Health risks of using depleted uranium

o Application of depleted uranium in weapons is common only in the US, where money talks and where DU's potential for use in ammunition is only growing, despite the fact that many countries, including Russia and Germany, have developed far more effective anti-armor warheads without using the outdated DU technology.

o The bottom line for the use of depleted uranium in ammunition is its low cost. Just how cheap is DU? In the US, for example, weapons manufacturers obtain depleted uranium from the government for free. Now, that's cheap! Comparing the "cost" of DU to the cost of, say, tungsten it becomes obvious just how difficult it will be for weapons manufacturers in the US to stop using depleted uranium in ammunition.

The following article is from the website of Venik's Aviation at

PHILADELPHIA (5 Nov 2001) -- In the recent months NATO and other interested parties have became more active in their attempts to discredit opponents of using depleted uranium (DU) in ammunition and other areas, where this radioactive material may come in contact with people and the environment.

o Introduction

o Depleted uranium in aviation

o When aircraft crash

o Depleted uranium in weapons

o Do we need DU in weapons?

o DU in Russian weapons

o So what is DU after all?

o UNEP findings in Kosovo

o Plentiful evidence DU near you

o Documents

o Sources


THE MAIN ARGUMENT for continued use of depleted uranium in military hardware, civilian aircraft and many other industrial products is the fact that the DU is about 40 per cent less radioactive than the naturally-occurring uranium. Depleted uranium is also cheap and readily available. Furthermore, DU emits predominantly alpha radiation, which is quickly absorbed. How true are these claims? Fortunately, they are quite accurate. Available statistics shows that in the top 20 cm of soil collected from an area of 1 sq. km one may expect to find on the average of 1,000 kg of natural uranium, which is more radioactive than the depleted uranium. The depleted uranium emits low-level alpha radiation that is in fact quickly absorbed by the air. Furthermore, radioactive background created by depleted uranium falls far short from naturally-occurring radiation background in some places in Iran and Brazil, where we are not aware of people suffering from any illnesses caused by this high natural radioactive background.

After mentioning all of these facts, we must consider the last undeniable fact: DU is an extremely dangerous radioactive and chemically toxic form of industrial waste accumulated around the world in enormous quantities. This is the fact that most scientists and governments around the world are well aware of. How can this be proved and how can we explain the perceived innocuousness of depleted uranium? Uranium is a relatively common metal and, while it is true that one can find a ton of it in the top 20 cm of soil in an area of 1 sq. km, uranium does not pose a significant health risk, but only for as long as it remains in those 20 cm of soil spread over 1 sq. km. for average humans are not in habit of eating soil in huge quantities. The situation changes once we get uranium out of the ground and concentrate it in one location, once we burn it or grind it into fine dust and scatter it in the air and our drinking water supply. And it will be of little comfort to know that depleted uranium is 40 per cent less radioactive.

Why would we do such things?

Because uranium may be good for making holes in tanks and that's our primary concern in life. Alpha radiation may be easily absorbed by air, but, once we breath in or swallow fine depleted uranium dust, alpha radiation it emits will be just as easily absorbed by our internal organs. We can go out and try to measure for alpha radiation in the field to determine radioactive hot spots to avoid. However, following a collision between a DU shell and tank's armor up to 70 per cent of depleted uranium turns into aerosol of DU oxide, while most of the remaining depleted uranium is turned into fine dust. It is highly mobile and will be easily spread around by wind. It is also hard to measure for because, as we know, DU emits alpha radiation which is quickly absorbed by air. As in the case of Chernobyl accident and other nuclear disasters, high levels of radiation caused by depleted uranium may have a very localized nature and they will change their location, geometry and intensity depending on a variety of factors, including weather and human activity. We cannot control the weather and we cannot control human activity, at least not its part involving uniforms, big guns and ammunition. This particular aspect of human activity comes with its own logic not comprehendible by most of us. What we can do, however, is to try and take away some of the favorite toys of humans in uniforms. They are not going to like it, but there are more serious issues at stake here.

Depleted uranium in aviation

Depleted uranium has been used for years in construction of weapons, aircraft, ships, buildings and in just about any other area of modern industry where there is a need for an extremely dense and very inexpensive material. Not surprising that the governments around the world have researched at least some health and environmental risks of industrial use of depleted uranium.

Let's take a look at some of the recommendations produced by the US government in regard to health risks of DU and safe handling of this chemically toxic and radioactive material. DU is used in weapons, but with all the secretiveness of this industry we should probably consider another place to look at.

Let's consider the aviation industry, where DU is frequently used as ballast in aircraft. The US Federal Aviation Administration (the FAA) tells us that

"The main hazard associated with depleted uranium is the harmful effect the material could have if it enters the body. If particles are inhaled or digested, they can be chemically toxic and cause a significant and long-lasting irradiation of internal tissue." 1

The FAA further advises to "avoid contact with balance weights using depleted uranium" and to "avoid breathing or swallowing particles of balance weights found damaged or with cadmium plating damaged or lost." 1 The US Army experts agree with the FAA's warnings: "...if depleted uranium enters the body, it has the potentiality of causing serious medical consequences. The associated risk is both chemical and radiological." 16 This instructional document by the FAA was developed for aircraft accident investigators, who may have to come in contact with exposed depleted uranium used to "balance ailerons, rudders, and elevators on certain jet aircraft and rotor blades on certain helicopters." 1 The document advises aircraft accident investigators to wear gloves, industrial eye protection and respirator masks.

