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'depleted uranium'

Chilcot: UK insists it has 'no long-term legal responsibility to clean up DU from Iraq'

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Doug Weir

The Chilcot report reveals that the UK has disclaimed any duty to decontaminate the toxic, radioactive ash left behind by its depleted uranium (DU) munitions, or even monitor the impacts on human health, writes Doug Weir, coordinator of the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons ( But Iraq and other countries are working towards a UN Resolution this October that would hold contaminating governments like the UK and the US legally accountable for DU pollution.

Hidden in the Chilcot report: a previously classified Ministry of Defence (MoD) paper setting out the UK Government's thinking on depleted uranium (DU) munitions. In it, the clearance of unexploded ordnance and DU is considered and the MoD argues that it has "no long-term legal responsibility to clean up DU from Iraq". Instead it proposes that surface lying fragments of DU only be removed on "an opportunity basis" ‒ i.e. if they come across them in the course of other operations.

In other words, the UK's stance is that chemically toxic and radioactive DU 'ash' from spent munitions is strictly the problem of the country in which the munitions were used, in this case Iraq ‒ and that the UK, which fired the DU shells, has no formal responsibility of cleaning up the mess.

The question is examined in Section 10-1 of the Chilcot inquiry which briefly considers DU in the context of the UK's obligations as an occupying power.1 The MoD had submitted the paper2 to the then newly established Ad Hoc Group on Iraq Rehabilitation.

Unlike landmines and cluster munitions, there is no treaty to ensure that affected countries receive international assistance or are themselves obligated to protect their own people. Nor is anyone required to record the impact of the weapons on individuals and communities.

Vehicles contaminated by DU ‒ for example destroyed tanks, armoured personnel carriers - pose a particular risk to civilians, both to workers in the scrap metal industry3 and to children who may play on them. Levels of contamination can be high and, because the interiors are not exposed to the elements, DU may remain in the vehicles for long periods.

Just how high these levels can be was a question of scientific interest to the MoD at the time and, while tanks suspected of being struck by DU would be marked, this would be "pending examination by an MoD-led team scientific team for research purposes." The MoD gave no guarantees that vehicles identified as contaminated would be dealt with appropriately.

DU in the UN General Assembly this October

This October, governments at the United Nations General Assembly will be debating a sixth resolution on DU weapons. Thanks to the experiences of Iraq ‒ who in 2014 called for assistance from the international community in dealing with contamination, and for a global ban on DU weapons4 ‒ attention is increasingly being focused on the lack of obligations on nations that use DU weapons to clean up the areas they contaminate.

These same governments are often extremely conscious of the financial and technical burden of clearance as they have domestic firing ranges that are contaminated. Earlier this year, the US Army lost a long-running battle with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission over legacy DU contamination at 15 of its facilities. Meanwhile in the UK, the Scottish government continues to oppose further test firing into the Solway Firth.5

The cost and complexity of dealing with DU contamination at home is not the only issue focusing minds on how governments and their militaries should be obliged to address DU following its use in conflicts. New research that has revealed the presence of DU in people 30 years after they were exposed is also showing how urine testing could identify civilians affected by the UK and US's use of DU in Iraq in 1991 and 2003.

Between 1958 and 1982, Colonie, a suburb of Albany, New York was home to National Lead Industries (NLI), a factory that manufactured products containing DU. The plant made penetrators for DU munitions, counterweights for aircraft and vehicles, and shielding for medical devices.

Lax controls on the facility meant that waste was burnt in a furnace on site, which routinely operated without filtration controls. Over the period, it is believed that more than 5,000 kg of DU oxide escaped the facility in the form of micron-sized particles, to be dispersed in a plume over the surrounding community, as well as contaminating the factory itself.

For eight of those years, NLI also processed enriched uranium from fuel for experimental reactors.

Persistent US contamination akin to that in conflict zones

If the uncontrolled dispersal of DU particles into residential areas sounds familiar, it should, and the studies from Colonie have been viewed by some as analogous to the use of DU weapons in conflict settings.

Research into the shape and composition of the Colonie particles has demonstrated that they are similar to those produced by DU weapons when they hit hard targets. A UK study published in 2014 agreed that these kinds of particles are persistent in the environment, in that case surviving unaltered for 30 years in the wet conditions of a firing range in southern Scotland.6

That the contamination occurred in the US itself should in theory have made the environmental and health monitoring studies that followed easier to undertake than would be the case a post-conflict setting.

However this would prove not to be the case, largely thanks to the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) ‒ the government public health body dealing with exposures to hazardous substances. The local community would have to fight tooth and nail for recognition and research into the risks posed by the site following its closure, including collecting evidence from their friends and neighbours on the rates of health problems, which included rare cancers and immune disorders.

In 2007, and thanks to a campaign from the community that had lasted 25 years, the results of a study7 combining forensic environmental studies with urine analysis were published, garnering international media coverage.8

The study was led by Professor Randall Parrish, then of Leicester University in the UK. All five of the former workers that they tested revealed uranium in their bodies 23 years after production had ceased, meanwhile 20% of the residents they tested were also excreting DU and, although the human sample size was small, their environmental analysis also revealed the presence of DU in homes and gardens at concentrations exceeding US intervention levels.

