Three Sites Remain Radioactive from Bosnian War

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina, November 13, 2002 (ENS) Three sites in Bosnia-Herzegovina that were targeted with weapons containing depleted uranium during the mid-1990s are still radioactive enough to pose a risk to human health, a team of 17 experts from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said Tuesday.

In response to a request by the Council of Ministers of Bosnia-Herzegovina, a team assembled by the UNEP Post Conflict Assessment Unit carried out its scientific assessment in October.

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American soldier holds a sabot tank round containing depleted uranium (Photo courtesy U.S. Deployment Health Support Directorate)
Using sensitive instruments to measure surface radioactivity at 14 sites, the UNEP team confirmed the presence of radioactive "hot spots" and pieces of DU weapons at three locations - the Hadzici tank repair facility, the Hadzici ammunition storage area and the Han Pijesak barracks.

In addition to the 14 sites that were examined, the team could not to enter one site on their list due to safety concerns over nearby landmines.

The team took some 200 environmental samples - including 47 surface soil samples, three full soil profiles, three penetrators, one full DU bullet, 24 air samples, 42 water samples, and samples of lichen, bark, moss, mushroom and vegetables - to be analyzed for radioactivity and toxicity at laboratories in Switzerland, Italy and the United Kingdom.

Depleted uranium (DU) is a byproduct of nuclear power which has been used in heavy tank armor, anti-tank munitions, missiles and projectiles. The substance has 60 percent of the radioactivity of natural uranium and "significant chemical toxicity," according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

NATO fired more than 10,000 rounds of DU ammunition during the air strikes in 1994 and 1995. U.S. Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft fired approximately 10,000 30mm DU rounds, some 3.3 tons of DU, at 12 sites in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1994-1995, according to the U.S. Deployment Health Support Directorate.

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Pekka Haavisto measures radioactivity in Bosnia-Herzegovina. (Photo courtesy UNEP)
Pekka Haavisto, who heads the UNEP Post Conflict Assessment Unit, is a former Finnish environment minister. He warned that two of the sites - the Hadzici tank repair facility and the Han Pijesak barracks - have not been cleaned of radioactive materials and dust although people are working in these facilities.

"The UNEP team detected DU related materials and DU dust inside buildings that are currently used by local businesses or, in the case of Han Pijesak, by troops as storage facilities," Haavisto said.

Haavisto said UNEP will approach the government of Bosnia-Herzegovina about cleanup of the radioactive sites.

"When people are working in buildings that have not been decontaminated, unnecessary risks are being taken, and, therefore, we will discuss with the Bosnia and Herzegovina authorities the need for decontamination inside the buildings currently in use as a first precautionary step," he said. "Such a job should be carried out by experts."

A medical sub-team composed of the experts from WHO and the U.S. Army Center visited three hospitals and examined medical data and statistics in the national and regional ministries of health, with their full support.

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Bombed out church in Hadzici (Photo courtesy http://www.spc.org.yu/)
In parallel to the medical sub-team, an expert on radioactivity from the International Atomic Energy Agency assessed the overall situation on radioactive sources in Bosnia-Herzegovina. This included regulations on handling, radioactive sources in use and storage of radioactive wastes.

UNEP team members found that members of the general public are not aware of what DU ammunition looks like and the dangers it can pose.

UNEP will discuss with the national civil protection authorities the possibility of offering an easy-to-read flyer on the issue to de-mining personnel, local authorities involved in DU work, and interested members of the public.

The UNEP DU assessment is funded by the governments of Italy and Switzerland. The final results will be published in a UNEP report in March 2003.