Disposal of these personal protection items is also strictly regulated:

"Gloves, wrapping material, wiping cloths, respirator filters, or any other articles used in the handling of damaged balance weights should be discarded and appropriately labeled as radioactive waste and disposed of accordingly." 1

It is important to keep in mind that, when we talk about application of DU as ballast in aircraft, we refer to "the preferred form for ballast is small, solid pieces of a high density metal (lead, cast iron, steel, or depleted uranium) fixed to the structure or in a suitable container that is fixed." 2 In this case we are not discussing health risks of depleted uranium dust and aerosol generated during an impact of a DU artillery shell or any other type of DU munitions. In the case of DU use in aircraft as ballast we are referring to solid deplete uranium in sizeable pieces that cannot be inhaled. This depleted uranium is neatly packed in cadmium-plated containers. But what happens when an aircraft crashes? DU containers used in aircraft are designed and "securely restrained in such a manner as to withstand the inertial loads resulting from a survivable emergency landing." 2

Thus, if a "landing" was not survivable we may have to deal with depleted uranium outside the protective containers. We may even have to deal with depleted uranium dust and aerosol resulting from the aircraft impacting the ground and due to the rapid oxidation of DU when it comes in contact with air. A number of military aircraft types also employ depleted uranium as ballast. One example is the Boeing B-52 strategic bomber. In the summer of 1999 the US Department of Energy unveiled a plan to burn parts of B-52 bomber aircraft along with nearly two tons of depleted uranium in a pit at the Tonopah Test Range. The purpose of the test was to refine computer models of fiery accidents involving depleted uranium. As a part of the test, "B-52 parts including a full fuselage and mock weapons would be placed in a shallow pit filled with 26,000 gallons of water. Then, as much as 30,000 gallons of jet fuel, JP-8, would be added so it floats on top of the water, and then ignited." 24

The plan drew considerable criticism from the environmentalists in Nevada.

When aircraft crash

On October 4, 1992, a Boeing 747 cargo aircraft crashed in the Bijlmer suburb of Amsterdam. The aircraft was carrying 75 tons of kerosene and more than 10 tons of various chemicals, including flammable liquids and gases. The Boeing 747 was also carrying a ballast load consisting of up to 1500 kg of depleted uranium contained in its tailcone in addition to DU ballast in its tail rudder and the wings, according to Paul Loewenstein, technical director and vice-president of the Nuclear Metals, Inc. the supplier of DU to Boeing. 13

It has been confirmed by Boeing that the first 550 Boeing 747 aircraft constructed use depleted uranium as ballast. However, according to the Boeing, the aircraft that crashed in Amsterdam was carrying less than 400 kg of DU, as some of the standard DU ballast was replaced with tungsten. Dr. Loewenstein mentions that "large pieces of uranium oxidize rapidly in a long-lasting fire whenever they are heated in the air to a temperature of about 500 C".3

A report by the Amsterdam-based Laka Foundation, Documentation and Research Center on Nuclear Energy, informs:

"The great danger from this chemical reaction is that the escaping cloud of dust with thousands of microparticles of uranium oxide can be inhaled or swallowed by bystanders."

The American physicist Robert L. Parker wrote in Nature 4, in a worst-case scenario involving the crash of a Boeing 747, that about 250,000 people would run health risks (or near-poisoning) as a result of inhalation or swallowing of uranium oxide particles. Parker's conclusion assumed the presence of 450 kilos of DU in a Boeing 747. He says:

"Extended tests by the American Navy and NASA showed that the temperature of the fireball in a plane crash can reach 1200 C. Such temperatures are high enough to cause very rapid oxidation of depleted uranium." 5

The article by Henk van der Keur of the Laka Foundation also mentions one immensely important but often overlooked aspect of DU's chemical properties:

"Uranium belongs to the class of pyrophoric substances, which means that, in small particles, it will burn spontaneously in atmospheric oxygen to produce uranium dioxide. In the case of shards of uranium, the surfaces of the metal at high temperature will undergo a similar process." 5

This chemical reaction produces a fine aerosol of radioactive dust that can remain in the atmosphere and on the surface for years, before it will be gradually absorbed into the soil. Inhalation of these microparticles and the resulting prolonged irradiation of internal organs is the main risk associated with the introduction of depleted uranium dust into the atmosphere. A lengthy period of research and investigation following the 1992 clash of the Boeing 747 in Amsterdam produced various reports confirming serious health risks posed by depleted uranium. "The most interesting one in this particular case is probably the report 'Health risks during exposure of uranium', made by radiation expert Leonard A. Hennen from the Dutch Ministry of Defense...6 The author is very thorough about the radiotoxic nature of DU in the human body. The findings of Hennen strongly contradicts the findings in the final DU report of Zuidoost. He said that the people at a possible crash site are running risks. In his report (chapter 5, p.9) he proposes the taking of urine samples and "in vivo" measurements when there is suspicion of internal contamination of the DU." 5 An aircraft doesn't have to crash for its depleted uranium to become exposed and create health risks. Due to careless treatment of depleted uranium counterweights in aircraft, the radioactive material may escape its protective casing and pose a serious threat to pilots, mechanics, passengers, airport personnel and nearby residential areas.

A characteristic incident occured at the Robins Air Force base, Georgia, in late July of 1999.

"At 1000 on 07/26/99, USAF personnel were performing maintenance on a C-141 cargo aircraft aileron. A technician was found using a hammer and chisel to remove installed depleted uranium counterweights from the aileron. This process produced dust and debris which was scattered by a nearby fan.

The technician using a hammer and chisel on the depleted uranium was in violation of several rules. Upon discovery of this activity, the technician was told to immediately stop work . The area has been secured and decontamination procedures initiated." 44

Similar incidents regularly occur in civilian airports as well and are the result of inadequate DU-related training received by technical personnel. It is a fact that many military and civilian aircraft mechanics are not even aware of the fact that the aircraft they work on contain depleted uranium. And many of those who do know about the aviation depleted uranium counterweights are not aware of the potential health risks associated with this radioactive material.

Depleted uranium in weapons

Experiments with using depleted uranium in armor-piercing weapons begun in late 1950s mainly in the US and the USSR. More than two decades later DU became a part of tank armor in the US. While the Soviets significantly limited their use of DU in anti-tank ammunition by developing more advanced methods for armor penetration, the US went on to use depleted uranium in a wide range of munitions and as ballast in various bombs and missiles. According to official Pentagon reports,

"depleted uranium is used in M-1 Abrams tanks, Phalanx gun systems and some cruise missiles, as well as A-10s, Harriers and other military and civilian aircraft. The Abrams, Bradley fighting vehicles and other weapon systems use ammunition containing DU penetrators." 25

The production of uranium shells for the Phalanx gun systems has been stopped, according to the US Navy. Foreign operators of Phalanx, such as the Royal Navy, will now have to purchase considerably more expensive tungsten rounds.