The publication of the results coincided with the conclusion of the main remediation programme at the NLI, which was managed by the US Army Corps of Engineers after the site was transferred to the government for a token US$10. The project cost US$190m, involved the removal of 150,000 tons of uranium, thorium and lead contaminated soil and debris, extracted from depths of up to 40ft, which was then sent 2,000 miles by rail to an underground radioactive waste facility in the Rockies.

Failings in the official response delayed health research

Prior to the remediation work, and Parrish and colleagues' research, an initial study by the ATSDR had already concluded that there was a real and significant health risk to the public from past DU emissions from the plant. However it had decided not to pursue any environmental surveying or health surveillance activities.

The ATSDR had been coming under pressure9 over the quality and independence of its work for many years and in 2009, Randall Parrish and other experts would provide evidence10 to a congressional committee on the ATSDR's conduct in relation to the Colonie case. In his testimony, Parrish argued that "In most respects other than providing information on toxins, [the ATSDR report] failed to deliver its remit for the Colonie site."

This April, a follow-up study on exposure rates among workers and residents was finally published.11 It had a larger sample size than Parrish's 2007 study, analysing the urine of 32 former workers and 99 residents. For the workers, 84% showed DU exposure, with a further 9% showing exposure to both DU and enriched uranium, whereas just 8% of the 99 residents tested were excreting DU.

One of the arguments used by the ATSDR when it had failed to act on community concerns was that too much time had passed for DU to be detected. Parrish's 2007 study was the first to show that DU was still detectable after 20 years. The latest study shows that even after 30 years it is still possible to detect the signs of DU exposure.

Just as important are the techniques they used, which can differentiate between the different isotopes of uranium, provide valuable clues to the original source of the exposure ‒ although ascertaining how much people have been exposed to remains difficult.

Persistent particles and pernicious politics

The refusal of the ATSDR to act in the interest of the local community in the Colonie case has parallels with the behaviour of the governments who employ DU weapons in conflicts.

This is often characterised by a lack of transparency over where the weapons are fired, what they are fired at and in the quantities used. This is data that is crucial for not only determining the risk to civilians from the use of the weapons but also to facilitate the management of contamination after conflicts. It is therefore no coincidence that these themes come up time and again in United Nations' resolutions.

There has also been, and continues to be, a studied disinterest on behalf of the DU weapon users in supporting civilian exposure studies of the kind seen in Colonie. They argue that assessing harm, and the costly and technically challenging task of clearance, is the sole responsibility of the affected state ‒ arguments they also used to make for land mines and cluster bombs.

When the United Nations last discussed DU two years ago, 150 governments recognised the need for states to provide assistance to countries like Iraq.12 This October, our Coalition will add our voice to those of the states affected by DU weapons in calling for an end to the use of DU weapons and for the users to finally accept responsibility for their legacy.13

Colonie eventually got its exposure studies and remediation, Iraq is still waiting. 

Reprinted from The Ecologist, 11 July 2016,















Interim storage of DU waste in Utah remains to raise questions

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

While the debate on what to do with Savannah River Site’s depleted uranium (DU) waste lingers on, the US Energy Department’s Inspector General calls a plan to store two trainloads of this DU waste in Texas unnecessary and wasting taxpayers' money.

The radioactive material, left over from decades of nuclear weapons production and contaminated with reactor originated radionuclides, was stored in 15,600 drums and intended for disposal at EnergySolutions Inc.’s facility in Clive, 70 miles (110 km) west of Salt Lake City, Utah. This is a facility for the disposal of low-level radioactive waste or Class A waste. Though the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) recently decided against reclassifying DU as hotter than Class A waste, after the arrival of the first shipment of 5,408 drums from Savannah River Site (SRS) in December, Utah's governor protested further shipments. The Department of Energy (DOE) then idled two trainloads that remain at the nuclear weapons facility in South Carolina.

It wasn't immediately clear if the radioactive waste would remain in South Carolina or be disposed of elsewhere. In a November presentation given to the SRS Citizens Advisory Board, the DOE said if shipments to Utah were interrupted, the waste would be diverted to the Nevada Test Site, 65 miles north of Las Vegas. The total amount of the SRS waste covers 6,500 tons. The cleanup program was accelerated through the Federal Recovery & Reinvestment Act, which allocated US$1.4 billion (1 billion euro) to SRS, mostly to speed up environmental-management projects.

According to the Inspector General’s report, the newest proposal calls for moving the material to a facility owned by Waste Control Specialists in Andrews, Texas, for interim storage. The auditors note (April 9): “Clearly, this choice carries with it a number of significant logistical burdens, including substantial additional costs for, among several items, repackaging at SRS, transportation to Texas, storage at the interim site, and, repackaging and transportation to the yet-to-be determined final disposition point.” A local newspaper, the Augusta Chronicle is citing information from an unnamed source within the department suggesting that it might be better to keep the material at SRS, where it has been ‘safely stored for decades’, until a permanent disposal solution is found.

