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Ukraine: Depleted Uranium

Volume 829: debated on Thursday 30 March 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the consequences of their decision to supply Ukraine with shells capped with depleted uranium, given the potential health impact of spent munitions.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a serving Army reservist. Given the lack of tangible evidence to the contrary, we do not recognise the presupposed potential risk to health or the environment. The UK notes that environmental and long-term health effects of the use of depleted uranium munitions have been thoroughly investigated by the World Health Organization, the United Nations Environment Programme, the International Atomic Energy Agency, NATO, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the European Commission and others, none of which has documented long-term environmental or health effects.

My Lords, for those of us who are students of history, the present times seem very much like 1913. Every few weeks, there is a ratcheting up of confrontation and no one has any apparent desire to end this and seek peace. There are health hazards involved and the UN has looked at them. Is the Minister morally happy that we are now supplying depleted uranium shells to Ukraine? When will we begin a serious search for peace?

My Lords, I can say, hand on heart, that I am morally very comfortable that we are providing these armour-piercing rounds to Ukrainian forces so that they can push back Putin’s illegal invasion.

Does the Minister agree that, whatever legitimate concerns people may have about the health and environmental impact of uranium-depleted shells, which I personally share, President Putin’s claim that he is looking to store tactical nuclear missiles in Belarus because the West is collectively beginning to use weapons with a nuclear component is utterly bogus, given that British forces have been using these armour-piercing shells legally for several decades, in accordance with Article 36 of the 1977 protocol additional to the Geneva conventions?

Will the Minister go back and talk to his colleagues about the great care that needs to be taken in answering questions on issues of this sort from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and from the Ministry of Defence?

The Minister mentioned the United Nations but did not take account of its report, which says that the use of this ammunition is likely to cause chemical toxicity, which can result in skin irritation and kidney failure. Is he aware of that report? The other point is this: have we not handed Mr Putin an ill-founded but successful propaganda opportunity to claim falsely that the allies are seeking to introduce a nuclear element to the conflict? Who authorised the use, and indeed the supply, of this ammunition? Who took account of the possible public responses which people such as Mr Putin might take advantage of?

My Lords, I reiterate that multiple scientific bodies, including the UN, have studied this at length and concluded that there are no, or minimal, risks of long-term health effects from exposure to DU. On the point about Putin’s posturing, he is simply trying to deter our support for the forces of Ukraine. It is fundamental that we supply Ukrainian forces with these rounds, due to their armour-piercing capabilities, so that those forces can engage Russian adversaries from further distances.

My Lords, I have read reports that depleted uranium shells cause birth defects in infants. That very thought, or even the uncertainty, is such that it will lower the moral standing of both the UK and Ukraine to use them. As has been said, it gives a very effective weapon to Vladimir Putin to escalate conflict. Surely that is not desired.

My Lords, on escalation, it needs to be reiterated that Putin signalled his intention to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus as early as June 2022. He has been playing this game for a long time and is simply trying to capitalise on the supply of these munitions to our Ukrainian allies.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned a number of organisations that have concluded that these weapons were safe, but is he aware that the Royal Society carried out a report and concluded that any impact on personal health and the environment is, in its words, “very low”? Does he also agree that it is incredibly hypocritical of the Kremlin to criticise this supply of weapons when it has been using depleted uranium shells from the start of the war?

Let me say to the Minister, because it is important to continually restate our unity of purpose in this Chamber, that His Majesty’s Opposition fully support the provision of depleted uranium munitions to Ukraine by the Government. The crucial point is to say to President Putin: you will not get a propaganda coup from this. The important point, which I reiterate, is that despite the word “uranium” these are conventional weapons used in many conflicts. Is the task for us all not to prevent a cynical use of western fears by Putin to justify placing tactical nuclear warheads in Belarus?

I personally thank the noble Lord opposite for the support from His Majesty’s loyal Opposition, and the whole House, in our continued resolute support for Ukraine. He is absolutely correct that this is nothing but Putin’s brinkmanship. Putin could end this war tomorrow by cease-firing and withdrawing his troops from Ukraine immediately.

My Lords, is it not important that we keep a sense of proportion here? People in Ukraine are being blown to smithereens by Putin’s missiles. There may be arguments about the health effects of these weapons but those are as nothing compared to what is happening to the Ukrainians. That is why it is so important that we continue to support them in every way we can to defeat this tyrant and his dreadful behaviour.

I thank my noble friend for that support. He is entirely right that the major threat to life and the environment, and to the way of life of the people of Ukraine, is coming from the shelling and merciless bombardment from Russia’s forces. That must end immediately.

My Lords, the positioning of Russian short and intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Belarus offers Russia no advantage whatever, beyond what it already achieves from its current basing arrangements. What it does is to demonstrate, since it is contrary to the Belarusian constitution, that under its present leadership that country has become a wholly Russian-subsidised and Russian-dominated puppet state, completely contrary to the wishes of a great many of its people. In all of this, will the UK Government undertake to do all that they can to support the Belarusian people in their resistance to their oppressive regime?

The noble and gallant Lord makes a very important point. We condemn the Lukashenko Government’s provision of support to Putin’s unprovoked and illegal war in Ukraine. We are very concerned about the recent passage of constitutional amendments in Belarus which enable it to renounce its nuclear-free status, and its recent decision to host Russian nuclear weapons on its territory.

When Putin is eventually dragged in front of the ICC, can we also add to the charge sheet the illegal munitions that he used against the people of Syria?

My Lords, we should be very grateful for the intervention from the Front Bench opposite. I strongly reinforce what my noble friend Lord Forsyth said about losing all sense of proportion. This is a widely used uranium-depleted metal and very little to do with nuclear power. The absurd proposition seems to be that being killed by one of these shells might cause skin irritation, whereas if you are killed by a shell without it you would just be dead. Can we please keep a sense of proportion in this Chamber about these matters, because at the moment we seem to be losing that?

My noble friend is absolutely correct. I reiterate that DU armour-piercing rounds are effective. They are legal and fully compliant with the law of armed conflict, while extensive research and tests have shown them to be safe to those operating these munitions.