In its fundraising promotions, NPR touts shows like Morning Edition as providing listeners a “deeper look” at complicated stories.

Sometimes that is the case, but not this month, in its coverage of an announced decision by the Biden administration to further escalate the violence in Ukraine by supplying that country’s military with controversial depleted uranium (DU) anti-tank shells. Morning Edition (9/8/23) glossed over the reason many nations consider their use an atrocity. In fact, many commercial news organizations did a much better job of reporting in-depth on this story.

‘Not nuclear or radioactive

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

NPR‘s one source for its story (9/8/23) on depleted uranium (DU) munitions falsely assured listeners that “these are not…radioactive weapons.”

Morning Edition co-host Leila Fadel had one source for the three-and-half-minute report: Togzhan Kassenova, a senior research fellow at SUNY Albany’s Center for Policy Research, whom she introduced as “an expert on nuclear politics.” (The Center describes itself as having “a long and notable history of managing and implementing grants and sponsored programs for the government of the United States, including projects for the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of Naval Research.”)

Kassenova, responding to questions from Fadel, misrepresented what DU is and what its risks are when used in battle. “Anti-tank rounds with depleted uranium are not nuclear or radioactive,” she claimed, adding without any further detail that “there are some safety implications that need to be kept in mind.”

In fact, as the US Environmental Protection Agency’s website explains, “Like the natural uranium ore, DU is radioactive.” DU is a mix of U-238 and some other, rarer uranium isotopes that are left after the fissionable U-235 used in nuclear bombs and as reactor fuel has been refined out. All uranium isotopes are significant releasers of alpha particles as they decay; in other words, they’re radioactive. These low-energy but relatively large particles, not even mentioned by Kassenova, are essentially helium nuclei, composed of two protons and two neutrons. They can do serious cellular and genetic damage when uranium dust is ingested or inhaled.

Fadel didn’t question her guest’s effort to minimize the risk posed by uranium projectiles, though even the most cursory attempt to research the issue would have disclosed these problems.

‘A serious health risk’

EPA: "What You Can Do" about DU

The EPA’s website warns that “if DU is ingested or inhaled, it is a serious health hazard.”

Pentagon apologists for DU weapons typically note that alpha particles are so low-energy they “fail to penetrate the dead layers of cells covering the skin, and can be easily stopped by a sheet of paper.” True enough, but when introduced into the body, where the tiny alpha-particle-emitting particles can become lodged in lung or kidney tissue, they prove to be quite good at killing or damaging adjacent cells.

Critics of DU weapons, whom Fadel only mentioned in passing, explain that it’s not the shiny uranium tip of a DU shell that poses a risk. The risk comes when that shell penetrates tank armor and explodes in the interior at a searing temperature of over 2,000 degrees, reducing the entire vehicle and the soldiers in it to cinders. At that point, the uranium has become uranium oxide dust, and that radioactive dust blankets the target and a wide surrounding area. Given that its constituent isotopes have half-lives ranging from 170,000 to 4.5 billion years, the DU residue will effectively remain there forever, until blown, washed or carted away, or until it migrates down into the water table.

Had Fadel bothered to check with the EPA, instead of just adopting the Pentagon’s self-serving line that DU is no big deal as far as radiation risk is concerned, she’d have learned that the agency’s website states: “If DU is ingested or inhaled it is a serious health risk. Alpha particles directly affect living cells and can cause kidney damage.”

Competitors more complete

Popular Science: Depleted uranium shells for Ukraine are dense, armor-piercing ammunition

Popular Science (9/8/23): “While depleted uranium poses some risk from radiation if ingested, the primary harms come from it being a heavy metal absorbed into a human digestive, circulatory or respiratory system.”

One-source reports on a controversial story like this one—where there is a long-running dispute about the use of a weapon—are lazy journalism, especially for a news organization that touts itself as providing more “depth” in its reports than its more openly commercial competition. (NPR gets 39% of its funding from corporate sponsorship, so it’s a stretch to call it “noncommercial.”)

Some of those competitors, in fact, ran more complete stories on the DU decision than Morning Edition did. The magazine Popular Science (9/8/23), for example, mentioned the EPA’s warnings about DU, even including a link to the agency’s article.

