This is the third in a series of information notes which have been prepared to help generalist civil servants handle issues involving science and risk. It looks at the way in which the British Government was, for once, much more effective than its opponents in handling media and public interest in a health scare concerning soldiers' exposure to depleted uranium (DU).
Note that there was a separate issue (which attracted less immediate media attention) such as the exposure to DU of civilians in Iraq. I touch on this below but those interested in DU more generally might like to follow the many links listed elsewhere on the web.
This scare was all about soldiers' exposure, in the Balkans, to depleted uranium. And once media interest began (in Italy), there was never much doubt that it would become a classic, for it fed on all the following "fright factors" listed in my note on risk:-
- Any damage will be hidden and/or irreversible e.g. through illness many years after exposure.
- The risk might result in a form of death or injury which arouses particular dread (cancer).
- The risk is poorly understood by science and/or experts make contradictory statements.
- Some benefit from the risk whilst others suffer (e.g. MoD saving money, soldiers suffering).
- The risk will damage identifiable victims, rather than having random, unpredictable victims.
- The risk is man-made rather than naturally occurring.
Best practice, summarised in that note would suggest that the MoD
- should not have dismissed concerns, however silly they think they sound.
- should have listened carefully and emphasise their own concern.
- should not have said that any proposed investigation or reduction of the risk would be "too expensive".
- should have admitted to uncertainty, and committed to making speedy enquiries, taking proper advice and reaching an early sensible conclusion on the best way forward, stressing that the process will be participative and open.
- should have stressed that nothing is absolutely "safe" - the Government's job is to ensure that everything is "safe enough".
Before considering whether the MoD did any or all of these things, let us first look at:-
Scientific Advice about DU
My note on radiation and radioactivity recommends that officials should "make sure that your scientific advisers (and those advising lobby groups) tell you what equivalent dose (measured in millisieverts (mSv)) might be received by those exposed to the radiation. We on average receive a dose of 2.6mSv each year so a further dose of less than 3mSv is not worrying."
The basic scientific facts are as follows. First, uranium is a naturally occurring element. It cannot therefore be highly radioactive, or else it would have decayed out of existence a long time ago. However, one form (uranium 235) is somewhat more radioactive than its other form (U-238) and can be used to make atomic bombs.
There are 7 grams of U-235 and 993 grams of U-238 in every 1000 grams of naturally occurring uranium. So its 'purity', so to speak, is 0.7% Natural uranium is processed to increase the proportion of uranium 235. Highly enriched uranium has a purity of 20% or more and is used in research reactors. Weapons-grade uranium is 90% enriched or more.
The metal that is left behind is called"depleted uranium". It contains only around 0.4% of U-235 and can therefore safely be handled without precautions. Because it is a very hard metal, and even denser than lead, DU is used in a number of ways, including to tip ammunition and armour-plate tanks.
Ah! But what about millisieverts? Crucially, the answer depends upon whether the DU is outside you:- i.e. in whole shells, in armour plating etc., or inside you, as inhaled dust after a shell has exploded.
The reason for the difference is that the sort of radiation produced by DU (alpha radiation) cannot travel very far, and cannot even penetrate your skin. So, as DU is typically covered in other metals, even the small amount of radiation which it gives off cannot do much harm. Indeed, DU is so safe that a Government Minister was once interviewed by journalists with a lump of DU sitting prominently on his desk, so as to drive home the innocuous nature of the product. And a scientist has calculated that even the driver of a tank armoured with DU will only receive 0.0018 mSV per hour (compare our natural annual dose of 2.6 mSv). You certainly should not therefore aim to spend your life in a tank, but the radiation risk is pretty minimal.
But what if the DU turns to dust after the impact of the shell, and what if you then inhale it? The key point now is that the stuff is inside you, without any shielding, and is emitting radiation inside your lungs. The risk is then much higher - and much less well understood. Almost all predictions about the effect of radiation on the body are based on a model (the ICRP model) which was developed by using the observed cancer rates in the survivors of atomic bombs exploded over Japan during the Second World War. These were high dose, high dose-rate exposures to external radiation. These risks are extrapolated, in the ICRP model, to lower doses, lower dose-rates and internal radiation. Those concerned about the effect of DU on soldiers and others believe that these extrapolations are, and therefore the model itself is, fatally flawed. This led to the 2020 publication of an alternative approach which went some of the way towards meeting those concerns.
There are other possible dangers. An article in the 6 September 2008 edition of the New Scientist drew attention to test-tube and animal research which suggested that DU might increase the risk of cancer, and to a number of theories which might account for genetic damage - although there is no epidemiological evidence that this has happened in populations exposed to DU.
