.
Depleted uranium is a by-product of the process that enriches natural uranium for use in nuclear power plants and weapons. It has less radioactivity than natural uranium, but it still retains its chemical toxicity.
When DU shells hit their targets, they can create fragments and dust that can contaminate the soil, water and air. Exposure to DU can cause skin irritation, kidney failure and increase the risk of cancer. Some studies have also suggested a link between DU exposure and birth defects in war zones where it has been used.
The US and its NATO allies have used DU weapons in several conflicts since the 1990s, such as the Gulf War, Kosovo and Iraq. They argue that DU weapons are not illegal under international law, and that there is no conclusive evidence of their harmful effects. However, the UN General Assembly has repeatedly called for a moratorium on the use of DU weapons, and urged for more research on their impact on human health and the environment. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has also recommended that individuals who handle DU fragments should take precautions to avoid ingestion or inhalation.
The delivery of US Abrams tanks to Ukraine has sparked controversy not only because of the DU issue, but also because of the escalation of tensions with Russia. Russia has claimed that it destroyed several Ukrainian tanks in eastern Ukraine in March 2023, but Ukraine denied this. Russia has also accused the US of provoking a war by sending lethal weapons to Ukraine. The US has said that its assistance is defensive in nature, and that it supports Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
The situation in Ukraine remains volatile, as both sides accuse each other of violating a ceasefire agreement. The US Abrams tanks are expected to boost Ukraine’s military capabilities, but they may also bring new challenges and dangers to the region.