A British Ministry of Defence spokesman told journalists on Jan. 13, 2001:

"The US manufacturers have decided not to manufacture depleted uranium rounds any more. They are moving to alternatives. We have no choice but to do the same. All current and proposed future buys of Phalanx ammunition will be of the tungsten variety." 26

This announcement, however, applies only to the depleted uranium shells for the Phalanx naval gun system and does not include manufacturing of numerous other types of depleted uranium ordnance.

Under the US supervision anti-tank DU shells were first used in combat in 1974 during the Yom Kippur War by the Israeli Army. These experiments resulted in mass-production of DU munitions in the US by such companies as Aerojet Ordnance Tennessee and Honeywell.

For the first time DU ammunition was used on a wide scale during the Persian Gulf War in 1991. The Pentagon has officially confirmed that at least 320 metric tons of this radioactive material were left behind on the battlefields in Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. 7

Depleted uranium is employed in the following types of ammunition: 7.62-mm rounds, .50 caliber ammo, 20-mm MK149 with 70 grams of DU, 25-mm PGU-20 with 148 grams, 25-mm M919 with 97 grams, 30-mm PGU-14 (298 grams of DU), 105-mm M774 with 3364 grams, 105-mm M833 with 3668 grams, 120-mm tank gun rounds with around 4000 grams of DU, 155-mm Special Artillery rounds.

Most of the "official" depleted uranium in the Persian Gulf area was deposited by the A-10 Thunderbolt and the AV-8B Harrier attack aircraft. In its 110,000 air raids against Iraq, the A-10 Thunderbolt ground attack aircraft fired 940,000 depleted uranium projectiles. According to official Pentagon data, over four thousand of high-caliber DU rounds were fired by the American M1 and M60 tanks, not including the DU rounds used by British Challenger tanks. More DU rounds were fired by artillery.

DU was also used in cluster bombs and as ballast in cruise missiles. 9 For example, it is known that about 30 kg of depleted uranium is used as ballast in Tomahawk cruise missiles. 8

Many Russian military experts believe that the actual amount of DU deposited in the Persian Gulf area may be as much as 1,000 metric tons. Depleted uranium contamination during the Persian Gulf War was not caused only by firing DU rounds or launching bombs and cruise missiles containing depleted uranium. Significant DU contamination resulted from various accidents at numerous ammunition storage facilities in the Persian Gulf region. One such example of accidental DU contamination is the July 11, 1991 fire at the US Army "Blackhorse" Base in Doha, Kuwait. The fire destroyed more than 660 high-caliber DU tank rounds, 9,720 small-caliber DU rounds, and four M1A1 tanks with DU armor. As the result, thousands of soldiers were exposed to airborne uranium oxide. This information was leaked to the media from the US Army's CHPPM report on exposures to Depleted Uranium at Doha. The report itself has not been released to the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Illnesses and US troops continue to be stationed at the Doha Base.

The use of depleted uranium shells by US forces in the current war in the Balkans was confirmed in a US Department of Defense News Briefing on May 3. This was the first direct confirmation from a representative of the US Department of Defense. During the aggression against Yugoslavia, cruise missiles were the weapon of choice for attacking heavily-defended targets, including those in major cities.

The US Air Force launched so many cruise missiles that it has nearly exhausted its supply of conventional cruise missiles. Plans were developed to convert some 92 cruise missiles with nuclear warheads into conventional warhead configuration. 10

During the operation "Desert Fox" against Iraq in December of 1998

"in four days of air strikes on Iraq, the Navy launched more than 300 Tomahawks. The Air Forced fired off 90 in last December's 'Operation Desert Fox,' using up nearly 40 per cent of the Air Force inventory in one strike." 11

Just a few days into the operation "Allied Force" against Yugoslavia, the USAF had just over 100 cruise missiles remaining on March 30, 1999, which, military experts estimated, were sufficient for another week of operations, if used at the same rate. At the same time, the US Navy had a stock of over 2,000 cruise missiles but was using them up at a much faster rate than the Air Force. 11

In regard to the 1999 Operation "Allied Force" against Yugoslavia the only official information on the quantity of DU ammunition used by the NATO comes from the report by the NATO Secretary-General, Lord Robertson, to the United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan. The reports states:

"DU rounds were used whenever the A-10 engaged armour during Operation Allied Force. Therefore, it was used throughout Kosovo during approximately 100 missions... A total of approximately 31,000 rounds of DU ammunition were used in operation Allied Force. The major focus of these operations was in an area west of the Pec-Dakovica-Prizren highway; in the area surrounding Klina; in the area around Prizren; and in an area to the north of a line joining Suva Reka and Urosevac. However many missions using DU also took place outside these areas." 17

Do we need DU in weapons?

How effective are DU shells anyway? Browsing through various literature about the Persian Gulf War one will encounter wonderful fairy tales of British Challenger tanks penetrating Iraqi tanks with DU rounds at over five kilometers away and American Abrams tanks destroying two T-72s with one DU round at a distance of nearly three kilometers. One will also read stories of A-10s destroying scores of Iraqi tanks in one pass with their 30-mm DU shells.

During the operation "Allied Force" against Yugoslavia stories of Serbian tanks being destroyed left and right attracted media attention just as well. After destroying hundreds of Serbian tanks in their own minds, NATO commanders were finally forced to admit the unimpressive reality. Colourful folklore aside, in 1978 the US Army and the Air Force conducted a test in which an A-10 Thunderbolt ground attack aircraft engaged a pair of stationary Soviet-made T-62 tanks. The overall effectiveness of A-10s and their DU rounds did not exceed two per cent:

"In this test an A-10 aircraft attacked two combat-loaded individual Soviet T-62 tanks in five missions totaling seven passes; technicians rehabilitated the two vehicles after each pass. The aircraft were seldom higher than 200 feet in altitude; firings were initiated between 2768 and 4402 feet and terminated at ranges of 1587 to 3055 feet at dive angles of 1.8 to 4.4 degrees. The bursts ranged from 120 to 165 rounds. Altogether 93 DU rounds struck the tanks during the seven passes, including no impacts in one pass. The ratio of impacts to rounds fired was 0.10. Of the 93 impacts, 17 penetrated the armored envelopes for a ratio of penetrations to impacts of 0.18. The report noted many of the side or rear impacts that did not penetrate the armor nonetheless extensively damaged the tanks' exterior suspension components, whereas all the rounds that hit the tanks' front caused minimal damage. The results reinforced the strategy of attacking tanks from the side or rear to optimize damage potential." 12

The result of this exercise was fully confirmed during the operation "Allied Force", despite the upgrades of the A-10 and its weaponry. For tens of kilograms of DU introduced into the environment, an A-10 has a slight chance of making a hole in a tank, which may or may not destroy it. Application of depleted uranium in weapons is common only in the US, where money talks (often louder than common sense) and where DU's potential for use in ammunition is only growing, despite the fact that many countries, including Russia and Germany, have developed far more effective anti-armor warheads without using the outdated DU technology.

