June 10, 2000 International Tribunal for U.S./NATO warcrimes in Yugoslavia
THE CRIMINAL USE OF DEPLETED URANIUM
by Carlo Pona
Dr. Carlo Pona is a physicist and a member of the Nino Pasti Foundation, a group that
played a leading role in organizing tribunal hearings in Italy. He attended a conference
in Belgrade about depleted uranium and has written about this subject. Pona explained why
DU is dangerous to humans and how NATO used this dangerous material in Yugoslavia, which
is a war crime.
During its criminal aggression against Yugoslavia, NATO used armor-piercing shells loaded with depleted uranium. This was officially confirmed in a letter from NATO Secretary General George Robertson to the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. During the aggression there was an unofficial confirmation by U.S. Department of Defense spokesman Major General Chuck Wald during a press briefing on May 3, 1999.
Depleted Uranium (DU) is essentially a byproduct of the cycle of production of nuclear fuel and of the weapons-grade enriched uranium used to build nuclear bombs. It is also used to produce plutonium. The U.S. has retained stockpiles of DU since the inception of its nuclear weapons program in the 1940s. Because of the costs associated with storing such an extraordinary quantity of material, estimated to be something like 700,000 metric tons as UF6, a very heavy burden for the U.S. Department of Energy, the employment of DU in ammunitions became a viable method of reducing storage costs. DU is 1.7 times denser than lead, and when fired by guns its kinetic energy is sufficient to penetrate tank armour or concrete. The problem is that DU is both radioactive and toxic. To dispose of it as a nuclear waste is extremely expensive, and hence the Department of Energy itself is promoting its commercial use in many ways. They say that other uses of DU (including weapons) constitute a "benefit for humanity."
DU is used in ammunitions, counterweights, shieldings, and now commercial concrete (DUCRETE). The various types of DU munitions include the following: 7.62 mm, 20 mm (180 grams), 25 mm (200 grams), 30 mm (280 grams), 105 mm (3500 grams), and 120 mm (4500 grams) penetrators and the ADAM and PDM cluster bombs. DU is also present in Tomahawk III cruise missiles.
DU is dangerous as a weapon, but it is more dangerous after it has been fired because it becomes a very thin powder that permanently contaminates the environment. Upon impact, indeed, the DU core partially vaporizes producing uranium oxide in particulates between 0.5 and 5 microns in size. This aerosol can spread over several hundred miles, depending on weather conditions. DU emits alpha, beta, gamma and X-ray radiation, and can present a hazard to the human body both externally and internally. The external radiation hazard would arise from close proximity to DU and is made up mainly of beta, gamma and X-ray radiation. The main external radiation hazard from DU is from contact with bare skin. The current dose limit to the skin is exceeded if the skin remains in continuous contact with DU for more than 250 hours per year. The main internal radiation hazard is from the inhalation of the aerosol particles. The alpha and beta radiation from the retained material could, over a long period of time, cause damage to the lung tissue. The inhalation of 80 mg of insoluble DU would result in the dose limit being exeeded. Upon ingestion, the uranium oxides are mostly metabolized to uranyl ion (UO2++), and, if dissolved in the blood, up to 90% of it may be excreted by the kidneys in the urine. Excretion takes approximately three days if DU is dissolved.
When uranium reaches other organs, such as bones, it may never be excreted. A particular case, very frequent following the use of DU as a weapon, is that of fragments embedded in the muscle of civilian victims close to battlefields. In this case even a small particle of DU can cause high level of DU contamination in the urine for the rest of the victims life. One "hot particle" in the lungs is equivalent, for the nearest cells, to exposure to an X-ray every hour of every day for the rest of the victims life. DUs high toxicity presents ever more danger to human health in the short time after exposure, affecting mainly the kidneys. The uranium oxides go into the soil as well. DU in the soil is incorporated in vegetables and the meat and milk of farm animals, and can contaminate humans via the food chain.
The International Criminal Tribunal on Former Yugoslavia said last week that there is no worldwide agreement on the dangers of DU, and that it is not forbidden as a weapon. Maybe they forget, or want to forget, that National Lead Industries in New York was shut down during the 1980s because it accidentally released into the environment only 375 grams of DU, the same amount that is contained in only one of the munitions rounds fired by the U.S. and NATO in Kosovo and Yugoslavia. Of course the U.S. government and the International Criminal Tribunal on Yugoslavia (ICTY) deny that there is anything harmful about depleted uranium that should prevent its use in a battle situation anywhere.
