Uranium Contamination Sealed Off in Kosovo

PRISTINA, Kosovo, Yugoslavia, January 11, 2001 (ENS) - More than 18 months after NATO stopped firing shells containing depleted uranium on Serb troops in Kosovo, civilians there are being protected from possible ill effects from the ammunition.

The United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) today began posting signs at sites known to have been targeted by shells containing depleted uranium.


UNMIK chief Dr. Bernard Kouchner watches a demonstration by Italian troops of their techniques in seeking radiation left by depleted uranium. (Photo courtesy United Nations)
The signs say, "Caution - Area May Contain Residual Heavy Metal Toxicity - Entry Not Advised."

Depleted uranium is a dense waste product of the natural uranium enrichment process used in nuclear power. It is used to strengthen heavy tank armor, anti-tank munitions, missiles and projectiles.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), depleted uranium's health effects are complex due to its chemical, radiological and physical characteristics.

In 1998 and 1999, the largely Albanian population of Kosovo was plunged into a war for independence from the Serb dominated Yugoslav government. It resulted in NATO undertaking an aerial bombardment of selected targets in Yugoslavia in 1999.

NATO fired 31,000 depleted uranium shells during the Kosovo campaign.

After a peace agreement in the summer of 1999, that saw Serb forces withdraw from Kosovo to be replaced by NATO peacekeepers, the United Nations set up a task force to assess the environmental damage of the Kosovo conflict.

Last summer, the Balkans Task Force set up by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) received exact coordinates of NATO's target sites. Last November, the task force visited 11 sites in Kosovo that were targeted by weapons containing depleted uranium.

Out of the 11 sites visited, the team found eight sites with slightly higher amounts of Beta-radiation immediately at or around the holes left by depleted uranium ammunition.


Map of the Balkans, showing Kosovo. (Map courtesy UNEP)
Earlier this week, task force chairman Pekka Haavisto said he was surprised to find remnants of depleted uranium ammunition still lying on the ground, 18 months after the conflict.

"The ground directly beneath the depleted uranium ammunition was slightly contaminated," said Haavisto. "For this reason, we paid special attention to the risks that uranium toxicity might pose to the groundwaters around the sites."

Today, UNMIK asked the World Health Organization to send toxicology and radiation specialists to Kosovo to assess the possible consequences of depleted uranium exposure.

WHO is helping to set up a voluntary testing program for Kosovars at Pristina Hospital and to coordinate national and international bodies that have direct interest in the depleted uranium issue.

UNMIK chief Dr. Bernard Kouchner has called for organizations that could assist in formulating long term initiatives regarding depleted uranium to come forward.

A public information campaign about depleted uranium is being developed to alert Kosovars and visitors to Kosovo about possible risks.


Map showing the 11 sites visited by UNEP's team in Kosovo. (Map courtesy UNEP)
In Geneva, UNEP executive director Klaus Toepfer unveiled the full details of the map he received from NATO, which shows the 112 sites where depleted uranium weapons were used. Toepfer also gave the exact location of the 11 sites that had been visited by the task force.

"At places where contamination has been confirmed, measures should be taken to prevent access," said Toepfer.

"The local authorities and people concerned should be informed of the possible risks and precautionary measures."

Director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency Mohamed ElBaradei issued a similar statement today, advising precautionary measures.

ElBaradei said that before an authoritative conclusion could be reached it was essential to assess the impact of the substance in the special circumstances in which had been used, and to carry out a detailed survey of the affected territory and people.


UNEP executive director, Klaus Toepfer. (Photo courtesy UNEP)
Some 340 samples were collected during last November's survey. They are being analyzed for both radioactivity and toxicity by five European laboratories. The samples include 247 soil samples, 45 water samples, 30 vegetation samples, 10 smear tests, five sabots, two penetrators, and one penetrator fragment.

Penetrators and sabots are specialized weapons parts.

The results of the tests will be ready in early March, when UNEP will publish a report of its findings.

UNEP has contacted Yugoslavian authorities in order to plan a similar field mission to Serbia and Montenegro this spring, where several of the 112 NATO-identified depleted uranium sites are located.

On Tuesday, Kouchner visited a destroyed bus station in Klina, Kosovo, to see a demonstration by Italian troops of their techniques in seeking radiation left by depleted uranium.

Specialists wearing white uniforms and masks deployed monitors on the ground and in the air amid the twisted shards of vehicles.


Director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency Mohamed ElBaradei. (Photo courtesy IAEA)
"We took and are still taking this threat very seriously," said Kouchner. "On the one hand, we are checking the radioactivity with testing not only by the soldiers but also by UNEP.

"On the other hand, we have also demanded an investigation by the World Health Organization into the health of the population."

Kouchner plans to invite specialized non-governmental organizations to Kosovo to study the health risks of depleted uranium.

"I'm suggesting that an independent body, such as Friends of the Earth, should come and freely make their own exploration and investigation," he said, adding that the idea had been endorsed by NATO Secretary General George Robertson.

On Tuesday, the United Kingdom's Ministry of Defence followed the lead of several other European nations by announcing it will screen soldiers who served in the Balkan and Gulf wars for exposure to depleted uranium.

According to a report in the UK's Daily Telegraph newspaper today, armed forces were warned four years ago that exposure to dust from exploded depleted uranium ammunition increased the risk of developing lung, lymph and brain cancers.