Today British and Americans are working on DU rounds for small firearms, designed to penetrate various new types of body armor.

The bottom line for the use of depleted uranium in ammunition is its low cost. Just how cheap is DU? In the US, for example, weapons manufacturers obtain depleted uranium from the government for free. Now, that's cheap! Comparing the "cost" of DU to the cost of, say, tungsten it becomes obvious just how difficult it will be for weapons manufacturers in the US to stop using depleted uranium in ammunition.

DU in Russian weapons

Currently Russia has a variety of depleted uranium rounds predominantly for anti-tank artillery. Russian armed forces have not employed DU rounds in combat, although considerable quantities of depleted uranium rounds are in storage. One of the most common Russian types of DU ordnance is the 125-mm BPS 3BM32 round, which effectively penetrates up to 250 mm of armor at a 60-deg impact angle. The type of depleted uranium penetrator used in the 3BM32 round has a Russian designation of UNC and in many respects is similar to the type of DU used in American anti-tank ordnance. The US has produced similar 120-mm shells with effective armor penetration of up to 350 mm at 60-deg impact angle and a distance to target of up to 2 km. 32 These figures are based on controlled firing tests, which are rarely realistic. The 3BM32 round can penetrate up to 400 mm of armor at a distance of 2 km if the angle of impact is 90 degrees. These seemingly impressive armor-piercing capabilities of Russian and American DU rounds pale in comparison with the resistance of the forward armor of many modern tanks. Thus, the forward armor resistance of the M1A2 Abrams is equivalent to 700 mm against armor-piercing rounds (such as DU rounds) and 850 mm against heat rounds. Improvements in tank armor over the past two decades rendered ineffective all anti-tank artillery rounds of 125-mm caliber and less against the tank's forward armor. All depleted uranium artillery shells and tank gun rounds can be only effective against other modern tanks if impact them from the side. The armor-piercing capability of DU shells varies drastically with temperature. Thus, at -25 deg. C the 3BM32 DU round can penetrate only 220 mm of armor at 60 deg impact angle and a distance of just 500 m. For comparison, the same round will penetrate 220 mm of armor at 60 deg. impact angle and a distance of 2 km, when the outside temperature is 15 deg C. 32

Many Russian and American military experts do not see a future for depleted uranium anti-tank ordnance and see no reason why these type of ammunition should be manufactured. No reason other than low and even non-existent cost of depleted uranium to ammunition manufacturers. The preference may be given to guided anti-tank missiles and portable launchers, which will replace conventional anti-tank artillery. The guided missile launchers present a considerable improvement over conventional artillery in terms of weight and size. Thus, a Russian 125-mm "Sprut-B" (2A45M) anti-tank gun weighs up to 6375 kg in its towed configuration. In comparison, the heaviest Russian guided anti-tank missile launcher -- the PTRK "Kornet" -- weighs only 27 kg along with the missile (and just 19 kg without the missile) and can be carried and operated by a single soldier. The huge "Sprut-B" and the portable "Kornet" have about the same anti-armor capability. The portable guided anti-tank launchers are far easier to conceal in the field and are easier to use against a tank's most vulnerable sides.

So what is DU after all?

"Depleted" uranium is so called because the content of the fissionable U-234 isotope is reduced from about 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent during the enrichment process. Depleted uranium is around 60 per cent as radioactive as naturally occurring uranium, and has a half life of 4.5 billion years. During the past 50 years of enriching uranium for civilian and military use, the US alone has accumulated in excess of 500,000 metric tones of depleted uranium. Proponents of using depleted uranium in weapons prefer to concentrate on the "pure" DU formed mainly by the non-fissional uranium isotope -- the U-238 -- and a minimum proportion of U-235. This approach makes defending industrial and military use of depleted uranium much easier, mainly because it is not widely accepted in the international scientific community that this isotope can cause cancer in humans.

"No evidence exists" is a popular phrase among NATO officials, when they talk about health risks of using depleted uranium in ammunition. One has to keep in mind, however, that no evidence exists to the contrary either. A considerable part of the international scientific community believes that there is evidence that the deposited in the lungs or kidneys uranium-238 and products from its decay -- thorium 234, protactinium and other uranium isotopes -- give off alpha and beta radiation which cause cell death and genetic mutations in humans, as it is proven to be the case in some laboratory animals.

The UN experts working in Kosovo discovered that the definition of depleted uranium must be somewhat expanded in order to accommodate the form of "DU" employed by the NATO. After analyzing 340 samples of depleted uranium recovered from the battlefields of Kosovo, the scientists discovered that the substance also contains 0.0028 per cent of uranium-236. The significance of this discovery lies in the fact that U-236 is scientifically proven to cause leukemia and other forms of cancer in humans. 14

The experts have also uncovered traces of plutonium in the samples of "depleted uranium" collected in Kosovo:

"Altogether, 355 samples were analyzed, including 249 soil samples, 46 water samples, 37 vegetation samples, 13 smear tests, three milk samples, four jackets (specialized parts of ordnance), two penetrators, and one penetrator fragment." 19

According to the United Nations Environment Programme,

"The existence of plutonium was confirmed by the two laboratories tasked with analyzing the penetrators -- the Swiss AC-Laboratory Spiez and the Swedish Radiation Protection Institute (SSI). Together with three other European laboratories, these labs have been analyzing a total of 340 soil, water, and other samples taken during the November field mission. The traces of isotopes Pu-239/240 were found in four different penetrators (ammunition tips). The amount of plutonium in the penetrators varied from 0.8 to 12.87 Bq/kg. In January, UNEP confirmed that some labs had also found the uranium isotope U-236 in the penetrators." 18

These were not original discoveries, however. Traces of both plutonium and uranium-236 were detected in NATO armor-piercing ammunition in the Persian Gulf region and in Bosnia.