So did the Associated Press (9/6/23) in an article by Tara Copp, at least when her article initially appeared on September 6. Unfortunately, Copp said she cut that paragraph in later revisions to make room for other background about DU.

The story by Copp, a former Pentagon correspondent, nonetheless stands out in corporate media coverage, providing a detailed account of where the US has been using DU weapons since Cold War days when the metal was first put into anti-tank shells and some rocket warheads.

She also mentioned reports of deaths, cancer and upsurges in birth defects that have sprung up in places where such weapons have been used in quantity. This information was left out of many other pieces on the Biden decision, including the one run by NPR.

Copp quoted a Russian source, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, who called the US decision to supply depleted uranium ammunition to Ukraine “very bad news,” and said its use by the US in the former Yugoslavia (Serbia and Kosovo) had produced “a galloping rise” in cancers and other illnesses. “The same situation will inevitably await the Ukrainian territories where they will be used,” he added. (His points are backed up by reports in the Lancet7/8/21—and Declassified UK7/13/23.)

Copp followed these claims with Pentagon denials about DU health risks. Its flacks for decades have denied that there is any evidence that the uranium oxide produced by DU weapons when exploded and burned poses cancer or birth-defect risks in impacted communities or among US troops. Given the history of misinformation from US government sources about US military atrocities over the years, it’s bracing to see a Russian source included in a US-based news article, even if that source might not be very convincing to US readers in the current political environment.

While there’s not enough evidence to draw ironclad conclusions, what’s available points to Peskov’s claims about Yugoslavia being at least arguable. Moreover, a 2013 article in Al Jazeera (3/15/13) by US journalist Dahr Jamail, based on data provided by the Iraqi government health department, showed that in Fallujah, where an all-out US destruction of that city of 200,000 people included significant use of DU shells, the cancer rate in Iraq before the two wars on Iraq had been 40 per 100,000, but jumped to 1,600 per 100,000 by 2005.

As Copp also noted, “US troops have questioned whether some of the ailments they now face [such as Gulf War Syndrome] were caused by inhaling or being exposed to fragments after a munition was fired or their tanks were struck, damaging uranium-enhanced armor.”

‘Adds to environmental burden’

WSJ: U.S. Set to Approve Depleted-Uranium Tank Rounds for Ukraine

Citing the UN Environment Program, the Wall Street Journal (6/13/23) reported that “the metal’s ‘chemical toxicity’ presents the greatest potential danger, and ‘it can cause skin irritation, kidney failure and increase the risks of cancer.’”

In a September 6 article reporting on the Ukraine DU decision, written by Andrew Kramer and Constant Méheut, the New York Times acknowledged some controversy, saying, “Some advocates have expressed concerns that prolonged exposure could cause illness, or that spent ammunition could cause environmental contamination.” However, it dismissively concluded, “The Pentagon says those fears are unfounded.”

The Washington Post’s September 7 article on the depleted uranium weapons, by Adam Taylor, gave a voice to those “activists,” quoting a statement from the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons that called the US decision “self-destructive and deceptive.” The organization added that the new anti-tank weapon “adds to the war-related environmental burden of Ukraine, damaging its legal integrity as victim of aggression and illegal attacks.”

The Wall Street Journal, in a June 13 article disclosing the US was about to approve depleted uranium shells for delivery to Ukraine’s military, highlighted health and environmental concerns in its subhead: “The armor-piercing ammunition has raised concerns over health and environmental effects.”

Meanwhile, while Morning Edition host Fadel deserves a raspberry for her one-source, one-sided piece, her guest, research fellow Kassenova, at least should get credit for honesty in stating where her priorities lie. Asked by Fadel what her position was on the US provision of DU weapons, she said:

It is an important practical and symbolic action of support. Ukraine is losing people—both military and civilian—every day. So I think whatever can happen right now should be provided to the extent possible. So I am in support of the provision of these weapons.

Efforts by phone and email to obtain comments from NPR’s Fadel and from the University of Albany’s Kassenova went unanswered.