ICE Case 81
Depleted Uranium in the
In the spring of 1999, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization
(NATO) carried out "Operation Allied Force" during the Balkan conflict in the
Former Yugoslav Republic. This military campaign, which lasted approximately
four months, was centered primarily in the province of Kosovo. A key element
in this campaign was the strategic use of jets and other types of military aircraft
to bomb enemy vehicles and installations. But a controversial debate has arisen
as to the type of munitions used during this aerial campaign and the effects
it is had on the region's population and environment. Since the completion of
NATO's military operation, there have been increasing reports of medical cases
involving radiation exposure and of cancer related illnesses such as leukemia.
Civilians and military personnel who have fallen victim to these sorts of illnesses
are considered to be stricken with what has come to be known as the "Kosovo
Syndrome" or "Balkan Syndrome". Environmentally, there have also been indications
that these radioactive munitions have polluted surrounding shell sites to a
considerable degree, threatening valuable livestock and agricultural resources.
Programs such the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), and the Yugoslav
Environmental Task Force, have been established to investigate and determine
the extent of radioactive contamination and the potential health hazards that
it may present in the region.
What is Depleted Uranium (DU)?
Depleted uranium, according to Tim Radford who is science editor
of the Guardian Unlimited, is an aggregate of different isotopes that includes
a small proportion of very radioactive U-235.1 This
small amount of U-235 is concentrated for atomic fuel rods and any "leftovers"
are considered depleted. The extraction of this isotope from natural Uranium
is used in nuclear fuels and nuclear weapons. The life span or time necessary
for this radioactive material to break down into something else is approximately
4.5 billion years. The reason for the military's use of this material is because
of its unique physical properties that make it both an effective defensive and
offensive weapon. 1.7 times as dense as lead, depleted uranium is able to penetrate
most any other metal. Its density enhances military firepower. As Mr. Radford
points out, "Tungsten splinters when it hits the hard steel of a tank;
DU penetrates and catches fires, which makes it a perfect weapon for armour-piercing
shells."2 Likewise, its physical properties
also allow it to be useful defensively. DU can be used as armor plating in tanks,
ballast material in aircraft, and even as shielding in some medical equipment.
Unfortunately, with these great advantages come certain disadvantages. Depleted
uranium, like other heavy metals such as lead, can be harmful and even toxic
if humans are exposed to it for a prolonged period of time.
Depleted Uranium, a Brief History.
DU, according to most scholars, has been stored in stockpiles
since the 1940's when the United States first initiated its Nuclear Weapons
Program. What caused this particular material to be utilized as a form of ammunition
by the U.S. Army was not only its unique physical properties and extreme effectiveness
as a weapon, but certain financial burdens that made it more economical to use
rather than store. When DU stockpiles were estimated to be in excess of 500,000
tons, the costs associated with the housing of this kind of material quickly
became apparent. Rather than see the cost of storage skyrocket, military officials
figured that these expenses could be cut by decreasing the size of these stockpiles.
Thus, DU was incorporated into the US military's arsenal of weapons and has
already been used in some recent military engagements. Specifically, the Gulf
War and the Yugoslav War.
First appearing in 1978, depleted uranium was produced as ammunition
for long cannon tanks and some aircraft guns, such as the A-10 Warthog and the
AV-8, according to Curt Wozniak.3 Rumors exists
that claim DU is used in the production of the well known "Tomahawk"
missile but these reports are not substantiated and have not been scientifically
confirmed. The first military engagement that saw extensive use of DU munitions
was the Gulf War a decade ago. Here, DU was used in the A-10 Warthog aircraft,
the American M1 Abrams tank, and the Bradley armored personnel carrier. Mr.
Wozniak states that "Final reports estimate that tanks fired 14,000 large
caliber DU rounds and that US planes fired 940,000 small caliber rounds."4
Additionally, it has been reported that DU munitions were also used in the AV-8
fighter. Other areas that have been involved with DU munitions, aside from the
Persian Gulf and the Balkans, include Puerto Rico in the spring of 1999 and
Japan. The former, which involved the town of Vieques in Puerto Rico, was an
unfortunate accident where several hundred DU rounds were fired by the US Navy.
