Today's date:
Spring 2001

Little Risk in NATO's Depleted Uranium Weapons

Gen. Wesley K. Clark, as supreme allied commander of NATO, led the alliance to victory in Kosovo. He spoke with NPQ in Washington in January.

NPQ | A furor has arisen in Europe over the illness of Italian and other soldiers said to be exposed to the depleted uranium weapons NATO used during the wars in Kovoso and Bosnia. Is there anything to this in your view?

WESLEY CLARK | There are very well-known safety standards for exposure to radiation, set internationally by the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) and other institutions, based upon extensive research and testing by the US and other governments over the years. NATO has always abided by those standards.
We thus know very well what the correlation of radiation content to risk of depleted uranium is. It is measurable, and it is very low-40 percent less radioactive than natural uranium. There has never been any correlation between this level of radiation and a specific effect. Simply put, depleted uranium falls within the scale of what is safely admissible.

Depleted uranium is used in weapons not because it is radioactive. It is used because it is a heavier metal than lead and thus carries more impact against an armored target.

NATO acted completely within international legal restrictions on this. We did all we could to avoid large-scale environmental damage. We deliberately did not target areas we thought had Serb chemical weapons in them.

NPQ | If the effects of depleted uranium have been so well researched over the years, why the furor now in Europe?

CLARK | First of all, this was a long-term Serb propaganda campaign started in the mid-1990s after the first NATO bombing runs against the Serb forces in Bosnia. Since then, it has ricocheted back and forth in the press. It has now picked up a patina associated with European political dynamics vis a vis NATO.

To deflate this scare, those who want new testing on the subject should do it in a comprehensive, scientific way and not on the political stage.

My personal view is that, based on research already done, it is highly unlikely that anything new will show up.

NPQ | Yet, NATO did warn soldiers during the Kosovo war to be careful around DU weapons?

CLARK | In the case of depleted uranium, as in all radiation, you don't want the radioactive substance inside you where it does more damage. That is why we sent out an environmental warning back in July 1999 that soldiers should not be around areas where there is expended ammunition, whether depleted uranium or other munitions with a live tracer element or unexploded bomblets. When you get around expended munitions of any kind, it is dangerous.

During the Gulf War the US had some tanks shot by mistake by our own depleted uranium rounds. Some of the people in those tanks were killed, and some were not. When our investigators went into the damaged tanks to look at the effect of the ammunition, they wore gas masks because they didn't want to absorb any possible particles in their lungs.

We warned our people then to wear gloves and gas masks if they went inside a target that had been hit.

Some of our soldiers caught in those tanks hit mistakenly by our weapons during the Gulf War have bits of depleted uranium still embedded in their bodies today. We have monitored them. There has been no health impact. Not one of them has gotten leukemia. None of them has died.

NPQ | Back during the Kosovo war, Mikhail Gorbachev warned against the use of depleted uranium weapons. He said, "Such weapons burn at high temperatures, producing poisonous clouds of uranium oxide that dissolve in the pulmonary and bronchial fluids. Anyone within a radius of 300 meters from the epicenter of the explosion inhales large amounts of such particles...this could damage various types of cells in the body, destroy chromosomes and affect the reproductive system." Gorbachev went on to warn of a "slow Hiroshima."
How do you respond to that?

CLARK | That is the typical sort of inflammatory language that isn't helpful. Perhaps there is some kind of Russian weapon we don't know about that does this. No American weapon creates any such cloud.

The American weapon is a machine-gun bullet. It is not designed to explode but to penetrate a target. It bores a hole through armor with so much energy, because it is so heavy, that it spews inside the tank or armored personnel carrier all kinds of bits and pieces of that armor in a "spalling" or shotgun effect.
But there is no cloud that extends 300 meters.

Most importantly in terms of the current controversy, no NATO soldiers were on the ground when any targets were hit with depleted uranium weapons. They were fired by aircraft thousands of feet overhead. So the idea that the Italians or anybody else could have been exposed using or being near these weapons doesn't hold water. There is no possibility that the Italians or anyone else could have been exposed to any "cloud."

I suppose what is possible is that, if every day the Serbs went out and erected a decoy that was then hit with 50 rounds of DU weapons every day, there could have been, over time, a high concentration of DU in one spot because the decay rate is very slow. But all that even depends on how the target was hit, and how it and the weapon were dispersed. But that seems unlikely.

NPQ | So, this is a tempest in a teapot?

CLARK | I would never put it that way because an issue like this must be taken very seriously. But I am certain no new, unexamined correlation between DU weapons and health will be found.

All we have here are two sets of facts: First, 31,000 rounds of depleted uranium weapons were fired over a period of two months throughout an area 60 miles by 60 miles-almost 4,000 square miles. Second, some number of European soldiers are ill.
Somebody correlated these two. But there is no basis for this correlation scientifically, medically, statistically or experientially.

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