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Friday, 16 February, 2001, 16:07 GMT
Kosovo DU rounds contained plutonium
soldier on runway
Kosovo veterans may face risks from DU
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby

Laboratories in Switzerland and Sweden have established that the depleted uranium (DU) ammunition fired by Nato in Kosovo contained minute traces of plutonium.

Plutonium is many thousands of times more radioactive than uranium, but the Swiss Government says the contamination means no extra risk to troops or civilians.

It says the amounts of plutonium found were at the lowest measurable levels - about one part per billion.

Nato insists that the DU rounds themselves are not to blame for cancers reported by Balkan veterans.

DU is a heavy metal, 1.7 times as dense as lead. This makes it a potent weapon for punching through armour, and it is used mainly for attacking tanks and other armoured targets.

Chemical risk

It is a waste product left over after uranium has been enriched for use in weapons or reactors.

white-suited troops
Troops search for radiation traces in Kosovo
The UK Ministry of Defence, the Pentagon and Nato maintain that it poses little risk on the battlefield or subsequently, though they do say that troops entering vehicles struck by DU munitions should wear protective clothing.

They argue that the main danger from DU comes from its chemical composition, not from its radioactivity.

The two laboratories, AC-Laboratory Spiez in Switzerland and the Swedish Radiation Protection Institute, are among five commissioned by the United Nations Environment Programme to test 340 samples collected from Kosovo last November by a Unep team investigating the use of DU.

Scientists had earlier found that the samples contained enriched uranium, showing that the metal used in the ammunition had come from nuclear reprocessing plants, not from waste, and therefore might contain plutonium as well.

Plutonium is about 200,000 times more radioactive than uranium, and its radiotoxicity is about a million times greater.

Slight increase

The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology says that less than one thousandth of a gram of plutonium in the lungs could cause serious problems, including lung and bone cancers.

But the laboratories' tests found far less than that in the DU samples.

soldiers searching
Levels of radiation found are low
The Swiss Defence Ministry said the amounts ranged between 0.4 and 1.3 billionths of a gram of plutonium per gram of DU.

A leading UK expert on the effects of ionising radiation told BBC News Online: "I wouldn't expect this to add much to the risk from DU, if there is a risk.

"The distribution of the particles within the body will not be very different. And the radioactivity of this quantity of plutonium will be only about 0.2% that of the uranium itself, which is also far more of a risk in chemical terms."

Minor change

Unep said the presence of plutonium and enriched uranium in the samples showed that at least some of the material had been in nuclear reactors, but said the very small amount of plutonium had no significant impact on the samples' radioactivity.

Unep's director, Dr Klaus Toepfer, said: "These newest findings only lead to a minor change in the overall radiological situation, and should therefore not cause any immediate alarm.

"Unep's recommendations on what steps should be taken next will be based on the full set of laboratory analyses, which will be presented in early March in the report on the environmental effects of DU in Kosovo."

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09 Jan 01 | Europe
The military uses of DU
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