UNITED NATIONS ENVIRONMENT PROGRAMME RECOMMENDS PRECAUTIONARY ACTION REGARDING DEPLETED URANIUM IN KOSOVO

14 March 2001
UNEP/86

UNITED NATIONS ENVIRONMENT PROGRAMME RECOMMENDS PRECAUTIONARY ACTION REGARDING DEPLETED URANIUM IN KOSOVO

14/03/2001
Press ReleaseUNEP/86

UNITED NATIONS ENVIRONMENT PROGRAMME RECOMMENDS PRECAUTIONARY ACTION

REGARDING DEPLETED URANIUM IN KOSOVO

GENEVA, 13 March (UNEP) -- The final report of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) on the environmental impact of depleted uranium (DU) ammunition used during the 1999 Kosovo conflict was released in Geneva today.

In November 2000, a UNEP field mission visited 11 of the 112 sites that were identified as being targeted by ordnance containing DU, including five in the Italian sector (MNB (W)) and six in the German sector (MNB (S)).

The UNEP team, consisting of 14 scientists from several countries, collected soil, water and vegetation samples and conducted smear tests on buildings, destroyed army vehicles and DU penetrators.  Remnants of DU ammunition were found at eight sites.  Altogether, 355 samples were analysed, including 249 soil samples, 46 water samples, 37 vegetation samples, 13 smear tests, three milk samples, four jackets (specialized parts of ordnance), two penetrators and one penetrator fragment.

Transuranic Isotopes Found

Seven-and-a-half DU penetrators were found during the field mission.  Low levels of radiation were detected in the immediate vicinity of the points of impact, and mild contamination from DU dust was measured near the targets.  There was also some evidence from bio-indicators of airborne DU contamination near targeted sites.

In addition to U-238, which makes up the bulk of depleted uranium, the penetrators contained uranium isotope U-236 and plutonium isotope Pu-239/240.  The presence of these transuranic elements in the DU indicates that at least some of the material has been in nuclear reactors.  However, the amount of transuranic isotopes found in the DU penetrators is very low and does not have any significant impact on their overall radioactivity.

No Widespread Contamination

No widespread ground contamination was found in the investigated areas. Therefore, the corresponding radiological and chemical risks are insignificant. There were a great number of contamination points in the investigated areas, but there is no significant risk related to these points in terms of possible contamination of air or plants.

"These scientific findings should alleviate any immediate anxiety that people living or working in Kosovo may have been experiencing", said UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer.  "Under certain circumstances, however, DU can still pose risks.  Our report highlights a series of precautionary measures that should be taken to guarantee that the areas struck by DU ammunition remain risk-free."

Precaution Recommended

It is highly likely that penetrators are still lying on the ground surface. Although the radiological and chemical risks of touching a penetrator are insignificant, if one was put into a pocket or somewhere else close to the human body, there would be external beta radiation of the skin, leading to quite high local radiation doses after some weeks of continuous exposure.  Skin burns from radiation are unlikely.

Regarding contamination points, if a child were to ingest small amounts of soil, the corresponding radiological risk would be insignificant, but from a biochemical point of view, the possible intake might be somewhat higher than the applicable health standard.  "There are still considerable scientific uncertainties, especially related to the safety of groundwater", said Pekka Haavisto, Chairman of UNEP's Depleted Uranium Assessment Team.  "Additional work has to be done to reduce these uncertainties and to monitor the quality of water."

Remaining penetrators and jackets that may be hidden at several metres depth in the ground, as well as any on the ground surface, constitute a risk of future DU contamination of groundwater and drinking water.  Heavy firing of DU in one area could increase the potential source of uranium contamination of groundwater by a factor of 10 to 100.  While the radiation doses will be very low, the resulting uranium concentration might exceed health standards for drinking water established by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Although the mission findings show no cause for alarm, the report describes specific situations where risks could be significant.  There are also scientific uncertainties relating to the longer-term behaviour of DU in the environment.  For these reasons, UNEP calls for certain precautionary actions. 

According to UNEP, this precautionary action should include visiting all DU sites in Kosovo, removing slightly radioactive penetrators and jackets on the surface, decontaminating areas where feasible, and providing information to local populations on precautions to be taken if DU is found.

UNEP Recommends Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina

In order to reduce scientific uncertainty on the impact of DU on the environment, particularly over time, UNEP recommends that scientific work be undertaken in Bosnia and Herzegovina where DU ordnance has persisted in the environment for over five years.  This could be done as part of an overall environmental assessment of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

UNEP's work in Kosovo was carried out in close cooperation with the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Kosovo Force (KFOR), which assisted with logistics, accommodation, transport and security. 

The samples were analysed by the Swedish Radiation Protection Institute in Stockholm; AC Laboratorium-Spiez in Switzerland; Bristol University's Department of Earth Sciences in the United Kingdom; the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Laboratories in Seibersdorf, Austria; and the Italian National Environmental Protection Agency in Rome, Italy.  The assessment work on depleted uranium has been financed by the Government of Switzerland.

IAEA, UNEP and WHO on Future Cooperation

In view of the remaining scientific uncertainties surrounding the long-term effects of the possible health and environmental impacts from the use of depleted uranium, the IAEA, UNEP and WHO, in accordance with their respective mandates, will consider together whether it is necessary to prepare future missions to areas where depleted uranium has been used during military conflicts.

Note to journalists:  The report is available at www.unep.ch/balkans.  For more information, please contact Pekka Haavisto, UNEP Depleted Uranium Assessment Team Chairman, at +41-79-477-0877 or pekka.haavisto@upi-fiia.fi; or Nick Nuttall, Media Officer, UNEP, Nairobi, at tel:  254 2 623084, Mobil 254 (0) 733 632755;  Fax 254 2 623692; e-mail:  nick.nuttall@unep.org; or Michael Williams, UNEP Press Officer, Geneva, at +41-22-9178242, +41-79-409-1528 (cell) or michael.williams@unep.ch.

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For information media. Not an official record.