Uranium weapons cause radiation hazard in the Balkans

The depleted uranium weapons NATO is using in the Balkans may pierce Serbian tanks, but the clouds of radioactive dust they create threaten soldiers on both sides-and the Kosovar people, reports New Scientist.

In 1991 Doug Rokke went to the Middle East as a US army health physicist to clean up uranium left by the Gulf War. He helped decontaminate 23 armoured vehicles hit by shells in “friendly fire” incidents.

Today he has difficulty breathing. His lungs are scarred and he has skin problems and kidney damage. Rokke, a major in the US Army Reserve’s Medical Service Corps, has no doubt what made him ill – contact with radioactive metal. Three years after he worked in the Gulf, the US Department of Energy tested his urine. They found that the level of uranium in his sample was over 4000 times higher than the US safety limit.

The ultimate irony is that DU could poison the very land that NATO is trying to protect, says Rokke. “The aim of this war is to enable the Kosovars to return home. But unless the uranium is cleaned up, those that survive the Serb atrocities and the NATO aerial attacks will have to return to a contaminated environment where they may become ill.”

Now aged 50 and an environmental scientist at Jacksonville State University in Alabama, Rokke is campaigning to stop the US firing uranium weapons in the Balkans. “It is a war crime to use uranium munitions when men, women and children are exposed to them without any medical screening or care,” he says. “It is totally, totally wrong.”

Depleted uranium, or DU, is a radioactive heavy metal. It is the waste left over when the isotope uranium-235 is extracted from naturally-occurring uranium to fuel nuclear power stations and build nuclear bombs. DU typically consists of 99.7 per cent uranium-238.

As a by-product of the nuclear industry, DU is cheap and plentiful. And DU shells are a very effective weapon against tanks and armoured cars. They can pierce several inches of armour-plated steel thanks to DU’s extremely high density. They’re better at penetrating armour than traditional anti-tank weapons made of tungsten.

Gulf veterans such as Rokke believe exposure to this DU is one of the causes of Gulf War Syndrome, the unexplained illness or group of illnesses that has afflicted thousands of soldiers since the war. Iraqi scientists also claim that DU was responsible for a rise in the numbers of cancers and birth defects in southern Iraq. But both the US and British governments dispute this. They say there is no evidence that DU has damaged the health of military personnel. But the row is erupting again with the US admission it is using DU weapons in the two-month-old war against Serbia.

In a press briefing in Washington DC on 3 May, Major General Charles Wald, vice-director for strategic plans and policy for the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed that A10 Warthog aircraft had fired DU munitions against Serbian forces. The US Joint Chiefs’ spokesman, James Brooks, told New Scientist that AV-8 Harriers and Abrams battle tanks in the Balkans also carried DU munitions. The British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, has said that no DU is “in use” by British forces. But there are more than 20 British Challenger tanks, which fired DU ammunition in the Gulf conflict, stationed in Macedonia ready for action if ground troops move into Kosovo-a move supported by Britain as the limitations of an air offensive become apparent.

NATO says that DU has been used against Serbian forces since the second week of May. “It has not been used extensively,” says a NATO spokesman. “It has never been proved that the use of DU endangers the health of people. It is no more dangerous than mercury.”

Neither NATO nor the US will say how just much DU has been fired in the Balkans. But there are 40 A10s and 6 Harriers in action, capable of unleashing a lot of uranium. A10s, for example, are armed with a 30-millimetre Gatling gun that can fire 3900 shells a minute, one in five of which contains 300 grams of DU. This means that each A10 could release 234 kilograms of DU a minute. If US and British tanks take part in a ground offensive, observers say more DU is likely to be fired.

As well as its ability to pierce armour plating, DU has the unfortunate tendency to ignite on impact, creating clouds of uranium oxide dust-facilitating its spread in the environment and increasing the danger posed by the alpha radiation it emits. Mike Thorne, a uranium expert from AEA Technology at Harwell in Oxfordshire, formerly part of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, points out that as an alpha-emitter, it poses a similar risk to plutonium if it gets inside the body. As such, even the tiniest amounts could cause cell damage that marginally increases the risk of cancer. DU also emits dangerous beta radiation. Its main component, uranium-238, has a half-life of 4.46 billion years. Thorne argues that it could in theory contribute to Gulf War Syndrome: “In view of its poorly defined biochemical effects, DU could be a contributory factor,” he says.

Chemically, DU poses a great threat to the kidneys, where high concentrations can lead to organ failure. But according to Thorne, even small amounts could have subtle but ill-understood effects. That is why a major study by the US Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 1989 recommended reducing the safety limit for uranium in kidneys from 3 micrograms per gram to 0.3 micrograms per gram.

There is evidence that civilian authorities take the threat from DU very seriously. In the aftermath of the Gulf conflict, the UK Atomic Energy Authority came up with some frightening estimates for the potential effects of the DU contamination left by the conflict. It calculated that if 23 tonnes of DU were inhaled-8 per cent of the amount actually fired in the Gulf-this could cause “500 000 potential deaths”. This was “a theoretical figure”, it stressed, that indicated “a significant problem”.

Potential deaths

The AEA’s calculation was made in a confidential memo to the privatised munitions company, Royal Ordnance, dated 30 April 1991. The memo offered to send a team to Kuwait to clear up the DU-an offer that was never taken up. The high number of potential deaths was dismissed last year as “very far from realistic” by a British defence minister, Lord Gilbert. “Since the rounds were fired in the desert, many kilometres from the nearest village, it is highly unlikely that the local population would have been exposed to any significant amount of respirable oxide,” he said.

The Balkans war, however, is not being fought in a desert but in areas where people have, or did have, houses. As a result of earlier pressure from Gulf veterans, the British government commissioned two reports. In April this year, Lord Gilbert quoted the 1993 investigation by the Defence Radiological Protection Service, which concluded “that there was no indication that any British troops had been subjected to harmful over-exposure to DU during the Gulf conflict”.

But the other report, published by the Ministry of Defence in March, did acknowledge that troops could have inhaled DU dust in the Gulf and that this “could theoretically lead to damage to lung tissue and subsequently to a raised probability of lung cancer some years later”.

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