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The U.S. will send depleted uranium munitions to Ukraine as part of an aid package

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The U.S. has announced a new security package for Ukraine worth up to $175 million. And for the first time, the U.S. is sending anti-tank rounds containing depleted uranium. Russia has called the move inhumane. So what does this mean for the war effort? Togzhan Kassenova, an expert on nuclear politics and a senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research at the University at Albany, joins us now to discuss. Good morning.

TOGZHAN KASSENOVA: Good morning.

FADEL: Togzhan, I want to start with what exactly this weapon is. When a lot of people hear depleted uranium, it sounds like it might have potential health risks. That's something the International Atomic Energy Agency has warned about. If you could talk about what they do and what the potential risks are to people's health.

KASSENOVA: Thank you. Let's start with the basics. So anti-tank rounds with depleted uranium - these are not nuclear or radioactive weapons. So what are they? And I'll try to explain in simple terms. So to produce nuclear fuel, either for power stations or nuclear weapons, the isotope composition of natural uranium - that's what can be found in the ground - must be changed. And this process is called enrichment. And so depleted uranium is a byproduct of this process. It's very dense, and that's why it works well as ammunition. In general, of course, uranium mining, anything to do with the fuel cycle - it has safety implications, especially if procedures are not taken care of. But it's important to remember that depleted uranium is considerably less radioactive than natural uranium.

FADEL: And what do you make of the decision by the U.S., which follows a similar move by the British earlier this year, to provide this type of weaponry to Ukraine?

KASSENOVA: I think it's an important practical and symbolic action of support. Ukraine is losing people, both military and civilians, every day. So I think whatever can happen in Ukraine right now should be provided to the extent possible. So I'm in support of provision of this weapons, even though, of course, there are some safety implications that need to be kept in mind.

FADEL: These anti-tank weapons - what type of difference would they make in the battlefield? Right now, we know that Ukraine's in the middle of this grinding counteroffensive.

KASSENOVA: I think they will make a huge difference, and that's why Russia is so upset. Armor-piercing rounds with depleted uranium - they're highly effective against Russian tanks because that's exactly, you know, for what they were developed during the Cold War. So I think they will be very helpful for Ukraine's counteroffensive.

FADEL: So you mentioned that's why Russia's very angry about this. Of course, Russia is the invader in this war, but it has said that providing this weapon to Ukraine is, quote, "a criminal act," that the U.S. providing this weaponry is, quote, "inhumane." What do you make of Russia's reaction here?

KASSENOVA: I think Russia's reaction and all the arguments that it's making - it's an example of hypocrisy. Russia is destroying Ukrainian nature, blowing up its dams, mining Ukraine's land, torturing and killing civilians. And I think it's very important to point out that it's Russia that is creating nuclear and radioactive risks. It engages in nuclear blackmail, saying that they will introduce tactical nuclear weapons. They're also occupying Europe's largest nuclear power plant. They put military inside of that plant. They mined the territory around the plant. That's directly increasing nuclear accident risks.

FADEL: That was Togzhan Kassenova. Thank you so much for your time.

KASSENOVA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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