Kosovo Munitions Debris Contains Recycled Uranium

GENEVA, Switzerland, January 16, 2001 (ENS) - Scientists studying ammunition fired by NATO at Serb troops in Kosovo during the Balkans conflict have confirmed that some of it contains recycled uranium.

NATO fired 31,000 depleted uranium shells during the Kosovo campaign in 1998 and 1999. Some of that ammunition still litters Kosovo, and other parts of Yugoslavia. Today's announcement is significant because the radioactivity of recycled uranium is greater than that of depleted uranium.

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Map illustrating sites targeted by NATO for strikes using weapons containing depleted uranium. (Map courtesy UNEP)
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.

Weapons made with depleted uranium pierce solid objects, like tanks, before erupting in a burning cloud of vapor. The vapor settles as dust, which is chemically poisonous and radioactive.

The United States and the United Kingdom armed forces used depleted uranium armor and weapons for the first time in the Gulf War. Both countries accept that the dust can be dangerous if it is inhaled, but claim the danger is short-lived, localized, and more likely to cause chemical poisoning than irradiation.

But some veterans of the Iraqi and Balkan campaigns believe depleted uranium has affected their health.

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

Today's announcement by the Depleted Uranium Assessment Group working for the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) confirms the presence of Uranium 236 in seven penetrators ammunition tips made out of depleted uranium found during a UNEP field mission to Kosovo last November.

Uranium 236 is an artificial isotope which can contaminate depleted uranium containing uranium recycled from spent fuel.

Using five European laboratories for its depleted uranium assessment work, the UNEP group has found that 0.0028 percent of the uranium in the penetrators is in the form of U-236. According to the laboratory that made the discovery, the content of U-236 in the depleted uranium is so small that the radiotoxicity is not changed compared to depleted uranium without U236.

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UNEP executive director, Klaus Toepfer. (Photo courtesy UNEP)
"This is first laboratory result based on our field work," said UNEP executive director Klaus Toepfer. "We have asked the World Health Organization and all of our other partners for their assessments of this finding while we continue with the scientific analysis."

The assessment group chairman Pekka Haavisto told BBC news that today's discovery increased concerns "slightly."

"It casts a rather different light on the process. It is something we'll be watching, and we've asked the other four laboratories to analyse the remnants' isotopic makeup very carefully," he said.

The 340 samples collected last November are being analyzed for both toxicity and radioactivity in an effort to determine whether the use of depleted uranium during the Balkans conflict may pose risks to human health or the environment. The results are expected to be ready by March.

Last week, the UK's Ministry of Defence followed the lead of several other European nations by announcing it will screen soldiers who served in both wars for exposure to depleted uranium.

But in Sunday's edition of the New Scientist, one of the UK's foremost radiation biologists said urine tests are unlikely to reveal the most dangerous contamination.

Professor Dudley Goodhead, head of the British Medical Research Council's radiation and genome stability unit, told the magazine that the highly insoluble particles of uranium oxides inhaled from burning uranium and deposited by white blood cells might not show up in urine.

Deposited in the tracheobronchial lymph nodes, these particles could continue emitting intense local alpha and beta radiation, which could damage blood stem cells, causing leukemia, said Goodhead.