US reluctance to talk about DU

International attempts to assess the risks from depleted uranium (DU) bullets used in Kosovo and Serbia are being thwarted by American reluctance to pinpoint where DU was used.

As part of a sweeping United Nations environment damage assessment of the Kosovo conflict, UN agencies have made inquiries about exactly where and how much DU ammunition was used in the 78-day NATO bombing campaign. So far, they have received little data.

"They say it's militarily sensitive information," says David Kyd, spokesman for the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna. The IAEA is examining radiation aspects for the Balkans Task Force, a group created last May by the UN Environment Program to investigate the impact of the war.

Informal requests made to Nato and envoys to the IAEA - including the US - "led us to believe that Nato was as reluctant as were the Serbs" to discuss DU use and targets, Mr. Kyd says. "We absolutely have to have the information so we can do serious measurements and analysis."

Nato is cooperating with other aspects of the UN inquiry, such as the impact on bombed industrial sites and pollutants spilled into the Danube River. But last week, Nato sources say, American diplomats at Nato headquarters unilaterally rejected Nato as a point for any further contact about DU use, effectively forcing the Balkans Task Force and anyone else seeking DU data to ask the Pentagon directly. Nato sources say they have come up against a "brick wall" while making their own inquiries.

US aircraft were the only ones using DU ammunition, but Defense Department officials say they have received no direct request for target data.

"Our position is that we don't have anything to hide," says spokesman Lt. Col. Steve Campbell. Yet the reply to a direct Monitor request for confirmation that DU was used at two locations in Djakovica and Vranje (see story above) was: "To date, we have not discussed in anything but the most general of terms what munitions were used against what targets," said Defense Department spokesman Lt. Col. Victor Warzinski.

By contrast, US and British Nato forces after the June cease-fire quickly provided exact coordinates for 1,500 cluster-bomb drops (which each scatter 150 to 200 bomblets), so that UN deminers could create a map of hazard areas.

US military sources suggest that 3,000 to 4,000 bullets were fired in the Kosovo campaign, a figure that roughly matches estimates made by Yugoslav military and independent Western analysts. By comparison, the Gulf War saw heavy DU use, with American forces firing 340 tons - 783,000 bullets, and 9,000 larger tanks rounds - across the deserts of Iraq and Kuwait. By all accounts, only a fraction of that amount was used in Kosovo, though here it was used for the first time in populated areas.

A confidential preliminary Balkans Task Force (BTF) report leaked in May, as the bombing continued, did not mince words about the risk of DU. "This type of ammunition is nuclear waste, and its use is very dangerous and harmful," it said.

The BTF has sent requests directly to Nato, and has visited Washington to determine the extent of DU use. They channeled their requests through the State Department, however, not the Pentagon.

"We have had some cooperation," says BTF chairman Pekka Haavisto. "But what is the consequence [of DU]? That is what we really want to know."

For years after the 1991 Gulf War, US military regulations for handling DU were based on strict US Nuclear Regulatory Commission standards. The Pentagon, however - while calling its changing policy "inconsistent" - has been revising those rules, and today portrays DU as harmless.

Past US military and independent reports link DU to severe health problems.

Many conclude that it is an "acceptable risk," though one 1990 study conducted for the Army states that "no dose is so low that the probability of effect is zero."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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