Despite assertions by EnergySolutions that the action is unnecessary, the Utah Radiation Control Board signed off on a new rule that imposes additional restrictions on the disposal of DU.

EnergySolutions can take no more DU until it shows its radioactive landfill can contain the radioactive waste for thousands of years. The rule, which requires the Clive facility to conduct a performance assessment for disposal of the radioactive material, will be published May 1 and go into effect by June 1. Yet, EnergySolutions is first in line to accept up to 1.4 million tons of DU in coming years - about half from uranium enrichment plants coming online and half from government stockpiles. DU is different from most other Class A because it becomes most hazardous after 1 million years. About 49,000 tons is already buried at  EnergySolutions, and DOE has put the disposal of another 11,000 tons on hold until the state agrees it can come to the Clive facility.

EnergySolutions is building a processing facility for blending more hazardous Class B and Class C waste with Class A waste and has proposed to dispose this waste at its Clive facility. Members of the Utah Radiation Control Board opted against trying to regulate this nuclear industry's practice of mixing low-level radioactive waste with more hazardous B&C waste so that reactors can dispose of waste that now has nowhere else to go. “At very least, DU is incompatible with the state's ban on B&C waste,” said board member Jenkins, “It will present an unacceptable risk after 100 years.”

Meanwhile the NRC is studying on options on how to dispose the DU waste in the mid- and long-term.

The entire report by the U.S. Energy Department's Inspector General is available at

Sources: Augusta Chronicle, The Salt Lake Tribune, Deseret News, all 13 April 2010.
Contact: Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah (HEAL): 68 S Main St, Suite 400, Salt Lake City, UT 84101, USA.
Tel: +1 801 355-505


Russia: safety problems surplus weapons-grade DU disposition program

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

On April 12, the Russian environmental group Ecodefense released a major new report focused on the use of plutonium as fuel in Russian nuclear reactors. This is the first independent research done during the last decade that exposes the civil plutonium program and its risks for public health and the environment, and comes as the U.S. and Russia prepare to sign an agreement for each nation to dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium removed from nuclear weapons by using it to generate nuclear power.

The Ecodefense report ('Russian Plutonium Program: Nuclear Waste, Accidents, and Senseless Huge Costs') finds that the cornerstone of Russia’s program -the BN-800 breeder reactor- has been under construction for over 25 years, has cost over US$6 billion, and remains far from completion.

In the framework of the Russian-US disarmament agreement, each country will “dispose” of 34 tons of weapon-grade plutonium from dismantled warheads. Presently, the governments are planning to use the plutonium in the form of mixed oxide fuel (MOX) in nuclear reactors. Russian breeder reactors BN-600 (in operation) and BN-800 (under construction) will be used for this plutonium disposition. But breeder reactors may be used for both burning and breeding plutonium, which offers to the Russian nuclear industry the possibility of actually producing more plutonium rather than net destruction of the element. Later, the MOX fuel may also be used in Russian light-water reactors (VVER-1200 design).

Environmental groups in both Russia and the U.S. are opposed to the use of MOX fuel and instead promote safer, cleaner vitrification technology to permanently dispose of plutonium.

The report describes the nuclear facilities that will be used for the plutonium program in Russia: * the Beloyarsk nuclear plant near Ekaterinburg city, * NIIAR (Scientific and research institute of atomic reactors) in Dimitrovgrad city, * GHK nuclear weapon facility near Krasnoyarsk city, and * SHK nuclear facility near Tomsk city. The report also focuses on issues of safety, accidents, nonproliferation and public opinion. A public policy issue raised in the report is the lack of liability coverage for a nuclear accident in Russia. This is particularly troubling given the more than 1,000,000 people living in very close proximity of the proposed MOX factory near Ekaterinburg.

On January 21, 2010, Russian government approved a program of advanced technologies development worth 128 billion rubles (US$4.3 billion or 3.1 billion euro). Most of the funding will go to breeder reactor development.

Fast breeder reactors operating with MOX fuel are being promoted as "advanced  technology" in Russia. But it is a little known fact that the BN-800 has been under construction for over 25 years and its design, which pre-dates the 1986 Chernobyl accident, does not meet modern safety requirements. According to the Russian nuclear industry, this reactor will cost nearly US$4 billion, but independent estimates suggest that US$6 billion already has been spent and construction will be finished not earlier than 2014 and likely later.

In a detailed financial analysis, the report concludes that the plutonium fuel program is only viable because of US and European subsidy for weapons grade plutonium disposition, but given that it may result in a net increase in plutonium stocks, the Russian program will undermine this goal.

The full report in English is available at

Source: Press release 12 April 2010, Ecodefense! and NIRS
Contact: Ecodefense, Vladimir Sliviak: +7 903 2997584
Email: or: Mary Olson at NIRS, +1-828-252-8409