For a variety of reasons these discoveries did not attract much public attention from the international community. In Kosovo UN experts visited 11 out of 112 sites attacked by NATO using DU munitions during the operation "Allied Force." Eight of the sites investigated by the UN showed presence of depleted uranium and exhibited increased levels of radioactivity in soil, water and plants. 15

UNEP findings in Kosovo

A brief analysis of the radiological situation in Kosovo was conducted by a group of fourteen scientists from the United Nations Environment Programme in early 2001. The scientists collected several hundred samples of soil, water, air, and vegetation from 11 out of known 112 sites in Kosovo attacked by NATO using DU ammunition. The analysis confirmed increased radiation levels, presence of depleted uranium in soil, water and air, as well as presence of uranium-236 and plutonium-239/240 isotopes, confirming earlier finding of these elements by Yugoslav and Russian research teams outside of Kosovo. Surprisingly, the UNEP research team located only seven DU penetrators during their field mission to what they believed to be 11 sites in Kosovo attacked by NATO aircraft with DU ammo. Various media reports suggested that the 11 sites visited by the UNEP researchers might not have been those indicated by the NATO. Report by the NATO Secretary-General, Lord Robertson, to the United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, on the use of DU ammunition in Yugoslavia by the NATO's A/OA-10 Thunderbolt II attack aircraft (employed predominantly against ground targets in Kosovo), the average number of DU rounds fired by these aircraft is about 310. It is also known that the Thunderbolt II's 30mm GAU-8/A Gatling gun fires at a rate of 3,900 DU rounds a minute and the aircraft carries a supply of 1,000 rounds. 20 The fact that UNEP scientists uncovered only seven DU penetrators emphasizes the superficial nature of their investigation. Furthermore, only two of the seven penetrators were analyzed. 19

The final report by the UNEP on the environmental impact of depleted uranium (DU) ammunition used during the 1999 Kosovo conflict raised a hail of criticism from scientists worldwide. The UNEP was accused of making far-reaching conclusions based on a brief and superficial investigation of a small amount of arbitrarily selected samples. The UNEP team concluded that

"with the Beta and Gamma radiation measurements, the Team was unable to detect any wider area of contamination. The contamination was limited to the specific DU impact holes and to the actual sabots and penetrators found at the sites." 21

This conclusion prompted a logical question from the Russian Academy of Sciences, among many other critics of the UNEP investigation: why measure for beta and gamma radiation when depleted uranium emits mainly alpha radiation? The reason is actually quite simple: the UNEP team was not adequately equipped to measure for alpha radiation. Interestingly enough, the UNEP report mentioned the danger of DU in cases of prolonged exposure to skin but essentially avoided discussing the risks of prolonged internal exposure to DU resulting from inhalation of radioactive dust and consumption of water and food contaminated with discovered uranium and plutonium isotopes.

"Although the radiological and chemical risks of touching a penetrator are insignificant, if one was put into a pocket or somewhere else close to the human body, there would be external beta radiation of the skin, leading to quite high local radiation doses after some weeks of continuous exposure." 19

The UNEP has also failed to investigate one of the primary areas of concern caused by the presence of depleted uranium in soil: contamination of groundwater.

The UNEP has acknowledged at least this drawback of its investigation:

"There are still considerable scientific uncertainties, especially related to the safety of groundwater," said Pekka Haavisto, Chairman of UNEP's Depleted Uranium Assessment Team. This is another interesting peculiarity of the UNEP's study, especially if one considers the findings of the US Army Environmental Policy Institute, which determined that "water is the dominant mechanism for transporting all metals, including DU, in the environment; metals may move in surface waters or groundwater. For metals widely dispersed across a land surface, the principal concern is groundwater contamination..." 16

In the interesting disclaimer to its final report on the environmental consequence of the Kosovo conflict the UNEP mentions:

"Contents of this volume do not necessarily reflect the views of UNEP, UNCHS (Habitat) or contributory organisations." Who's views does it reflect in that case? Perhaps it reflects the views of the Swiss government, which sponsored the research? The UNEP was unable to locate any armored vehicles hit by DU rounds in order to sample for DU dust. The report by the UNEP mentions this fact: "The Team was unable to find any tanks or armoured vehicles hit by DU ammunition which prevented the possibility of sampling for DU dust (i.e. inside a vehicle)." 21

This is a significant drawback considering the fact that any destroyed armored vehicles in Kosovo attracted considerable interest from NATO soldiers, many of whom have spent days exploring the wrecks.

Meanwhile, the US Army experts believe that being in or around vehicles struck by DU rounds is a considerable health risk: "Personnel inside or near vehicles struck by DU penetrators could receive significant internal exposures." 16

Plentiful Evidence

The brief investigation by the UNEP contradicts many earlier and more comprehensive studies, including those carried out by the US military. Thus, a report by the Science Applications International Corporation states that

"short-term effects of high doses can result in death, while long-term effects of low doses have been implicated in cancer" and "aerosol DU exposures to soldiers on the battlefield could be significant with potential radiological and toxicological effects." 22

This particular study was finalized in a report completed only six months before the operation "Desert Storm" against Iraq. The health risks of depleted uranium were also outlined in a report by the US General Accounting Office: "Inhaled insoluble oxides stay in the lungs longer and pose a potential cancer risk due to radiation. Ingested DU dust can also pose both a radioactive and a toxicity risk." 23 Extensive research into the health risks of military applications of depleted uranium were carried out by the US Army Environmental Policy Institute. Reports published by this organisation are consistent in identifying depleted uranium as being both chemically toxic and radiologically dangerous to humans.

"Like naturally occurring uranium, DU has toxicological and radiological health risks. Toxicologically, DU poses a health risk when internalized.

