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DU shells in Kosovo contaminated with reprocessed uranium

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(January 26, 2001) Depleted uranium (DU) munitions that were used in the Kosovo war were contaminated with reprocessed uranium and contain traces of uranium 236 and plutonium isotopes. Observed cancer clusters at Bosnian Serb locations, which were attacked with DU shells in 1994-5, cause further concern about a relation between DU used and cancers.

(542.5237) Laka Foundation - On January 16 a Swiss laboratory announced that it had found traces of uranium 236 and plutonium in U.S.-made munitions that were collected on the battlefields of Kosovo. The spent rounds were retrieved by a UN mission that was checking the effects of the DU antitank shells.

Oops! In this article we found some faults. We write that USEC enrichment facility in Paducah (Kentucky) was closed last year, which in fact is not the case. And of course, uranium 236 and plutonium are not fission products.

The presence of U-236 and plutonium proves that the used DU ammunition was made from contaminated depleted uranium. The results from the laboratory at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Spiez (0.0028% U-236) are perfectly in line with the contamination of DU stockpiles which were admitted by the Army Environmental Policy Institute (AEPI) in 1995. In a technical report AEPI confirms the contamination of DU stockpiles with 0.003% U-236. Reprocessed or recycled uranium, which comes from nuclear reactors, always contains uranium 236 and traces of plutonium, neptunium and fission products.

The "dirty" uranium stems mainly from military nuclear reactors from which plutonium was extracted for use in nuclear weapons. Such uranium was re-enriched at the USEC enrichment facility in Paducah, Kentucky, which was closed last year. During the re-enrichment process, most of the fission products move into the enriched fraction. Only tiny amounts of the fission products remain in the depleted fraction.

Based on the figure of 0.003% U-236 one can estimate that the DU stockpile from Paducah has been contaminated with about one percent of recycled uranium. The Paducah plant produced enriched uranium for nuclear weapons and is being sued for US$10 billion for concealing health risks from workers and locals. A February 2000 U.S. Department of Energy report said the plant "operated in a climate of secrecy, with a strong sense of national need, and lack of understanding of a number of environment, safety and health risks."

Although the "dirty" DU is only slightly more radioactive than "clean" DU, the word plutonium once more fueled the debate about the "Balkan Syndrome". Just when NATO felt it was getting public "hysteria" over DU munitions under control, the presence of plutonium was disclosed.

Scientists are debating about the possible consequences of human health and are at odds about the dangers. Remarkably, some scientists point their fingers at U-236 and plutonium, suggesting that these isotopes pose the main threat and that "normal" depleted uranium oxide dust is practically harmless.

A Yugoslav military pathologist has linked cancer-related deaths of Bosnian Serbs near Sarajevo to 1994 DU attacks by NATO. They were part of a community of Serbs from Hadzici (near Sarajevo) who moved to Bratunac northeast of Sarajevo, according to Doctor Zoran Stankovic, head of the Department of Forensic Medicine of the Yugoslav Military-Medical Academy in Belgrade. "The death pattern was easy to follow in an isolated population, particularly with an increased occurrence of malignant diseases and deaths," said Stankovic, who performed some 4,000 autopsies. Many of them had worked in a factory repairing tanks and armored vehicles that was heavily bombed by NATO in 1994. So far, no epidemiological study has been done to prove a link with DU contamination. But Stankovic said he strongly felt the link existed.

In a report from Bratunac, Independent reporter Robert Fisk registered a high incidence of cancer among the refugees from Hadzici. He describes the experiences of the 12 years old Sladjana Saranac. She remembers the pieces of a DU shell that she picked up outside her home in Sarajevo. "It glittered and I did what all children do," she says. "I was six years old and I pretended to make cookies out of the bits of metal and soil in the garden. Then I hid the pieces on a shelf because my puppy Tina was playing with it." Sladjana has been seriously ill. Her nails have repeatedly fallen out of her fingers and toes. She has suffered internal bleeding, constant diarrhea and vomiting. According to the figures given by Robert Fisk, up to 300 men, women and children out of the 5,000 who, just like the family of Sladjana, lived close to the site of the bombings in 1995 have died of cancers and leukemia over the past five years.

In another report, from the Bosnian-Serb town Doboj, which was also attacked with DU rounds, Robert Fisk is reporting about another cluster of cancers among the local population, but also about deformities among animals. The semi-autonomous Serb Republic is already reporting a fivefold increase in cancers over the past five years, with Banja Luka, heavily bombed in 1995, among the worst affected. The medical authorities in Banja Luka say cancer cases climbed from 816 in 1999 to 1,800 in 2000.

The medical doctors in Doboj are concerned about the rate of tumors and respiratory infections, which is two and half times bigger than before the war. The head of the infection department, Dr. Branko Dabovic, stated that there was a significant increase in malignancies and skin infections. Dr. Zora Drobac, a senior dermatologist, said: "There are a larger number of tumors among children and a greater number of malignant tumors. The skin problems are almost always face, hands and neck which are exposed." All seven doctors interviewed by The Independent at Doboj hospital insisted further studies would be necessary before scientific proof could connect the frightening rise in ill-health to DU munitions.


  •, 14 January 2001
  • New York Times, 17 Januari 2001
  • The Independent, 14 and 19 January 2001

Contact: Laka Foundation, Ketelhuisplein 43, 1054 RD Amsterdam, Netherlands Tel: +31 20 6168294; Fax: +31 20 6892179