The British government has announced it will provide Ukraine with armour-piercing rounds containing depleted uranium – a byproduct of the uranium-enrichment process needed to create nuclear weapons.
President Vladimir Putin warned Russia would “respond accordingly given that the collective West is starting to use weapons with a ‘nuclear component’”.The rounds retain some radioactive properties, but they cannot generate a nuclear reaction like a nuclear weapon would, Edward Geist, a nuclear expert at research organisation RAND says. But the ammunition does carry risks even if it is not a nuclear weapon.
Here is a look at depleted uranium munitions:
What is depleted uranium?
Depleted uranium is a byproduct of the process to create the rarer, enriched uranium used in nuclear fuel and weapons. Although far less powerful than enriched uranium and incapable of generating a nuclear reaction, depleted uranium is extremely dense – more dense than lead – a quality that makes it highly attractive as a projectile.
“It’s so dense and it’s got so much momentum that it just keeps going through the armour – and it heats it up so much that it catches on fire,” Geist said.
When fired, a depleted uranium munition becomes “essentially an exotic metal dart fired at an extraordinarily high speed”, RAND senior defence analyst Scott Boston said.
In the 1970s, the US Army began making armour-piercing rounds with depleted uranium and has since added it to composite tank armour to strengthen it. It has also added depleted uranium to the munitions fired by the air force’s A-10 close air support attack plane, known as “the tank killer”.
What has Russia said?
The British “have lost their bearings”, said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, warning the munitions are “a step toward accelerating escalation”.
Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said the announcement was “another step, and there aren’t so many of them left”.Putin warned Russia would be “forced to react” if the United Kingdom provides Ukraine with the ammunition, without elaborating.What is the US saying?
The ammunition, which enhances the ability to overcome defences on tanks, “is not radioactive” and “not anywhere close to going into” the sphere of nuclear weaponry, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.