A Question of Responsibility - the legacy of depleted uranium use in the Balkans
A PDF version of the report is available at the end of this article. Paper copies of the report are available on request
Depleted uranium (DU) is used in armour-piercing tank shells and bullets because of its extreme density, and because it burns upon impact. It is used in a dart or ‘slug’ at the core of the weapon called the penetrator.
Uranium weapons were deployed in the Balkans by United States (US) aircraft operating under NATO auspices in Bosnia & Herzegovina (BiH) in 1994, and 1995, and in Serbia, Kosovo and one site in Montenegro 1999. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) visited a representative sample of sites, and produced three reports between 2000 and 2002. These included lists of recommendations for dealing with contamination at the sites. ICBUW visited the region in 2010 to investigate whether UNEP’s recommendations had been carried out, as well as looking at the problems surrounding the assessment and decontamination of contaminated sites.
Although NATO did release lists of strike coordinates in the Balkans, this information is still not complete, and there were delays in the release of information. In the case of BiH, information was not released until six years after the war ended. Without knowing everything that has happened at the sites, and what happened to the vehicles that were hit, complete assessment of the risks is not possible.
Without quite detailed information to work from, it is difficult to locate points of contamination within the landscape, and when fired by aircraft, penetrators are usually buried in the soil. To properly survey contaminated sites requires expertise and equipment that is highly specialised, and often very expensive. Neither may be readily available to countries emerging from conflict. Furthermore, such efforts need to be highly coordinated, and the governance structures to organise such work are unlikely to be immediately in place after conflict, or in a newly formed state. Other administrative and environmental priorities are likely to compete for resources and may result in recommendations like those of UNEP not being fully implemented.
In BiH, uranium weapons contamination has been managed separately by the two parts of the country. This has historically created unnecessary duplication of function and impeded the sharing of expertise. In Kosovo, the Environment Ministry lacks the expertise and equipment to carry out soil testing and analysis, or decontamination.
Sites with detectable contamination in Serbia have been extensively decontaminated, as has the single site in Montenegro. There are also ongoing monitoring programmes. Some decontamination has been undertaken at one site in the Federation of Bosnia & Herzegovina (FBiH), although other sites have not been decontaminated. Nor has decontamination been done at the site in Republika Srpska, though there has been monitoring there in the past. In Kosovo, where most of the contaminated sites are located and over 70% of the DU was fired, there has been no programme of monitoring since UNEP’s study in 2001.
While many of the other problems faced by these countries are a product of their internal history, uranium weapons contamination was the result of the actions of others and adds further to the burdens upon countries struggling to emerge from the legacy of war.
The health consequences of exposure to DU are not clear, but within the body it is a carcinogen. While several desk studies have been used to estimate the risks from contamination, these are not a substitute for real world studies of the effects.
There is considerable concern in some parts of the region about the use of uranium weapons and media reports often link their use with reported high rates of cancer. However, the studies which could identify the cause have not been done to the extent required.
Unfortunately, the circumstances of a post-conflict country are very poorly suited to carrying out the kind of studies necessary. As with environmental assessment, institutional capacity and resources will be in short supply. The public cancer registries in both BiH and Serbia broke down during the conflicts, and Kosovo is just beginning a large scale reform of its health system which will establish one.
While there have been some studies with interesting results, the constraints of funding and access to equipment are limiting. Again, because uranium weapons contamination was not caused by these countries, it should not be their sole responsibility to prove whether there are any health problems as a result of it. External funding and access to equipment could help facilitate these projects, but when international commentators call for more evidence on the effects of uranium weapons, they must understand the complexity of the work involved. Even in the most benign circumstances, conclusive results can be elusive, and the legacy of war is such that many potential studies simply lack the data that would be required.
Economic and social consequences
The case of the TRZ Hadžići site shows that economic damage and social problems can result from contamination, even if we do not know the full extent of the health consequences. The fear of contamination can have a real impact on communities and simply providing more information about the risks will not solve the problem. It would be scientifically unjustified to offer a clean bill of health to places where there are still elevated levels of uranium in the environment. Furthermore, there is too much distrust after conflict for authorities to easily reassure sceptical populations. In this context, the use of uranium weapons is a lightning rod down which old animosity and division can travel, a situation which is unlikely to change in the future.
