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Factsheets and FAQs

Assessing Effects of Depleted Uranium: IAEA Role

Environmental contamination from the military use of depleted uranium (DU) - a dense metallic compound used in munitions - has raised concerns. Field assessments involving the IAEA have found that DU poses no radiological hazards to public health and safety. But other types of risks remain, and experts urge caution and remedial actions in DU contaminated areas.

At a Glance:

  • DU is a by-product from the industrial process of enriching natural uranium to make fuel for nuclear power plants. It is weakly radioactive, far below the level found in natural uranium.
  • DU is used in munitions in a concentrated metallic form. It is an extremely heavy substance, denser than lead, and mainly is used to penetrate armor. Its use creates a vapor after impact that settles as dust, chemically poisonous and radioactive.
  • DU contaminated areas have been assessed by experts from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), World Health Organization (WHO) and IAEA.
  • DU´s chemical toxicity poses the highest risks to human health, WHO reports. To minimize potential health risks, DU contaminated areas should be cleaned up.
  • Public communication about the real and perceived effects of DU contamination can help allay unwarranted fears.

What are the main risks to health?

Because depleted uranium is only weakly radioactive, chemical toxicity from ingestion or inhalation is the prevailing concern. Medical studies of DU exposure have found no consistent evidence of adverse effects to human health, the WHO has reported. Risks arise because when DU ordnance strikes a target, the uranium compound usually burns. The burning produces dust and oxide aerosols that can be inhaled directly or ingested in contaminated food, drinking water or soil. Inhalation is the dominant route of short-term exposure to people in the conflict area. Over the long-term, if no remedial action is taken, ingestion of dispersed DU residues poses the main risk to the public.

What is the IAEA role in DU assessments?

The IAEA role is to examine the radiological consequences of DU residues contaminating the environment. Dispersed DU particles could be inhaled or ingested, or people could come into close contact with DU shrapnel or fragments. The IAEA studies exclusively cover civilians and contaminated areas after military conflicts had ended.

Through field surveys at specific sites, experts focused on toxic and radiological aspects, and on countermeasures to mitigate hazards to people and the environment. They also worked side-by-side with national authorities in affected regions to help them carry out monitoring, survey and remedial activities.

The surveys found that DU residues do not pose a radiological hazard to the population of the affected regions. Estimated annual radiation doses that could arise from exposure to DU residues would be very low, and would not require remedial actions based on IAEA radiation safety standards.

Experts did, however, recommend precautionary countermeasures. Among them were that national authorities should restrict public access to any areas where DU fragments or ammunition remained. The material should be collected and isolated from the environment before its safe disposal as low-level radioactive waste.

The IAEA has participated in DU assessments after conflicts in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo, Kuwait, Iraq, and Lebanon.

(For a fuller account, see Effects of the Use of Armaments and Ammunitions Containing Depleted Uranium, UN Secretary-General Report, July 2008).

(Also see In Focus: Environmental Protection - Effects of Depleted Uranium).