Handling the Risk in Whitehall
As noted above, openness, clarity and concern are likely to be the best tactics. And the MoD seem to have responded in text book fashion, beginning with an official statement in the House of Commons which, to the lay reader, seemed to summarise the risk, and the Department's response, quite well:-
- "Depleted uranium is a very dense heavy metal. It results from the uranium enrichment process, and because the majority of the more radioactive isotopes are removed in this process, depleted uranium is about 40% less radioactive than natural uranium. Because of its density and metallurgic properties, depleted uranium is ideally suited for use as a kinetic energy penetrator for use in anti-armour munitions. The UK has developed and deployed a 120 millimetre armour piercing round for use in the Challenger Main Battle Tank. This ammunition was used in the Gulf war, where around 100 rounds were fired by us against Iraqi armour, as well as some rounds during training in Saudi Arabia. This ammunition provides a battle winning military capability. Alternative materials are not as effective. Therefore DU will remain part of our arsenal for the foreseeable future Because when this country commits our forces to conflict we fight to win. Our troops need the best available equipment to enable them to do this. To deny them a legitimate capability would be quite wrong.
- Handled in accordance with the regulations, DU shells present no hazard to our forces. We have long recognised, however, that on the battlefield its debris might present a hazard from chemical toxicity, in the same way as any heavy metal such as lead, and a low level radiological hazard. The risk from chemical toxicity would arise from ingestion of the soluble depleted uranium oxides, and the radiological risk primarily from inhalation of the insoluble depleted uranium oxides. These risks arise from the dust created when DU strikes a hard target such as an armoured vehicle. In its massive form, as expended rounds or solid fragments it is a negligible hazard.
- In response to the health concerns of Gulf veterans, the Ministry of Defence has, both in 1993 and 1999 published details of these hazards, together with our estimates of the risk which they might have posed to troops in the Gulf. We believe those risks to have been low, which is borne out by the findings of our Medical Assessment Programme for Gulf Veterans. There has been no evidence, during the deployment, or subsequently, of kidney damage which would be the chief indication of heavy metal poisoning. Radiological damage would only become manifested as an increased rate of cancer after a long period of latency. Furthermore, there is currently no evidence after 10 years, of a higher rate of cancer amongst Gulf veterans compared to a control group. We currently offer tests to Gulf veterans who attend the medical assessment programme for whole body load of uranium, if there is a clinical indication that uranium might be linked to the illnesses which they manifest."
The department also decided to publish considerable information on its web site, including admissions of errors in earlier internal documents.
Finally, the department appears to have cooperated with, and possible encouraged, prestigious Royal Society reports in May 2001 and March 2002 with broadly reassuring conclusions. Interestingly, however, the first of the two reports was followed by a public meeting organised by the Royal Society which exposed the key weaknesses in the report, which were that:
- the MoD has not systematically tracked the health of soldiers exposed to DU, and
- as noted above, the science underpinning the Royal Society study is heavily based on the possibly flawed ICRP model.
Those concerned about the effects of DU therefore continued to press their case, which deserves careful consideration. However, as this note is about the handling of media and public interest in the issue, it is worth noting that the MoD seem conclusively to have won the first few rounds in the battle for public opinion. Crucially, the Department followed best practice in demonstrating openness, clarity and concern. And those on the other side of the argument made all the mistakes. Some of them appeared fanatical or obsessive. An earlier version of this note led to my receiving a number of emails, including the following:
- How did you become this? Was it childhood abuse, money, position or what?....Damned be you, science prostitute, government lackey, and a cancer on humanity. The end of perverts like you is near. I hope you will roast in hell forever.
- .... I wish you no harm personally but I do hope that your loved ones become heavily contaminated by an alpha emitter ...
And some of them seem to go out of their way to reduce the effectiveness of what they say. One of the (otherwise very effective) anti-MoD speakers at the Royal Society chose to address the audience wearing a bow tie and beret, presumably carefully chosen so as to mark him out from the otherwise rather grey establishment ranks which confronted him, but equally certain to ensure that his views were heavily discounted by that audience before he even opened his mouth.
In the long term, however, the jury remains out. The MoD won the first encounter and, although interesting research continues - see the New Scientist article mentioned above, no firm evidence has yet emerged emerge which damages its credibility.
Postscript - Ukraine
Depleted Uranium hit the headlines again in 2023 when President Putin accused the UK of providing Ukraine with weapons "with a nuclear component" in the form of DU-tipped shells. This was obvious nonsense in all sorts of ways - and the use of the ammunition didn't even seem to threaten civilian health through the inhalation of dust. The ammunition would certainly threaten Russian soldiers in their armoured vehicles, but radiation would be the least of their worries!