AFTER INSISTING throughout its air bombardment of Yugoslavia that its use of depleted uranium munitions against Serb forces posed no hazard to human health, Nato officers in Kosovo now admit that particles from their shells may have contaminated soil near targets in Yugoslavia and could cause "inhalation" problems, especially for children.
There has been a growing outcry against munitions containing depleted uranium (DU) - a waste product of the nuclear industry - since it was used in armour-piercing projectiles in the 1991 Gulf war. In the eight years since, hundreds of Iraqis living near the battlefields have died from mysterious cancers and grossly deformed children have been born to Iraqi soldiers who fought in the war. British and American veterans suffering from Gulf war syndrome suspect that the use of DU weapons caused their own sickness and cancers.
In briefings to international aid workers in Pristina, one K-For officer has warned his audience of "contaminated dust" at the scene of DU munitions explosions and urged aid officials to stay 150 feet away from targets hit in Nato air strikes. But non-governmental organisations have been amazed to hear that Nato cannot - or will not - say where it used DU ordnance against Serb forces. "There is no releasable information about where it was used and when," a K-For spokesman told The Independent. He would give no reason for Nato's refusal to provide these details.
Officially, K-For warns aid workers to beware of all Kosovo battle sites - especially the danger posed by unexploded cluster bombs - but the records of one major aid organisation in Pristina show that on 13 and 20 August a K-For officer was twice asked by United Nations officials about the dangers of DU projectiles fired by American A-10 Warthog ground-attack aircraft. The officer - believed to have been British - spoke of "the danger of the spread of contaminated dust".
The Pentagon says that in the 1991 Gulf war, more than 860,000 DU rounds were fired by United States and - to a much lesser extent - British forces. In following years, doctors in southern Iraq were stunned to find an exponential increase in child cancers and deformities among families living near the old battlefields or close to targets hit by US forces. One Iraqi doctor's report in Basra last year recorded three babies born without heads in August along with four with abnormally large heads, six babies born with no heads in September and two with short limbs. In October 1998, another baby was born without a head and four with oversize heads.
Nor were DU munitions used in Kosovo only against armour, as Nato claimed. One aid worker found exploded DU rounds at a defence installation near Djakovica. "There were no vehicles there, but I found the tops of the rounds," he told me.
I'D LIKE TO BELIEVE NATO THAT DEPLETED URANIUM IS HARMLESS.
BUT I DON'T. AND THIS IS WHY...
TWO MILITARY voices on the use of depleted uranium bullets in Kosovo. First from a K-For cove - a spokesman, no less, in Pristina - who insisted that "there's more risk from striking a match than from depleted uranium." Quote of the week, Quote of the year, perhaps. Then there was the former Nato officer to whom I talked that same night, a weapons expert, former RAF, whose job is to wander Kosovo in search of unexploded (and exploded) weapons. "I'm definitely suspicious any time I hear the word uranium," he told me. "A weapon isn't there to do you any good. The boffins have come up with this weapon. People who use it - or are on the receiving end - know only part of the facts. I'm very suspicious whenever I hear the word uranium."
So am I. On Wednesday, 14 April, Nato bombed a convoy of Kosovo Albanian refugees on the road between Djakovica and Prizren, saying - initially - that they may have been bombed by Serb aircraft. A day later, along with Julian Manyon of Channel 4, I found - beside the chopped-up corpses of the innocent dead - a series of craters in the soft earth beside the highway. "That's what the A-10 aircraft craters looked like in the Gulf," Manyon said. And - I prefer to forget the next bit - I dug with my bare hands into the craters to see if I could find any piece of ordnance that carried some trace of the weapon's manufacturer. I did. I found metal fragments with codes stamped on them. They were American.
And Nato then admitted that it had bombed the Albanians "in error", because it thought they were a convoy of Serb armour. But I put the pieces of shrapnel into a plastic bag, laid it on my hotel table in Belgrade. Small and burned they were, bright silver under my table lamp. Then I decided - too late, perhaps - that they might be depleted uranium rounds, and dumped them in my hotel rubbish bin. Did I carry U-238 in my schoolboy's shoulder-bag back to Belgrade that night, the detritus of nuclear fuel, the cause of all those cancerous tumours I saw breaking through the stomachs of Iraqi children less than a year before?
That question explains why I like to hear those K-For/Nato spokesmen telling me about the harmlessness - the absolute lack of hazard - of depleted uranium. I don't believe them. But I'd like them to be right. I don't think they are. Here's why.
After Britain began the test-firing of DU shells in Cumbria and south- west Scotland, radiation reports showed serious contamination near Eskmeals, Cumbria, and Kirkcudbright, Dumfries and Galloway. "Well above acceptable limits," the Ministry of Defence was to acknowledge later. At Eskmeals, they fire shells into a tunnel which is then washed out, the dust sealed in concrete containers. When a fire broke out at the Royal Ordnance Speciality Metals plant near Wolverhampton, where DU munitions are made, the National Radiological Protection Board said it had monitored "odd bits of DU".
In April, 1991, the UK Atomic Energy Authority expressed concern about DU contamination in Kuwait. "It would be unwise for people to stay close to large quantities of DU for long periods," it said. "There will be specific areas in which many rounds will have been fired where localised contamination of vehicles and the soil may exceed permissible limits and these could be hazardous to both clean up teams and the local population."
In Iraq in 1997, I discovered thousands of civilians dying of cancers, families never touched by cancer before, mothers giving birth to children with leukemia, monstrous births of deformed babies, old men who lived in thefarmlands south of Basra amid the very armoured wreckage which we, the Allies, had blasted with our uranium shells, who talked to me of sudden cancer deaths, of daughters with breast and liver cancer.
My favourite is a letter from the Ministry of Defence, sent almost word- for-word the same to several readers of The Independent. The author was Doug Henderson, then a Defence minister, famous for his patriotic speeches during the Kosovo bombardment. "The Government is aware of suggestions in the press, particularly by Robert Fisk of the Independent," he writes, "that there has been an increase in ill-health - including alleged deformities, cancers and birth defects - in southern Iraq, which some have attributed to the use of depleted uranium (DU) based ammunition by UK and US forces.... However, the Government has not seen any peer-reviewed epidemiological research data on this population to support these claims."
I really like that bit about the "peer-reviewed epidemiological research data". Indeed, Mr Henderson has seen none. Because the British have no intention of carrying out any such survey. The World Health Organisation (now in Pristina) was originally asked by the Iraqis to conduct just such a survey. It never materialised. So much for the "epidemiological research data". But let's just remember the massive fire at the US ammunition storage base at Doha in Kuwait in July, 1991, when 3,200 kilograms of DU in tank rounds exploded. "Uranium particles when breathed can be hazardous," the US Central Command stated later. "11ACR (the US command at Doha) has been informed to treat the area as though it were a chemical area, ie stay upwind and wear a protective mask in the vicinity."
And let's recall, too, the cleanup of DU contamination at the DU manufacturers in Concord, Massachusetts, and at Sandia National Laboratory and Kirkland Air Force Base in New Mexico (a test-firing range); the topsoil had to be removed, the US army stated. And the cost of cleaning just 500 acres of an Indiana DU proving ground has been estimated at around pounds 3bn. In the Gulf, the US Defense Department estimates 315 tons of DU was fired. And how much in Kosovo? We are not being told.
No details. No comment. No clean-up. Did the A-10s fire DU munitions around Pristina? Pec? Djakovica? Prizren? Mitrovica? And where did they fire these munitions in what we now like to call "Serbia proper"? "What we say about DU," K-For's spokesman told me, "is that it is harmful if you digest it, like any other heavy metal. The most dangerous period is 15 minutes after the explosion. Then it goes to the ground and sinks." Which is not true. The dust floats around, contaminates the air, almost certainly kills. I read to the spokesman an aid agency's warning about DU - the threat of contamination was very low, the warning said, but the residual dust "could pose an inhalation hazard. Children should not play on or near these vehicles. The minimum prescribed safe distance is no less than 50 metres." Yes, said the spokesman, "these are the official lines - I've seen this information in other briefings. There's nothing new in that, so to speak."
So to speak. Oddly enough, the K-For man had, without knowing it, captured the very essence of depleted uranium shells and bullets when he talked about the supposedly greater danger of lighting a match. For when they explode, DU rounds apply enormous kinetic energy over a small surface area of armour, igniting with a fire which veterans called "Dante's Inferno"; it burns and pulverises into a dust that soars into the sky in a heat column from a burning tank and drifts over the desert or fields. Over 90,000 US troops who served in the Gulf have reported medical problems. There is no legislation specifically outlawing DU. But Article 35 of Additional Protocol 1 of the 1977 Geneva Convention states that "it is prohibited to employ methods or means of warfare which are intended, or may be expected, to cause widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment." So is DU legal?
Doug Rokke was a US army doctor who went to the Gulf to help clean up the DU contamination after the 1991 Gulf War. But now his lungs are scarred, he has kidney damage and breathing difficulties, like some of the cancer sufferers in Iraq. The aim of the Kosovo war, he said after the conflict had ended, "is to enable the Kosovars to return home. But unless the uranium is cleaned up, those that survive the Serb atrocities and the Nato aerial attacks will have to return to a contaminated environment where they may become ill."
Nothing new in that, I suppose. So to speak. Strike a light.
WHY THE MILITARY USE `HEAVY METAL POISON' TO TARGET TANKS
THE MILITARY like depleted uranium shells because they have high penetrating power against the thick steel armour of a target. Uranium is the heaviest natural element on earth: 1 cubic cm weighs 18.95 grams. Depleted uranium is former nuclear fuel that has been "depleted" of most of its radiation. The residue has a half-life of 4.5 billion years. The DU is used as the tip of modern armour-piercing shells, its density slicing through armour more efficiently that any other metal.
DU is also a naturally pyrophoric material. After penetration, so much heat develops that the DU particles catch fire, destroying the target and crew. But the damage can spread. After the tank is hit it explodes, releasing highly toxic and radioactive material. When the shells impact, around 70 per cent of the round burns up. The remainder, often shrapnel, can contain radioactive particles which can be inhaled, or enter the body through wounds.
DU shells are mainly fired by tanks and by "tank-busting" aircraft. The British use 120mm DU "sabot" armour-piercing shells in their Challenger 2 main battletank. The latest version, known as the CHARM 3 round, entered service this year. The round is made by Royal Ordnance PLC. Special DU 20mm shells are also used by the Royal Navy for their shipborne Vulcan Phalanx close-in weapon system. DU emits alpha, beta, gamma and X-ray radiations and may present a hazard externally and internally. The British Government say DU presents a "very low level" of health risk and crews would have to be in a tank with a full DU-load for 1,500 hours before reaching the annual whole body dose limit (50mSv).
Mass production of DU ammunition began in 1977. In the US it is made by Honeywell and Aerojet among others. Britain and France also manufacture it and DU shells ar
e exported to other Nato countries, and Japan, Australia and New Zealand if required.
In August 1997, Margaret Papandreou, wife of the former Greek leader, led a delegation to the UN calling for the lifting of sanctions against Iraq and an investigation into Iraqi claims of increased cancer rates in the Basra region the Iraqis attribute to 300 tons of DU left behind by US and British forces. The UN subcommission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities passed a resolution calling for a prohibition on the use of depleted uranium; only the US delegate voted against it.