Numerous independent experts say depleted uranium is deadly and will permanently pollute those areas contaminated by the munitions. The Military Toxics Project, a non-governmental organization that has been tracking depleted uranium for years, has published an update. Dan Fahey, the author, draws primarily on declassified government documents and public statements, concluding with a sort of rough indictment of irresponsibility. During the Kosovo war, the Pentagon brought out a Rand Corporation think tank study to prove once again that DU is harmless. Once more independent experts protested. As a consequence the World Health Organization (WHO) was asked to investigate. A fact sheet on DU was announced as in the works, and then it was cancelled. An initial UN mission to Yugoslavia in May produced a report of serious contamination by DU. The reports sponsor, United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) director Klaus Toepfer suppressed it under pressure from Washington. The UNEPs Balkan Task Force produced a big study in October, but the section on DU was dramatically reduced in the final version. The task force had tried to involve the WHO, but the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), did not allow it. Measurements were done using Geiger counters incapable of detecting the particular alpha radiation and nothing was found. In the meantime, in August, the WHO announced that a generic study of DU was under way. Last March it become known that the study was under the responsibility of an electro-magnetic field expert who has delegated it to a British geologist. Faced with the IAEAs opposition to studying radiation and health, the WHO has opted to study DU only as a heavy metal pollutant. So it comes as no surprise that in these circumstances the ICTY would say that there is no international agreement on the dangers of DU.
NATO admitted of having fired 31,000 of such rounds over a small area of Kosovo. We know now that DU was also used outside Kosovo, including Belgrade and Novi Sad. In a comprehensive report entitled Consequences of NATO Bombing on the Environment of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the Yugoslav Ministry for Development, Science and Environment of Federal Republic of Yugoslavia pointed to the use of DU outside Kosovo, in seven sites in Serbia and one in Montenegro. It is not the first time the U.S. and NATO have used DU in the battlefield. It happened already in Iraq in 1991 (from 300 to 700 tons of munitions) and Bosnia in 1995. The U.S. Army routinely uses DU on the small island of Vieques, off the coast of Puerto Rico. In April 1999, the U.S. Navy accidentally fired hundreds of DU rounds there. Similar events happened in recently in South Korea and in Japan, where Marines fired DU bullets on an uninhabited island, prompting apologies from US defense officials.
The Department of Defense itself published a lot of books and essays regarding DU that justify the concern about its use. They admit DU is a chemical and radiological hazard. DU is also one of the possible causes of the so-called Gulf War Syndrome (GWS), which affects thousands of U.S. and British Gulf War veterans, and for the increase of genetic malformations among the newborn in southern Iraq. Many Iraqi pedriatic oncologists claim that childhood leukaemia has risen 600% in the areas where DU was used. Stillbirths, births or abortion of fetuses with monstrous abnormalities, and other cancers in children born since 1991 have also been found. And in 1996 the UN itself in the framework of the Subcommission on Preservation of Minorities, "urged all States to curb the production and spread of weapons of mass destruction or with indiscriminate effects," including explicitly, among others, depleted uranium.
The recent NATO confirmation of DU use in Kosovo, complete with a map, somehow alarmed the public, especially in Italy, because the most exposed area is right where there are Italian KFOR soldiers. The head of the Balkan Task Force mission, Pekka Haavisto, declared that there is no reason for serious concern. But the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the main coordinator of aid to Kosovo, has quietly decided to refrain from sending pregnant staff to Kosovo, to offer those assigned there the option of going elsewhere and to put a note into the personnel files of those sent there to facilitate compensation claims for illnesses that might develop from DU contamination. The German and Dutch Governments, whose occupation zones coincide with the areas hit, have ordered their soldiers not to eat anything outside their posts, especially not from the sorrounding countryside. Dutch soldiers had to hand in all clothing and equipment, which was shipped back to the Netherlands sealed in heavy-duty plastic. The government claims these measures are due to asbestos contamination, but a Dutch military source points to DU, noting that the vehicles, also sent back, ended up in a radiation decontamination plant. And, as far as Italy is concerned, there is the news that two Italian soldiers sent to the Serbian part of Bosnia, bombed with DU munitions by NATO in 1995, in the framework of the "peace force" SFOR, have died of leukaemia. In this case there have been arguments because the time enlapsed between exposure to DU and the death, only a couple of years, seems to be too short. An important Italian oncologist said in a popular TV documentary that in some cases a very short onset time for cancer is not impossible.
In conclusion, we cannot have any doubt that using DU as a weapon is a war crime and that DU must be banned forever.
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