Because of the dispersal of contamination, simple coordinates are insufficient for effective decontamination and much more detailed information should be provided. The lack of information about whether any clean-up has previously been done at sites is also a problem. This is particularly a problem in Kosovo where the role of KFOR (The NATO Peacekeeping Force in Kosovo) is not at all clear. While Serbian sites with detectable contamination have been quite effectively decontaminated, only surface contamination has been done on one site in FBiH, and none in Kosovo. Again Kosovo, where most of the contamination is concentrated, is in the worst position.
There are a number of reasons why Serbia has been able to carry out more extensive decontamination work than has been done in BiH and Kosovo. Firstly it inherited many of the institutions that dealt with these matters in the former Yugoslavia, as they were based around Belgrade. Serbia is also is also much larger, so has more financial resources at its disposal and had relatively few sites to deal with. Also, although it suffered economic hardship and aerial attack during the conflicts of the 1990s, it has not had to deal with the legacy of a ground war.
Decontamination is very difficult work, and it is impossible to fully remove all the contamination. It is also very costly - the Cape Arza site in Montenegro cost DM 400,000 (almost $280,000 US) and took about 5,000 working person days to decontaminate 480 rounds, which in total took around 12 seconds to fire.
Given that even after extensive decontamination many penetrators can remain in the ground, sites may require ongoing testing of groundwater. In some circumstances, estimates of how long this may need to be done run into centuries, and again the testing is very expensive. This is one of the reasons ICBUW advocates a precautionary approach to decontamination, and to the use of uranium weapons.
Explosive ordnance disposal and uranium weapons contamination
The presence of mines and UXO complicates dealing with DU and vice versa. While there are demining standards in place for DU, in practice management of uranium weapons contamination was not a primary focus for the BiH or Kosovo Mine Action Centres. At the TRZ Hadžići site in BiH, a project that dealt with both was undertaken, and mines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) were detonated in situ because they represented the more immediate risk. The presence of uranium weapons together with UXO meant that those planning demining activities had to weigh up the risks of losing a limb and of developing cancer later in life.
International legal status
In contrast with explosive remnants of war (ERW), which are the subject of both international humanitarian law and specific treaty law, the norms governing the use of uranium weapons or other toxic remnants of war are derived solely from international humanitarian law. Several of these norms show that there is a clear legal case that states should observe precaution both in the use of uranium weapons, and in decontaminating affected areas. The moral case is boosted by the considerable barriers to effective decontamination.
Unfortunately, despite these existing legal regimes, state users do not seem to have placed any restrictions on their use, using the unresolved scientific issues surrounding the long-term impact of contamination as a pretext. While the harm posed by ERW is more direct, and easy to understand, this cannot be allowed to justify inaction on uranium weapons.
Implications for Iraq and other conflicts
The use of A-10s in the two Balkan conflicts was actually very limited. If it had not been for specific conditions, the use of DU in the conflict would have been much greater. This was the case in Iraq, where over 60 times more DU was used.
Although the environmental situation is very different, the challenges discussed in this report are likely to also be experienced by Iraq but in much greater magnitude. Extensive fieldwork and risk reduction programmes with international assistance are urgently required.
The circumstances that always surround the use of DU (i.e. conflict) mean that we should never presume that states will be able to deal with assessing the problem, conducting studies or decontamination. In both the use of uranium weapons, and decontamination, a precautionary approach should prevail. There is a clear need for transparency over the use of uranium weapons, and for technical assistance with decontamination. International help with these matters should be targeted to increase capacity in the region and strengthen links between researchers.
There is still a need for further health studies in the region to assess the health consequences of uranium weapons use.
While the immediate need is for transparency and technical assistance, states should consider whether there is a case for specific international measures that address the specific characteristics of uranium weapons. Consideration should also be given to the best way to ensure that capacity exists to undertake marking, monitoring and clearance work, including the possible creation of a semi-permanent capacity for such work to deal with both existing contamination and long-term monitoring.
Google Maps of known uranium weapons strike sites in the Balkans:
Google Document Spreadsheets of uranium weapons strikes:
Bosnia and Herzegovina Full 2008 Report to the UN Secretary General:
Serbia Full 2008 Report to the UN Secretary General:
- 2161 Kb - Format pdfDavid Cullen, Doug WeirA report examining user transparency, the capacity of states to manage depleted uranium contamination and the development of heath studies, seen through the experiences of Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo.