Is Depleted Uranium Killing More Than Just Enemy Tanks?

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A Portuguese Technology and Nuclear Institute official checks radiation levels

What's killing the peacekeepers of Europe? That question may be about to plunge NATO into a round of bitter recriminations over ammunition used in the Kosovo war — a conflict that could further strain relations between Europe and the U.S. in a Western alliance whose members are pulling in opposite directions on a number of fronts. NATO and European Union officials are meeting Tuesday to discuss the mounting controversy over the alliance's extensive use of depleted-uranium shells in Kosovo.

The death from various cancers of at least 17 soldiers (15 of them from leukemia) from European armies since being deployed on peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and Kosovo has raised an outcry in Europe, and some of their governments believe the cause of their illnesses may lie in the ammunition used by NATO against Serbian armor and artillery positions in both regions. Not so, say the U.S., Britain and NATO headquarters, citing extensive scientific research by the World Health Organization, among others, to support their assertion that there's no link between depleted-uranium ammunition and the illnesses that killed the European peacekeepers. Still, the U.S. issued a warning on the dangers of depleted-uranium debris to all NATO armies joining the peacekeeping mission in 1999.

A nuclear-industry by-product

Depleted uranium is attractive to armorers because of its high ratio of mass to bulk, which gives it the ability to pierce heavy armor. The by-product of the fuel-enrichment process used by nuclear power stations, it contains fairly low doses of radiation, but is acknowledged to carry some risk of cancer and other ailments if directly ingested, inhaled or absorbed through cuts. That knowledge, and the circumstantial link between high rates of illness and service in territories where NATO has fired large amounts of depleted-uranium ordnance, is enough to have European NATO members demanding further discussion over the alliance's favorite tank-busting ammunition. And the acknowledged risks attached to direct contact with depleted-uranium particles has also prompted the WHO to warn that children playing in former conflict zones could be at high risk. But a United Nations Environmental Program study of Kosovo anticipated shortly is expected to find that radiation from depleted-uranium shells is present in non-threatening quantities.

NATO officials believe that Europeans are simply revisiting the "Gulf War Syndrome" controversy that played out in Britain and the U.S. over the past decade, and the alliance's military leadership believes there's no scientific link. Radiation levels from depleted uranium are 40 percent lower than those found in the natural form of the metal, which occurs commonly in the environment, NATO officials argue. U.S. officials point out that the Department of Defense has been monitoring 33 American soldiers whose bodies contain fragments of depleted-uranium shells as a result of "friendly fire" incidents during the Gulf War, and none of them have developed renal difficulties or cancer.

A tricky NATO situation

Still, the circumstantial link will spur demands for further scientific inquiries. And the matter becomes more complicated for NATO by the fact that the country spearheading the demand for answers — Italy, which has lost six of its soldiers — also happens to be the one providing the bulk of the troops serving in the Kosovo peacekeeping mission. In addition, the tricky discussion won't be helped by the fact that the discussion comes at a time when the incoming administration of NATO's acknowledged leader, the United States, has signaled that it wants to get its own troops out of the Balkans as soon as possible. And the circumstantial link alone between Balkan service and leukemia may be enough to ensure that, like the metal itself, the controversy over depleted uranium will be around for a long time to come.