The latter, near Japan, involved an uninhabited island where US Marines had
fired DU bullets. Though the island was devoid of any life, this event prompted
criticism from the Japanese causing US defense officials to apologize for these
"Depleted" Uranium, Deadly Weapon or Deceptive
Depleted uranium is a misnomer, according to Doug Rokke, a
former U.S. Army officer and health physicist who in 1991 supervised a DU cleanup
team in Saudi Arabia and in 1994 co-wrote DU education and training materials
for the military. "Calling it 'depleted' uranium makes it sound like there's
no hazard," Rokke stated in an interview. "The word depleted gives the connotation
of no problem."3 John Catalinotto, editor
of the 1997 book Metal of Dishonor, comments on the chemistry and events
that occur after a DU shell makes contact with its intended target:
"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."4
Rokke, who himself has been plagued by kidney
problems since the Gulf War after it was discovered that his levels of uranium
measured 5,000 times that considered permissible, said of the U.S. military's
approach to the matter: "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."5
Such a response should come as no surprise given the fact that Mr.
Rokke's training materials on DU have yet to be incorporated into the military's
educational training program for soldiers.
It is still unclear how many areas have been exposed
or effected by these shells and what other health hazards they pose to the general
public in this region of the world. There are ongoing debates as to the amount
of DU-coated shells and rounds fired during the 1999 conflict and whether NATO
soldiers were even properly informed of their use. Moreover, some observers
fear that the DU-based ordnance used to destroy bridges over the Danube and
other rivers in Serbia and Kosovo has infiltrated major European waterways.
Although the outcome of this controversy is not yet certain, one fact remains
clear. The after effects of these air strikes will no doubt pose a serious challenge
for the future generations in this region of the world and will play an important
role in its environmental, economic, and cultural developments.
March 24th 1999 - June 10th 1999 (Period in which "Operation
Allied Force" took place). Depleted uranium, however, has been reported
by various sources as being used in previous military engagements throughout
Continent - Europe.
Region - Eastern Europe (Balkans).
Country - Yugoslav Republic (Province of Kosovo).
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO),
United States, Kosovars, Albanians, Bosnians, Croatians, Macedonians, Montenegrins,
Fox News Website - Visar Kryeziu/AP - Tuesday January 9th, 2001.
II. Environment Aspects
6. Type of Environmental Problem:
With regards to the environment, many critics question NATO's
claim that its use of DU based ordnance throughout the Balkan conflict poses
no serious threat to any of the communities within the region. Various officials
argue that that this material has harmed many soldiers exposed to it during
combat similar to the many veterans of the Persian Gulf War who have been diagnosed
as having the highly controversial "Gulf War Syndrome". According to radiobiologist
Dr. Rosalie Bertell, president of the International Institute of Concern for
"When used in war, the depleted uranium
(DU) bursts into flame [and] releasing a deadly radioactive aerosol
of uranium, unlike anything seen before. It can kill everyone in a
tank. This ceramic aerosol is much lighter than uranium dust. It can
travel in air tens of kilometres from the point of release, or be
stirred up in dust and resuspended in air with wind or human movement.
It is very small and can be breathed in by anyone: a baby, pregnant
woman, the elderly, the sick. This radioactive ceramic can stay deep
in the lungs for years, irradiating the tissue with powerful alpha
particles within about a 30 micron sphere, causing emphysema and/or
fibrosis. The ceramic can also be swallowed and do damage to the gastro-intestinal
tract. In time, it penetrates the lung tissue and enters into the
blood stream. … It can also initiate cancer or promote cancers which
have been initiated by other carcinogens."6
A New York based organization, the International
Action Center, called the Pentagon's decision to use the A-10 "Warthog" jets
against targets in Serbia "a danger to the people and environment of the entire
Balkans."7 In a report from Greece, it was stated
that increased levels of toxic substances were registered in the atmosphere
of that country and that Albania, Macedonia, Italy, Austria, and Hungary all
faced a potential threat to human health as a result of NATO's bombing of Serbia
which included the use of radioactive DU in its shells.6
Clearly, not only have the lives of the citizens in these lands been placed
in a precarious situation but the environment itself, including both agriculture
and livestock, has been equally compromised, in essence damaging certain areas
of the region's food source and agricultural output.
