e-mail us
Depleted uranium: the ongoing danger in Kosovo

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Ethnic Albanians may be returning to a homeland poisoned by radioactivity from weapons NATO says it fired in the refugees’ defense.

Observers estimate the U.S. military used weapons containing tons of depleted uranium in the NATO bombing campaign aimed at ousting Serbian forces from Kosovo. And as cleanup and rebuilding efforts get underway in the war-ravaged areas of Yugoslavia, the risk of contamination is renewed.

On April 21, a NATO spokesman confirmed to a Japanese newspaper that DU weapons were being used in Yugoslavia. The principal delivery system was the U.S. military’s A-10 Warthog attack aircraft, which fires 300 rounds per minute. One out of every four rounds contains 275 grams (nearly two-thirds of a pound) of DU.

At that rate, “the use of Warthogs with DU shells threatens to make a nuclear wasteland of Kosovo,” Sara Flounders of the International Action Center in New York said in a statement in April. “The Pentagon is laying waste to the very people -- along with their children -- they claim to be saving.”

Depleted uranium -- DU -- the cheap, plentiful toxic by-product of the uranium enrichment process, is used to strengthen and protect tanks such as the M-1 main battle tank. It is also used in munitions including those fired by the AV-8 Harrier and the A-10 Warthog. The tank, the Harrier and the Warthog were deployed by the United States in the Yugoslav theater. Indeed, in their battlefield debut in the Gulf War, DU weapons proved highly effective: More than 1,000 Iraqi tanks and other vehicles were destroyed by DU rounds, some fired from as far as two miles away or through sand berms. Friendly fire incidents involving M1A1 tanks proved that DU rounds could pierce depleted uranium armor (NCR, Aug. 25, 1995).

But while DU might be a soldier’s dream on the battlefield, it can become a nightmare during the postwar cleanup and rebuilding period. When DU ignites, it is transformed into a fine spray containing toxic heavy-metal elements and radioactive particles that are potential carcinogens if inhaled or ingested by humans, according to scientific studies.

Although the Pentagon claims DU does not pose a health risk to its troops, a sub-commission of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in 1996 adopted a resolution classifying DU munitions as “weapons of mass destruction and indiscriminate effect” and urged all member states to curb their production and proliferation.

Now it’s conventional

What Boylan calls the “offspring of nuclear weapons” is now considered conventional weaponry. “It’s a fundamental part of our arsenal now,” Boylan, a Gulf War veteran, told NCR in a phone interview in late June. “They’ve developed it as a munition for almost all systems. ... It’s a conventional weapon of mass destruction.”

Neither the Pentagon nor NATO will specify how many rounds of DU weapons were fired in Yugoslavia or where they were fired, but military analysts say there’s no question DU was used. “It’s standard issue,” Chris Hellman, an analyst with the Center for Defense Information, a Washington-based group that monitors Pentagon policy and planning, told the Boston Phoenix newspaper last spring. “If the A-10s are used, DU will be used.”

Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Steve Campbell in a July 6 interview said, “We don’t have the number of rounds, but I was told the use of it was limited. There are no plans right now to clean up the effects of DU in Yugoslavia. We don’t feel it poses significant health risks.”

Observers fear ordnance used to destroy bridges over the Danube and other rivers in Serbia and Kosovo contained DU, heightening concerns that the substance has infiltrated major European waterways. In June, the Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, reported that the Institute of Nuclear Sciences in Belgrade had “surveyed the remnants of exploded bombs and claims to have established the presence of uranium.”

“When armaments with depleted uranium are used, they produce uranium oxides ... as well as the gases radium and radon, among others. Oxide particles are from 0.5 to 5 microns in size and can be carried by the wind over several hundred kilometers. Depending on the wind direction, these particles can be spread to neighboring countries,” the report states.

Air samples taken in Macedonia in April by Bulgaria’s National Institute for Health Protection revealed background levels of radioactivity eight times higher than usual, the report went on. While noting that the increased level is still within the maximum allowed concentration, the agency said the situation needed to be “continually monitored.”

As cleanup and rebuilding efforts get underway in Kosovo and Serbia, the risk increases of further disturbing DU particles, renewing grave health dangers not only for the Kosovar refugees, but anyone within range of airborne DU particles, including other civilians, NATO soldiers, humanitarian aid workers and journalists.

“I see pictures of people going back there,” Boylan said of Kosovo, “and I think, ‘Oh, no.’ ”

Depleted uranium, or U-238, is produced when uranium is enriched for use in atomic bombs and nuclear fuel. Consequently, there is tons of the stuff around, and it’s much cheaper than alternatives such as tungsten. Because it is extremely dense -- 1.7 times as dense as lead -- it has been used in munitions ranging from 150 millimeter special artillery rounds down to 7.62 millimeter and .50 caliber rounds. “They’ve got it down for bullets now,” said one observer. In combat vehicles like the M1A1 Abrams tank, it’s used as protective plating. It also is used as ballast in cruise missiles.

Some 15 countries are known to possess weapons systems that contain depleted uranium, but only the United States and Britain say they have used them, and only the United States is known to have used them in Yugoslavia.

Depleted uranium is a misnomer, according to Doug Rokke, a physicist who in 1991 headed a DU cleanup team in Saudi Arabia and in 1994 cowrote DU education and training materials for the military. “Calling it ‘depleted’ uranium makes it sound like there’s no hazard,” Rokke said in an interview. “The word depleted gives the connotation of no problem.”

When a shell tipped with DU hits its target, the DU burns, releasing uranium oxide into the air. Minute particles smaller than 5 micrometers are considered dangerous from even 50 meters, and can be inhaled into the body, where they will release radiation during the life of the person who inhaled them, according to John Catalinotto, editor of the 1997 book Metal of Dishonor.

In pregnant rats it was found to accumulate in the placenta and fetus, and resulted in decreased litter size. The 1996 study concludes that “strong evidence exists to support detailed study of DU carcinogenicity.” Depending on the human dosage received, Rokke said, inhaled particulates can cause lung damage. DU that has been ingested settles in the bones, thyroid and kidneys, he said.

Military protocols recommended in 1991 that a soldier exposed to DU undergo testing within 24 hours of exposure. If testing is not done in 30 days, Rokke continued, the only evidence of DU will be what remains mobile in the body. But by that time, studies have shown, a substantial amount of DU has lodged itself, or “gone into residence,” elsewhere in the body. Yet few Gulf War veterans have been tested for DU, and only in June -- some nine years after exposure -- did the Defense Department announce that it would conduct an internal study of 22 of the more than 100 soldiers known to have embedded DU fragments as a result of friendly fire during Operation Desert Storm.

Don’t test, don’s tell

Rokke, who since the Gulf War has been plagued by kidney problems after his own level of uranium measured 5,000 times that considered permissible, said of the military’s approach to the issue: “If we test them we might find problems. If we find problems and verification of exposure, we’re liable. It’s clear as a bell.”

The training procedures Rokke helped develop in 1994, including four videotapes and three tiers of educational training for soldiers, still have not been put into place.

A June 1995 U.S. Army Environmental Policy Institute technical report, “Health and Environmental Consequences of Depleted Uranium Use,” states: “When DU is indicted as a causative agent for Desert Storm illness, the Army must have sufficient data to separate fiction from reality. Without forethought and data, the financial implications for long-term disability payments and health care costs would be excessive.”

National Catholic Reporter, July 16, 1999