Depleted uranium': A tale of poisonous denial

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Monday, May 1, 2000

'Depleted uranium': A tale of poisonous denial

By Robert James Parsons

GENEVA - When a United Nations agency announced that NATO had officially confirmed using depleted-uranium munitions in Kosovo, the story hit the world's media, then quickly faded.

The agency went on record as saying that there was too little information for firm conclusions but no cause for serious concern. The Pentagon officially echoed this, and attention shifted elsewhere.

For those following the story, this was another episode in a game of hide-and-don't-tell that the U.S. government has been playing for years, both at home and abroad. But as the game continues, there is cause for serious concern.

The U.S. government denies there is anything harmful about depleted uranium that would prevent its use in battle situations anywhere. (The high-density metal, a waste product from nuclear power reactors, is used in armor-piercing shells and in tank armor.)

Numerous independent experts say depleted uranium is deadly and will pollute indefinitely those areas struck by the munitions.

They blame it for most of the illnesses of Persian Gulf war syndrome.

The Military Toxics Project, a non-governmental organization that has been tracking depleted uranium for years, has just published an update. Dan Fahey, its author and the project's research director for depleted uranium, draws primarily on declassified government documents and public statements, building a grim indictment of irresponsibility that is nothing short of criminal.

Since the first use of depleted uranium in the Iraq war (a use that continues today with the bombing of the no-fly zones), the controversy has spread into the international arena, including the United Nations.

During the Kosovo war, the Pentagon brought out a RAND Corporation think tank study to prove once and for all that depleted uranium is harmless. Independent experts, contesting the use of depleted uranium in Kosovo and Serbia, protested.

Later, in a paper entitled "Fear of Falling," Fahey analyzed the study in detail, showing it to be a sham. Yet the U.S. government still cites it as a proof that the depleted uranium problem has been laid to rest.

But NATO's admission, even unofficial, of depleted uranium use in the Kosovo war alarmed aid agencies operating there.

The World Health Organization was asked to investigate. The WHO, however, has an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency giving the latter the last word over anything touching public health and radiation.

A fact sheet on depleted uranium. announced as in the works, was canceled.

(The Atomic Energy Agency was set up in '50s by the nuclear powers of the time to push the nuclear industry on a public wary of living with nuclear waste and with radiation in general. The United States plays a dominant role within it. Holding the only mandate in the U.N. system to promote a part of the private sector, it has been repeatedly denounced by non-governmental organizations as incompatible with the ideals expressed in the U.N. charter.)

An initial U.N. mission to Yugoslavia in May produced a report of serious contamination by depleted uranium. The report's sponsor, the United Nations Environment Program's director, Klaus Toepfer, suppressed it - under pressure from Washington, according to inside sources. It nonetheless eventually leaked out.

The program's Balkans Task Force brought out a major study in October, but the section on depleted uranium had been whittled down from 72 pages to two on orders from Toepfer, again apparently under pressure from Washington. The task force had tried to involve the WHO, but the Atomic Energy Agency, in keeping with the agreement, excluded the WHO from the radiation appraisal. Measuring was done using Geiger counters incapable of detecting the particular alpha radiation that depleted uranium emits, and none was found.

Meantime, in August, the WHO had announced it was undertaking a "generic" (general) study of depleted uranium, but no details were available. In March, it became known that the study was under the WHO's Dr. Michael Repacholi, an electro-magnetic field expert, who, it has since been discovered, has delegated it to Barry Smith, a consultant in England, who is a geologist.

Faced with the Atomic Energy Agency's opposition to studying radiation and health, the WHO has opted to study depleted uranium as a heavy metal pollutant.

This is hardly of help to those exposed to tons of virtually indestructible radioactive dust particles, including the international aid agencies awaiting an official pronouncement from the WHO.

The recent NATO confirmation of depleted uranium use in Kosovo, complete with a map, should have finally sounded the alarm.

After being put on hold for six months by NATO, the task force finally had something specific and official, but the pressure was on to play it down. The publication of the map in a Geneva daily on the day that the task force was meeting to decide on strategy forced its hand.

When the task force chairman, former Finnish environmental minister Pekka Haavisto, called a press conference to disclose the map and its accompanying letter, it was Toepfer's spokesperson, the man who had cut out the 70 pages from the October report, not Haavisto's, who orchestrated the event.

Not surprisingly, Haavisto was kept on a leash. Hence the announced conclusion: no cause for serious concern.

But there are indications that not everybody agrees.

The U.N.'s High Commissioner for Refugees, the main coordinator of aid to Kosovo, has quietly decided to refrain from sending pregnant staff to Kosovo, to offer those assigned there the option of going elsewhere and to put a note into the personnel files of those sent there - to facilitate compensation claims for illnesses that might develop from depleted uranium contamination.

The German and Dutch governments, whose occupation zones coincide with the areas hardest hit by depleted uranium, according to NATO's map, have ordered their soldiers not to eat anything outside their post mess halls, especially not from the surrounding countryside. This echoes independent experts' claims that the dust has entered the food chain of the region.

Dutch soldiers stationed last fall in part of the same heavily hit area (around Prizren) had to hand in all clothing and equipment, which was then shipped back to the Netherlands sealed in heavy-duty plastic.

The government claimed asbestos contamination, but a Dutch military source points to depleted uranium, noting that the vehicles, also sent back, ended up in a radiation decontamination plant.

Fahey's "Don't Look, Don't Find" discusses a U.S. Army report issued well before the Gulf War: "Though no anti-DU movement existed at the time, the Army predicted that depleted uranium munitions might be removed from the arsenal by political force once the health and environmental impacts of DU were widely known."

Although the U.S. government seems intent on keeping those impacts unknown, the public is finding out.

Robert James Parsons is a Geneva-based journalist who has written previously on depleted uranium.

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