Depleted uranium shells: what are ammunition rounds, is UK supplying weapons to Ukraine, are they radioactive?

Armour-piercing shells have been standard for decades and are ‘nothing to do with nuclear weapons’

In response to his assertion that the UK was giving Ukraine "weapons with a nuclear component," Britain has accused President Vladimir Putin of deliberate disinformation.

Putin has stated that Russia will “respond accordingly” if Britain delivers depleted uranium tank ammunition to the government in Kyiv, following meetings with China’s President Xi Jinping in Moscow earlier in the week.

At a news conference alongside Xi, the Russian leader pointed to British plans to send the Ukrainians depleted uranium shells along with a squadron of Challenger 2 main battle tanks.

Here is everything you need to know about it.

What are armour piercing rounds?

Armour piercing rounds are a type of ammunition designed to penetrate heavily armoured targets, such as tanks, vehicles and fortifications. Depleted uranium is sometimes used in armour-piercing rounds because, as a dense and heavy metal, it is able to penetrate armour effectively.

Depleted uranium rounds are made from the byproduct of uranium enrichment. The uranium isotope U-235 is extracted from natural uranium, leaving behind depleted uranium, which is primarily composed of the U-238 isotope. The depleted uranium is then formed into penetrator rods that are inserted into the armour-piercing rounds.

When a depleted uranium round strikes an armoured target, the high density of the metal allows it to penetrate the armour more effectively than other materials. Additionally, when the depleted uranium penetrator strikes the target, it generates a tremendous amount of heat that can cause the target to ignite or explode.

An Ukrainian T64 tank moves outside the area of Bachmut, in the region of Donbas, on 15 March 2023 (Photo: ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images)An Ukrainian T64 tank moves outside the area of Bachmut, in the region of Donbas, on 15 March 2023 (Photo: ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images)
An Ukrainian T64 tank moves outside the area of Bachmut, in the region of Donbas, on 15 March 2023 (Photo: ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images)

How long has depleted uranium been used?

Though talk of the use of depleted uranium in armour piercing tank rounds has intensified over the past few days, the Ministy of Defence (MoD) says it’s actually nothing new, and has dismissed the warning of retaliation from Russia.

It said the armour-piercing shells had been standard equipment for decades and were “nothing to do with nuclear weapons or capabilities”.

An MoD spokesperson said: “Alongside our granting of a squadron of Challenger 2 main battle tanks to Ukraine, we will be providing ammunition, including armour piercing rounds which contain depleted uranium. Such rounds are highly effective in defeating modern tanks and armoured vehicles.

“The British Army has used depleted uranium in its armour piercing shells for decades. It is a standard component and has nothing to do with nuclear weapons or capabilities. Russia knows this, but is deliberately trying to disinform.”

Armour-piercing rounds with depleted uranium have been in use by various militaries for several decades. The United States military began using depleted uranium in armour-piercing rounds in the 1970s, and its first confirmed use in combat was during the Gulf War in 1991.

The Russian military is known to have used armour-piercing rounds with depleted uranium, though the exact extent of its use of such ammunition is not publicly known, as the country has not released detailed information on its military equipment and operations.

While the specific locations and circumstances of its use are not confirmed, it is believed that the Russian military used depleted uranium ammunition during the First Chechen War in the 1990s.

There have also been reports of its use in the Second Chechen War in the early 2000s, and allegations of its use by the Russian military in other conflicts, including the in Georgia and Syria.

Is it radioactive?

While depleted uranium is effective at penetrating armour, there are concerns about its potential health and environmental impacts.

When depleted uranium rounds strike their target, they release small particles of radioactive material that can pose a risk of contamination to the environment and potentially cause health problems for people exposed to them.

The MoD spokesperson added that independent research by scientists from groups such as the Royal Society had assessed that any impact to personal health and the environment from the use of depleted uranium munitions was “likely to be low”.

What might Russia’s response be?

Throughout the Ukraine war, we have seen Russia in particular make grand, sweeping statements about retaliations and responses to developments in the West’s support of the country Moscow invaded.

Most of these statements have been put down to nothing more than “sabre rattling”, soundbites designed to make Western leaders think twice about their actions, with no real Russian plans or means to retaliate actually in place.

It seems as if Putin’s latest warning of a response to the UK’s supplying of armour piercing rounds is currently being handled similarly by experts and leaders.

“It looks like the West indeed intends to fight Russia until the last Ukrainian,” Putin said. “If that happens, Russia will respond accordingly, given that the collective West is starting to use weapons with a nuclear component.”

He did not elaborate on what the response might be.