NATO forces react to depleted uranium backlash

Clifford Beal JDW Editor

Despite the long-known health risks linked to depleted uranium (DU) munitions, European defence ministries and NATO headquarters appeared to have been caught off-guard last week by the groundswell of criticism from national legislatures concerning the use of DU during the Bosnia and Kosovo conflicts.

As the row intensified, the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) relented on its earlier stance and announced on 9 January that it would begin a voluntary uranium screening programme for personnel who have served in areas where DU munitions have been used. Two days later NATO announced that it would set up a group to exchange information on possible health risks and pledged complete co-operation with any national investigations into DU risks.

However, NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson stated: "I do not believe the public should have been as excited as it has been. We are confident that there is little risk from DU munitions, but we refuse to be complacent."

Australia, Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Poland, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey and Ukraine have all announced screening programmes for veterans. Italy and Germany have called for a moratorium on DU deployment pending further investigations.

UK MoD studies on the risk associated with DU date back to at least 1979 and the toxic and radiological characteristics of DU are well-defined. What have been less easy to calculate are exposure levels in operational situations. Of the 1990-91 Gulf War veterans that carry DU fragments inside them, none has yet developed uranium poisoning or associated cancers, according to the US Department of Defense (DoD). US Defense Secretary William Cohen, said: "We intend to continue to use depleted uranium [shells] ... We believe they do not pose an unreasonable risk to our toops if they are properly handled."

While the scientific questions remain to be settled, the issue has major political implications for western forces and for the NATO alliance. The controversy has created a public-relations crisis for NATO and its Balkans operation and highlights the yawning gap between government risk assessment and public perceptions of acceptable risk. It has also reactivated the Gulf War Syndrome debate, which itself has seen no resolution despite years of research.

Attention may now turn to compensation damages to clean up sites in the former Yugoslavia and in Iraq that are contaminated by DU ammunition traces. This could prove politically damaging to NATO in its Kosovo Force operation and embarrassing to the USA in sustaining its containment policy against Iraq. On 10 January the Iraqi government asked the UN to investigate DU effects in Iraq and Yugoslavia and said it would reserve the right to seek compensation for damages.

The UN Environment Programme office has called for all 112 DU contaminated sites in Kosovo to be cordoned off pending the results of recent UN radiological tests. Analysis of these samples is due in March. World Health Organisation officials have stated there is probably little risk of radiation-linked leukaemia occurring in the Balkans resulting from DU contamination.


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