Radiologically, the radiation emitted by DU results in health risks from both external and internal exposures... The magnitude of the toxicological and radiological health risks of internalized DU is dependent on the amount internalized, the chemical form and the route of entry into the body. DU can be internalized through inhalation, ingestion, wound contamination and, as in the case of DU fragments, injection. Both non-combat and combat scenarios can lead to DU health risks." 16

Among the most recent revelations, newspapers around the world published parts of a classified Pentagon report on health risks of depleted uranium, which stated that when "soldiers inhale or ingest DU dust they incur a potential increase in cancer risk... that increase can be quantified in terms of projected days of life lost." 26 In a January 2001 article The Guardian wrote:

"Another warning in the early Nineties came from an official at AEA Technology, the trading name of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, in a document looking at what might happen if all the DU fired in the Gulf War by tanks -- about 8 per cent of the total DU used there -- were inhaled. If that happened, it said, there could be half a million deaths as a result by 2000." 26

Meanwhile, the New York Times informed its readers about a "hazard awareness" document issued by Joint Chiefs of Staff for its NATO allies in Kosovo. The document urged NATO troops to take special precautions when approaching the remains of DU ammunition. 27 According to a retired US Army doctor, Col. Asaf Durakovic, "some of illnesses he has observed in Persian Gulf war veterans may be linked to depleted uranium and uranium 236 isotope he says he found in their bodies." 26 Currently the doctor's claims are being studied by a number of researchers in the US and around the world. Dr. Durakovic is a fellow of the American College of Physicians and professor of radiology and nuclear medicine at Georgetown University in Washington and the former Chief of Nuclear Medicine at the Veterans Affairs Medical Facility in Wilmington, Delaware. In a 1997 statement about medical implications of exposure to depleted uranium Dr. Durakovic states:

"Depleted Uranium enters the body via inhalation, ingestion, and absorption through open wounds or imbedded shrapnel. Uranium is water soluble and can be transported throughout the body. The alpha particle release by decay of the uranium atom gives up its large amount energy in a distance no larger than a couple of microns. Causing breaks and ionization of molecules, it is capable of destroying proteins, enzymes, RNA, and damaging DNA in many different ways, including double strand breaks. This kind of damage in the reproductive organs can lead to genetic hazards which can be passed on from generation to generation. Soluble uranium compounds cause mainly chemical damage to the proximal convoluted tubules of the kidney... In the lungs, DU damages the alveoli. Since DU can cross the placenta, it can create massive problems for the radiosensitive tissues of the fetus.

"Damage to the fetus may lead to somatic malformation including shortened limbs, damage to the CNS, cardiovascular, and muscular problems. Other effects associated with DU poisoning are: emotional and mental deterioration, fatigue, loss of bowel and bladder control, as well as numerous forms of cancer." 29

Dr. Durakovic reported to the European Association of Nuclear Medicine that tests on 17 veterans have shown DU in the urine and bones of 70 per cent of them. He has also concluded that "troops inhaled the tiny uranium particles after American and British forces fired more than 700,000 DU shells during the conflict.

The finding begins to explain for the first time why medical orderlies and mechanics are the principal victims of Gulf war syndrome." 30 According to The Sunday Times, Dr. Durakovic was forced to leave the United States because he was told that his life was in danger if he continued his research. 30 In September of 1999 the CNN reported: "According to some estimates, 320 tons of depleted uranium were exploded during the (1991) Gulf War," Dr. Durakovic told reporters after speaking at a conference of the European Association of Nuclear Medicine. Durakovic said depleted uranium was used as a coat on shells to ease penetration of thick armour. When the shells hit their intended target, the uranium coating exploded into multiple particles, which, he said, "became part of atmospheric dust."

He said:

"Because of the omnipresence of small sub-micron radioactive dust in the Persian Gulf, uranium that was liberated by impact (with tanks)...evaporated at temperatures higher than several thousand degrees centigrade. 'Some of those particles were inhaled and stayed in the lungs...where they can cause cancer, and some entered into the bloodstream and affected kidneys and bones.' A spokesman for the UK's Ministry of Defence (MoD) told it was aware of independent tests which showed that veterans are excreting unusually high levels of uranium in their urine. 31

Despite government persecution other researchers around the (are) world working to expose the health risks of military use of depleted uranium.

"Research by Dr Hari Sharma, of the University of Waterloo in Ontario, appeared to show traces of DU in the urine of 14 out of 30 British veterans he tested... Research at the Memorial University of Newfoundland appears to support Dr Sharma. The researcher, a geochemist, Patricia Horan, used a mass spectrometer to analyze the urine of veterans. This technique is said to achieve results between 50,000 and 500,000 times more accurate than Dr Sharma's. The one British veteran to have received the results of his test, Shaun Rusling, of the National Gulf War Veterans' and Families Association, was shown to be still passing DU in his urine eight years after the war." 43

When the BBC News Online interviewed Dr. Malcolm Hooper, emeritus professor of medicinal chemistry at the University of Sunderland, regarding these latest findings by Canadian scientists, Dr. Hooper said that the new research provides

"unequivocal evidence that will stand up to technical examination by anyone... This puts the whole thing beyond dispute. It is a breakthrough. It shows an initial, significant exposure to DU, exposure which the MoD and the Pentagon have always maintained did not happen. It is imperative that the UK government now launches a widespread study of thousands of those who served in the Gulf, in different jobs and locations. US forces used DU in Kosovo, and that is disturbing as well.

"The climate and the terrain are different, but we just don't know what happened. The government should be checking service people, civilians, journalists, everyone." 43

In 1998 the US Agency for Toxic Substances released a report describing acute symptoms resulting from inhaling depleted uranium particles. The symptoms are "identical to those claimed by sick servicemen from the Balkan and Gulf conflicts" and include "fatigue, shortness of breath, lymphatic problems, bronchial complaints, weight loss, bleeding and unsteady gait." 26 During the Persian Gulf War, tanks fired only about 8 per cent of all depleted uranium used in ammunition during the conflict. In the early nineties a publication by the UK Atomic Energy Authority warned that if all of the depleted uranium fired by tanks was inhaled, "there could be half a million deaths as a result by 2000." 26 Firing ranges used to test depleted uranium ordnance represent considerable threat to military personnel and local residents.