Yet, conflicting claims exist. In a study conducted
by the RAND Corporation, a U.S.-based military contractor, there was a lengthy
analysis done into the use of DU during the conflict in the Persian Gulf. In
response to the many critics and military veterans who argue that DU is directly
responsible for their medical condition known as the "Gulf War Syndrome", the
U.S. Department of Defense commissioned the RAND Corporation to investigate
whether this substance did, in fact, pose a dangerous health risk to any exposed
to it. The report found no conclusive data tying negative health effects to
natural uranium, which was determined as being chemically and radioactively
analogous to depleted uranium, thus making it safe to both the environment and
population by posing little if any radiological risk. But critics contend that
the RAND Corporation, because of its close association to the military establishment,
was biased and that its report was faulty.
Despite the claims outlined in the RAND Report,
there have been numerous organizations and sources that have questioned the
validity of RAND's claims and the threat of DU to human and environmental health.8
Most damning has been a recent report prepared by the Regional Environmental
Center for Central and Eastern Europe for the European Commission, the executive
arm of the European Union. In the report, DU is described as being "perhaps
the most dangerous" of the "carcinogenic and toxic substances" that were released
during the bombing of Yugoslavia.9 Finally, the
most recent effort to thoroughly and objectively investigate the impact that
DU has had in the Province of Kosovo has been spearheaded by the Balkans Task
Force of the United Nations Environment Programme. The task force will attempt
to provide the public with a neutral and scientifically credible report on the
long and short-term environmental impact of the war. Suffice it to say that
with a half-life of 4.5 billion years, the depleted uranium particles left within
the environment will continue to haunt the region's inhabitants and agricultural
economy. The extent of the damage, as previously mentioned, is still unknown.
Finally, according to Yugoslav Assistant Defense
Minister Slobodan Petkovic, "The degree of contamination ranges from the bottom
limit of 200 becquerels to 235,000 becquerels per kilogram sample of soil, or
1,000 times above the tolerable level."10 This
statement was made in a report presented by General Petkovic that highlighted
the consequences of the NATO bombing campaign and the areas and animals, including
humans, effected by it. On a similar note, Pekka Haavisto, head of Yugoslavia's
environmental task force and the United Nations Environment Programme Assessment
Team in 1999, stated that NATO was not releasing important information on the
exact locations of shelling sites and the nature of the ammunition's use. Eventually,
NATO gave details of 112 sites where armor-piercing DU was used against Serb
It was determined by the Yugoslav Army that some
50,000 depleted uranium shells were fired by U.S. aircraft during the 11-week
campaign and UNEP was surprised to discover remnants of DU ammunition just lying
around on the ground one and a half years after the conflict.11
The U.S. Pentagon, on the contrary, sets the figure at approximately 31,000
shells and argues that the amount of ammunition used did not present a health
or environmental hazard. But after Italian authorities reported that twelve
of their soldiers had developed cancer, with five of them already dead as a
result of leukemia, and an additional 30 cases of serious illness reported,
both NATO and the Pentagon have been under increasing fire to explain the cause
of these serious medical conditions in relation to the use of depleted uranium.
7. Type of Habitat:
8. Act and Harm Sites:
Act Site - East Europe, Balkans.
Harm Site - Province of Kosovo and surrounding
Example - Radioactive contamination of
any humans, livestock, or geographic areas exposed to DU munitions.
United Nations Environmental Programme Website - www.unep.com - Wednesday March
9. Type of Conflict:
Interstate. On the one side we have Slobodan Milosevic and
his military forces, while on the other side we have the United States and NATO.
