1970-1979 | Chemical weapons | Environmental devastation

Labour government approves using depleted uranium in ammunition

Tony Benn (crop – Toulouse Municipal Archives via Wikimedia) and James Callaghan (Jimmy Carter Library via Wikimedia.)

22 January 1979

On 22 January 1979, the Labour Cabinet almost unanimously approved the use of depleted uranium (DU) in anti-tank ammunition.  The only voice raised in opposition to the use of the toxic and radioactive material was the Secretary of State for Energy, Tony Benn. He warned ministers that every nuclear power station in Britain would ‘now be seen as an armaments manufacturing unit’ and that ‘test-firing the depleted uranium (would) create tremendous opposition.’ The rest of the Cabinet appeared untroubled by such concerns, although Bruce Millan, Secretary of State for Scotland, wanted an assurance there would be no test-firing in Scotland. Moments before the end of the discussion, Benn tried one last time to reason with his colleagues, reminding them that ‘there was no penetration advantage in this ammunition, its advantage is only that it creates a fireball.’ The prime minister, James Callaghan, pondered on Benn’s comment for a brief moment and then remarked, ‘well, there’s general agreement. We’ve decided.’ Depleted uranium had been approved for military use.1

It was later discovered that DU can contaminate extensive areas wherever it is deployed on a battlefield, and there is a considerable body of research suggesting potentially severe health consequences, including birth defects, kidney damage and lung, bone and skin cancer, for anyone who inhales dust containing it and the risk of contamination might be spread further through food and water supplies. Epidemiological studies of the impact of its use in Iraq showed a subsequent seven fold increase in childhood malignancies, while doctors noted a rise in the number of children born with birth defects. The British army and navy used DU ammunition in Iraq and the Gulf in both 1991 and 2003.3


  1. Ruth Winstone (Editor), Tony Benn: Conflicts of Interest, Diaries 1977-80, Arrow Books, London 1991, pp. 444-45.
  2. Rob Edwards, Iraq’s depleted uranium clean up to cost $30m as contamination spreads, The Guardian, 6 March 2013 accessed online at url https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/mar/06/iraq-depleted-uranium-clean-up-contamination-spreads See also Duncan Graham-Rowe and Rob Edwards, ‘Depleted Uranium casts shadow over peace in Iraq’, New Scientist, 15 April 2003 accessed online at url https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn3627-depleted-uranium-casts-shadow-over-peace-in-iraq/ and Helen Thomas, How Dangerous is Depleted Uranium ? Hearst Newspapers, 11 December 2004 accessed online at url https://www.commondreams.org/views/2004/12/11/how-dangerous-depleted-uranium
  3. Duncan Graham-Rowe and Rob Edwards, ‘Depleted Uranium casts shadow over peace in Iraq’, New Scientist, 15 April 2003 accessed online at url https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn3627-depleted-uranium-casts-shadow-over-peace-in-iraq/  See also ‘Reports Emerge the UK used depleted uranium weapons in Iraq,’ RT, 23 July 2010 accessed online at url https://www.rt.com/news/uk-iraq-depleted-uranium/ See also U.K. government paper accessed online at url https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/210641/Depleted_Uranium.pdf

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