A characteristic example may be the Solway Firth firing range in Scotland. According to official government information, some 19 tonnes of depleted uranium has been fired into the Solway Firth. This is a relatively small quantity of DU, especially when compared to the 300 tonnes or more of this material dispersed during the Persian Gulf War. Nevertheless,

"in Scotland, DU has already been linked to a leukemia cluster around the MoD firing range at Dundrennan, near the Solway Firth. Communities close to the range, where 7,000 shells have been tested since 1983, show the highest rate of childhood leukemia in the UK." 33

In 1999 use of depleted uranium ammunition by the US Navy in Puerto Rico sparked a wave of public protests. On February 19, 1999, a US Navy AV8B Harrier vertical take-off fighter jet was accidentally loaded with depleted uranium shells for its 25-mm gun system at Norfolk, Virginia or Mayport, Florida. The jet then fired 263 DU rounds at a Navy practice range on the Puerto Rican island municipality of Vieques, located 20 km from a residential area. (Navy report to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, March 5, 1999) Official acknowledgement of the incident came only after three months. Approximately 37 shells out of 263 fired by the Harrier have been recovered by the Navy's clean-up team. 34 In relation to the depleted uranium incident in Puerto Rico, Maj. Doug Rokke, a US Army physician and former director of the Pentagon's Depleted Uranium Project, who studied the health and environmental effects of the radioactive munitions in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait after the Gulf War, told journalists: "If you inhale or ingest this stuff, you're going to have health problems right away. It also contaminates soil and water."

Puerto-Rican authorities insist that the February 1999 incident was not the first time the US Navy used depleted uranium ordnance at the Vieques firing range. According to a Fox News report,

"on Vieques, where the prevailing winds blow from the firing range on the eastern side of the island to the populated areas on the western side, incidents of cancer among the residents are 26.7 per cent higher than in Puerto Rico, according to a 30-year study released by Puerto Rico's Health Department several years ago. Another Health Department study in 1998 showed there are no significant differences in behavior, such as smoking, between Vieques residents and Puerto Ricans. 'There is no other way to explain this,' said Dr. Rafael Rivera Castano, an epidemiologist at the University of Puerto Rico. 'In Vieques, there are no factories that contaminate the air. The only explanation is the environmental contamination we've found -- lead, arsenic, chromium and now radioactive contamination from depleted uranium -- which only comes from the bombing and exercises of the Navy.' Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., said that "the use of cancer-inducing depleted uranium on Vieques must be investigated through federal hearings." 35

DU near you

Even if you are far away from any battlefields and firing ranges you are not necessarily safe from depleted uranium. On February 8, 1999, a fire at the Royal Ordnance factory in Staffordshire, UK. This was the second fire at this facility since 1996. The Guardian describes the incident:

"Eighty firefighters and 15 pumps attended when uranium swarf caught fire at the Royal Ordnance depot in Featherstone yesterday. With a plume of smoke reaching 2,500 ft, fire fighters in radiation suits used foam on the fire, in case water washed contaminated material down drains. Police ordered residents of the villages of Featherstone and Brinsford to stay indoors in case radioactive particles were carried by smoke. Prisoners in Featherstone jail were moved to another wing as a precaution." 36

According to the initial reports by the Royal Ordnance there was no radioactive leak during the fire. This position was supported by the Environment Agency and the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB), monitoring radiation levels at the site of the fire. Local residents and the population of a nearby prison were not evacuated because no increase in radiation levels was detected at the site of the accident. One week after the fire started the National Radiological Protection Board released a statement claiming that

"staff from NRPB Northern Centre in Leeds carried out monitoring at the factory in conjunction with Royal Ordnance and the Environment Agency. Measurements to date indicate that there has been no dispersion of radioactive material beyond the building in which the fire took place. NRPB is satisfied that the public were not exposed to radiation as a consequence of this incident." 37

However, the Royal Ordnance officials and the government inspectors have initially overlooked one crucial factor: quantity of depleted uranium aerosol formed in the fire and its ability to travel great distances in the air. Much later measurements indicated increased localized radiation levels at locations where DU dust precipitated from the atmosphere. One of such locations was found more than 30 miles from the site of the fire. As a result of this oversight, thousands of local resident were exposed to depleted uranium dust on the ground and in the air for a period of at least several weeks. In January of 2001 three prison officers from HMP Featherstone announced that "they had tested for raised levels of uranium following two fires in the last four years at the adjoining Royal Ordnance factory." 26 Such an oversight on the part of the government agencies monitoring the situation at the Royal Ordnance factory is surprising.

The Environmental Agency (EA) knew that the fire was caused by depleted uranium. In one of its reports on the situation at the factory the EA stated that the fire was "...most likely to have been due to a fragment of uranium" 40 According to the EA, the Royal Ordnance factory "... is registered to keep up to 120 tonnes of DU on site" and approximately 200-500 kg of depleted uranium has been released during the fire. It is still not known precisely where this quantity of DU was deposited after the fire, but when a similar incident occurred at a DU munitions plant near New York in the late seventies, a large cloud of depleted uranium dust was carried downwind more than 25 miles from the site of the fire. 38

In 1991, at the request of the Royal Ordnance plc, the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) researched the possible health risks resulting from the use of depleted uranium ammunition during the Persian Gulf War. Thus, according to the UKAEA, a theoretical worst case scenario from DU exposure on the battlefields of Kuwait and Iraq would result in 500,000 potential deaths from 50 tonnes of dispersed DU. 39 The UKAEA assumed that all the DU fired in Kuwait was transformed into respirable dust and that all of this dust was inhaled by a large number of people. In reality, up to 70 per cent of depleted uranium in ammunition can be aerosolized on impact.

However, the total quantity of DU dispersed during the Persian Gulf War was at least 300 tonnes, according to information provided by the NATO to the United Nations. Philotechnics Ltd. is a Tennessee-based firm specializing in radioactive waste management in the United States and the UK. In August of 2000 The Guardian has published information about a US government document obtained through the US freedom of information laws but declared confidential by the Department of Trade and Industry in Britain. In the document Philotechnics Ltd. has reported to American and British authorities that uranium components have been accumulating in Britain "in a multitude of dispersed locations, where they pose a growing risk of loss of control, personnel exposure and contamination of the environment". A total of "fifty tonnes of depleted uranium is lying unmonitored in scrap heaps across Britain, posing a growing risk of environmental contamination and to workers." 41 In its proposal, Philotechnics Ltd. offered Britain to remove depleted uranium and deliver it to the United States, where most of it, as The Guardian discovered, will be used mainly to manufacture ammunition. The unusable portion of uranium will be buried at a licensed radioactive waste disposal site in Texas. In the US British depleted uranium will be handled by another Tennessee-based company -- the Manufacturing Sciences Corporation (MSC) -- a subsidiary of the British Nuclear Fuels plc since 1997. "Since 1985, MSC has converted over 6 million pounds of depleted uranium into more than 70,000 safe, useful products." The MSC is quite optimist about the commercial future of depleted uranium and wants to make radioactive waste a part of our daily life:

"Another excellent application for depleted uranium is as a counterweight. Currently, depleted uranium is used as a counterweight in both commercial and military aircraft. Because of its density, 18.95 gm/cc, depleted uranium can supply a significant mass in a small area. Counterweights can be moved to compensate for fuel consumption or shifting cargo loads. Depleted uranium is currently being investigated as a replacement for lead in elevator counterweights, fork truck counterbalances, and crane counterweights. Because of the density of depleted uranium, the appropriate mass takes up significantly less space allowing for either a more compact design or room for additional components." 42


1 "Avoiding or Minimizing Encounters with Aircraft Equipped with Depleted Uranium Balance Weights During Accident Investigations", FAA, Dec. 20, 1984

2 "Application Guide for Obtaining a Supplemental Type Certificate", p. 36, FAA, May 6, 1998

4 Loewenstein, P., "Industrial Uses of Depleted Uranium", American Society for Metals, 1992

4 Parker, Robert L., "Fear of Flying," Nature, Vol. 336, 22/29 December 1988.

5 van der Keur, H., "Uranium Pollution from the Amsterdam 1992 Plane Crash", Laka Foundation, Documentation and Research Center on Nuclear Energy, 1993.

6 Hennen, L., "Health Risks During Exposure of Uranium", ch. 5, p. 9, Dutch Ministry of Defense

7 Laka Foundation, document 511.5028

8 "Uranium Battlefields Home and Abroad: Depleted Uranium Use by the US Department of Defense", G. Bukowski and D.A. Lopez, March 1993

9 "The Balkans War and the Air Force", Washington Post interview with William Arkin.

10 USAF Office of Management and Budget public announcement, March 30, 1999

11 "Pentagon faces cruise missile shortage", USA Today, March 31, 1999

12 "Combat Damage Assessment Team A-10/GAU-8 Low Angle Firings Versus Individual Soviet Tanks", Feb-March 1978

13 Nuclear Metals, Inc. is located in Concord, Massachusetts. In 1991 about 82 per cent of the company's revenues of $48 million came from uranium penetrators for ordnance and accessories. Industrial metal powders accounted for 11 revenues and fabricate specialty metal powders -- for 7 per cent. Source: Worldscope Database, 1992.

14 Experts Discover Uranium-236 in Kosovo, ITAR-TASS, Jan. 17, 2001

15 UN Tests Shows Kosovo Sites Radioactive, Reuters, Jan. 5, 2001; UN finds radiation in Kosovo, BBC News, Jan. 6, 2001; UN Experts Discover Radiation in Kosovo --, Jan. 6, 2001

16 Health and Environmental Consequences of Depleted Uranium Use in the U.S. Army, Army Environmental Policy Institute (AEPI), June 1995

17 NATO confirms to the United Nations, use of depleted uranium during the Kosovo conflict, official news release by the United Nations Environment Programme and the UN Centre for Human Settlements, March 21, 2001

18 UNEP Confirms Plutonium Found In DU Ammunition, UNEP GRID-Arendal, Feb. 16, 2001

19 United Nations Environment Programme Recommends Precautionary Action Regarding Depleted Uranium In Kosovo, UNEP GRID-Arendal, Mar. 13, 2001

20 A-10/OA-10 Thunderbolt II, Federation of American Scientists, April 23, 2000

21 Advisory Note on current work on DU by UNEP, UNEP, Feb 15, 2001

22 From the Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) report, included as Appendix D of AMMCOM's Kinetic Energy Penetrator Long Term Strategy Study, Danesi, July 1990.

23 Operation Desert Storm: Army Not Adequately Prepared to Deal With Depleted Uranium Contamination, United States General Accounting Office (GAO/NSIAD-93-90), January 1993, pp. 17-18.

24 Burning of B-52 pieces criticized, by Keith Rogers, Las Vegas Review-Journal, Aug. 3, 1999

25 DoD Launches Depleted Uranium Training, American Forces Press Service, Aug. 13, 1999

26 Uranium symptoms match US report as cancer fears spread, The Guardian, Jan. 14, 2001 1999

27 U.S. Document Warned of Depleted Uranium in Kosovo, The New York Times, Jan. 9, 2001

28 Doctor's Gulf War Studies Link Cancer to Depleted Uranium, The New York Times, Jan. 29, 2001

29 Statement of Dr. Asaf Durakovic to the Subcommittee on Human Resources and Intergovernmental Relations, House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, June 26, 1997

30 Tests Show Gulf War Victims Have Uranium Poisoning, The Sunday Times, Sep. 3, 2000

31 Gulf War soldiers may have 'inhaled uranium', CNN, Sep.3, 2000

32 We Don't Need Uranium, by Mikhail Rastopshin, Independent Military Review, March 2001

33 Glasgow Sunday Herald, Apr. 4, 1999

34 Weekly Information Report, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, June 16, 2000

35 Vieques Confrontation Deepens Over Use Of Depleted Uranium Bullets as Navy Denies Danger, Fox News, Jan. 13, 2000

36 Radiation checks continue at blazing uranium plant, The Guardian, Feb. 9, 1999

37 NRPB Response Statement No R2/99 -- Fire at a Royal Ordnance Factory, 15 Feb. 1999

38 Depleted Uranium, LAKA Foundation, May 1999, p. 9

39 Kuwait--Depleted Uranium Contamination, UK Atomic Energy Authority, April 1991

40 Environmental Agency report to the NFLA Steering Committee, May 1999

41 Depleted Uranium on Scrap Heaps, The Guardian, Aug. 21, 2000

42 Products from Depleted Uranium, Manufacturing Sciences Corporation brochure, 1999

43 Depleted Uranium Study 'Shows Clear Damage', BBC, Aug. 27, 1999

44 USAF Person Inhaled Depleted Uranium Dust, USAF Radioisotope Committee radiation overexposure incident notice to NRC, Jul. 27, 1999

Venik, March 29, 2001

Venik's Aviation

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