10. Level of Conflict:
Medium. Some inhabitants of the Balkan region, particularly
Kosovo, resent NATO for its actions involving depleted uranium and its presence
in the region.
11. Fatality Level of Dispute (military and civilian fatalities):
Though the intended targets throughout Operation
Allied Force were Serbian military armaments and installations, it appears that
there has been an increase in the number of cancer related deaths in recent
years. Many Yugoslav officials, in addition to other foreign governments, attribute
these deaths to the extensive use of depleted uranium by NATO forces during
the Yugoslav War.
European commission president Romano Prodi, for
example, called for DU-coated shells to be banned following a report by France's
Ministry of Defense that highlighted leukemia treatment for four of its soldiers
after they served in the Balkans during NATO's bombing campaign of Yugoslavia.
Likewise, Italian authorities discovered 30 cases of serious illness involving
soldiers who served in the Kosovo Mission. Twelve of these soldiers developed
cancer and five of them subsequently died of leukemia. Spain, on the other hand,
stated that it would examine all 32,000 of its soldiers who were stationed in
the Balkans since 1992. In addition, Turkey, Portugal, Finland, Bulgaria, and
Greece also agreed to screen any individuals who might have seen time in this
region of the world as peacekeepers or servicemen. These efforts would help
determine who had fallen victim to the dreaded "Balkans Syndrome".
Although these figures may not seem astronomical,
they do raise serious questions and legitimate concerns. Why all of these sudden
cases of cancer and leukemia? Coincidence or contamination?
Image Source: Budapest Week Online Website
- www.budapestweek.com - Wednesday March 28th, 2001.
12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics:
In addition to the radioactive contamination left by DU shells,
the Balkan conflict has also displaced hundreds of thousands of native inhabitants
of the region causing even greater socioeconomic stress for surrounding countries.
Environmentally, water pollution by the approximately 695,000 refugees in the
former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia has been a serious problem. The temporary
campsites that have been established to shelter and feed the refugees have become
overpopulated, extremely polluted, and spawning grounds for all sorts of disease
and illness. The water sources around these campsites have become very polluted,
as well as the surrounding terrain, and individuals unable to secure any kind
of housing within these camps have resorted to nearby forests and plains. Some
ecologists and health workers warn that such conditions will only promote a
"new environmental catastrophe".12 Many people
contend that NATO has made a nuclear wasteland of Kosovo and is threatening
the very people, along with their children, it claims to be trying to save.
Though "nuclear wasteland" is perhaps too strong a description for this unfortunate
situation, should one be surprised at such a disposition given these circumstances?
13. Level of Strategic Interest:
14. Outcome of Dispute:
Pending. Analysis and field research are still ongoing to determine
the extent and areas possibly contaminated by DU ordnance. Once this data is
obtained, and the matter thoroughly investigated, the international community
will respond to this issue accordingly. Of particular relevance are two critical
investigations that have already begun this research process and which have
established some preliminary reports. These are the UNEP Report and the Yugoslav
Ministry Report both conducted in 1999.
