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ICE Case 81
Chris Danielewski
Depleted Uranium in the Balkans

 


1. Abstract:

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.

2. Description:

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 actions.

"Depleted" Uranium, Deadly Weapon or Deceptive Wording?

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.

3. Duration:

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 the region.

4. Location:

Continent - Europe.

Region - Eastern Europe (Balkans).

Country - Yugoslav Republic (Province of Kosovo).

5. Actors:

North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), United States, Kosovars, Albanians, Bosnians, Croatians, Macedonians, Montenegrins, and Serbians.

 

Image Source: Fox News Website - Visar Kryeziu/AP - Tuesday January 9th, 2001.

 

II. Environment Aspects

6. Type of Environmental Problem:

Radioactivity.

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 Public Health:

"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 targets.

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:

Temperate.

8. Act and Harm Sites:

Act Site - East Europe, Balkans.

Harm Site - Province of Kosovo and surrounding areas.

Example - Radioactive contamination of any humans, livestock, or geographic areas exposed to DU munitions.

 

Image Source: United Nations Environmental Programme Website - www.unep.com - Wednesday March 14th, 2001.


III. Conflict Aspects

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.

 

IV. Environment and Conflict Overlap

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:

Regional.

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 further contamination.

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.

 

V. Related Information and Sources

15. Related ICE Cases:

Balkan War

Bikini Atoll

Johnston Atoll

Mururoa Atoll

Persian Gulf War

16. Related Websites:

Depleted Uranium Education Project

NATO-Yugoslav War: Internet Resources

North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) - Depleted Uranium Information

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) - Balkans

World Information Service on Energy (WISE) - Uranium Project

17. Related Articles on the Internet:

"Depleted Uranium in War."

"Is NATO using Depleted Uranium in Yugoslavia? The long term effects of the war."

"Low Intensity Nuclear War."

"The Use of Depleted Uranium (DU) Bullets and Bombs by NATO Forces in Yugoslavia."

"The Use of the Radioactive Material Depleted Uranium U-238 (DU) as a Military Weapon."

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, 1993.

Kirk, William S. Depleted uranium: a chapter from mineral facts and problems, 1980 edition .

Washington, DC: US Department of the Interior, Bureau of Mines, 1981.

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.

 

Notes

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.
2). Ibid.
3). Wozniak, Curt. "Issue Brief: Depleted Uranium Weapons." Physicians for Social Responsibility. July 1999. Physicians for Social Responsibility Online. Online. Google. 12 Feb. 2001.
4). Ibid.
5). Kevic, Amra. "BALKANS: Yugoslavia Accuses NATO of Wider Uranium Use." Reuters/Boston Globe. April 1999. Boston Globe Online. Online. Google. 12 Feb. 2001.
6). Ibid.
7). Ibid.
8). Chossudovsky, Michel. "Impacts of NATO's "humanitarian" bombings, The Balance Sheet of Destruction in Yugoslavia." Online. Goggle. 12 Feb. 2001.
9). Ibid.
10). Ibid.
11). Wozniak, Curt. "Issue Brief: Depleted Uranium Weapons." Physicians for Social Responsibility. July 1999. Physicians for Social Responsibility Online. Online. Google. 12 Feb. 2001.
12). Ibid.
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.
15). Ibid.
16). Joksimovich, Vojin. "Militarism and Ecology: NATO Ecocide in Serbia." Mediterranean Quarterly. July 2000. Project Muse. Online. Google. 12 Feb. 2001.
17). Ibid.
18). Ibid.
19). Ibid.

20). Ibid.
21). Ibid.


 

Author - Christopher A. Danielewski
April, 2001