The UNEP Report
In October of 1999, the UNEP and United Nations (UN) Center
for Human Settlements issued a Balkan Task Force (BTF) report titled "The
Kosovo Conflict: Consequences for the Environment."13
This report was lead by Pekka Haavisto who once held political
office as Environment Minister in Finland. According to Vojin Joksimovich, the
BTF report created an international scientific team from nineteen countries
and organized five technical missions to Yugoslavia.14
The report focused mostly upon the following five areas: the environmental consequences
of air strikes on industrial sites, the environmental consequences of the conflict
on the Danube River, the impact of the conflict on the bio-diversity in protected
areas, the consequences of the conflict for human settlements and the environment
in Kosovo, and the possible use of DU weapons in Kosovo.15
The report came to the conclusion that although destruction
to the region's infrastructure, i.e. buildings, bridges, roads etc., was extensive,
the extent of contamination or pollution by DU to the Balkans region as a whole
was not as severe as initially estimated. But analyses of water samples drawn
from the Danube revealed that it was significantly polluted both upstream and
downstream from conflict sites involving DU weapons. Moreover, four particular
areas or "hot spots" were detected and determined to have been greatly
effected by DU.16 These four areas were the towns
of Pancevo, Kragujevac, Novi Sad, and Bor. Immediate steps were taken to quarantine
these areas so as to protect the surrounding lands and its inhabitants from
The Yugoslav Ministry Report
Similarly, a report titled "Consequences of NATO Bombing
on the Environment of FRY" was drafted by the Yugoslav Ministry of
Development, Science, and Environment. In this investigation, it was determined
that certain areas in southern Serbia were contaminated by DU after samples
of land were tested and ammunition remains of 30-millimeter API PGI-14B rounds
recovered.17 According to British biologist Roger
Coghill, "This is the best, first hard evidence confirming fears of scientists
that parts of former Yugoslavia have been turned into a nuclear wasteland."18
Soil samples in southern Serbia indicated that uranium levels
were 1000 times higher than normally expected. The report finishes by emphasizing
the need for international assistance in the clean up of the contaminated areas
since the task is far too great for the Yugoslav government to undertake alone.
Image Source: The Times
of India Online Website - www.timesofindia.com - Thursday January 11th, 2000.
15. Related ICE Cases:
16. Related Websites:
17. Related Articles on the Internet:
18. Relevant Literature:
Arbuthnot, Felicity. Depleted uranium: a post-war disaster
for environment and health .
Amsterdam: Laka Foundation, 1999.
Daxon, Eric G. and Jeffrey H. Musk. Assessment of the risks
from imbedded fragments of depleted uranium . Bethesda, MD: US Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute,
Kirk, William S. Depleted uranium: a chapter from mineral
facts and problems, 1980 edition . Washington, DC: US Department of the Interior, Bureau of Mines,
US Army Environmental Policy Institute Health and environmental
consequences of depleted uranium use in the US Army:
technical report . Atlanta, GA: Army Environmental
Policy Institute, 1995.
US National Research Council on Depleted Uranium. Trends
in the use of depleted uranium: report . Washington, DC: US National Academy of Sciences, National
Academy of Engineering, 1971.
1). Capella, Peter & Owen Bowcott. "NATO urged to clean up its uranium
debris in Kosovo." Guardian Unlimited Online. Jan. 2001. Online.
Google. 28 Jan. 2001.
3). Wozniak, Curt. "Issue Brief: Depleted Uranium Weapons."
Physicians for Social Responsibility. July 1999. Physicians for
Social Responsibility Online. Online. Google. 12 Feb. 2001.
5). Kevic, Amra. "BALKANS: Yugoslavia
Accuses NATO of Wider Uranium Use." Reuters/Boston Globe. April 1999.
Boston Globe Online. Online. Google. 12 Feb. 2001.
8). Chossudovsky, Michel.
"Impacts of NATO's "humanitarian" bombings, The Balance Sheet of Destruction
in Yugoslavia." Online. Goggle. 12 Feb. 2001.
11). Wozniak, Curt. "Issue
Brief: Depleted Uranium Weapons." Physicians for Social Responsibility.
July 1999. Physicians for Social Responsibility Online. Online.
Google. 12 Feb. 2001.
13). Kevic, Amra. "BALKANS:
Yugoslavia Accuses NATO of Wider Uranium Use." Reuters/Boston Globe.
April 1999. Boston Globe Online. Online. Google. 12 Feb. 2001.
14). Egorov, Sergey A. "The
Kosovo crisis and the law of armed conflicts." International Review of the
Red Cross. 31 March 2000. International Review of the Red Cross Online.
Online. Google. 28 Feb.
16). Joksimovich, Vojin. "Militarism and Ecology:
NATO Ecocide in Serbia." Mediterranean Quarterly. July 2000. Project
Muse. Online. Google. 12 Feb. 2001.
Author - Christopher A. Danielewski