Opening Statement at the IAEA Seminar and Training Course on Depleted Uranium in the Environment

Vienna, Austria

Werner Burkart, IAEA Deputy Director General for Nuclear Sciences and Applications

I am pleased to welcome you to the Agency on the occasion of the Seminar and Training Course on Depleted Uranium in the Environment. They have been organized by the Agency in close cooperation with the United Nations Environment Programme - UNEP - and the World Health Organization - WHO -, and I take this opportunity to welcome their representatives at this Seminar - Mr. Pekka Haavisto and Dr. Barry Smith.

I am sure that I speak for you all in appreciating the interests expressed by other United Nations organizations in the topic. I am pleased to welcome Dr. Hanu Vuori from the Department of Health and Social Welfare of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo, and Mr. Winston Tubman, advisor to the United Nations Iraq-Kuwait Observation Mission. Mr Nazir Ahmed Kamal from the Department for Disarmament Affairs in New York wanted to be with us but at this stage we do not know whether he or a colleague from Geneva could make it due to the terrible events of last week.

Our gratitude is also extended to the international experts who will work with us during the next few days. We will benefit from the results of their studies and research work and their advice on handling the problems and questions related to depleted uranium.

The issue of uranium is complex, is multi-faceted. It does not only touch on many disciplines of natural science but also has psychosocial aspects. Let me share with you an experience I had several years before the Gulf war. I had just written a textbook chapter on the toxicity of uranium and thorium in occupational hygiene, when I was confronted with a suicide attempt of a laboratory technician. She had seen the radioactivity sign on a bottle of uranium nitrate used for staining in electron microscopy, and - a love affair broken up - she wrongly thought that drinking this radioactive solution would kill her. Fortunately, this depleted uranium - not containing much more radiotoxic uranium decay products such as radium or radon daughters - gave her a very small radiation dose. More critical was the chemical toxicity, especially acute effects on the kidneys. This could be prevented with chelation therapy. The young lady survived and lived on healthy. I hope later on she had at least one successful love affair leading up to a happy family.

After two wars, the issue of depleted uranium in the environment has undoubtedly raised international concerns, as we see from the attendance here today of representatives from 35 countries. We are responding to these genuine governmental and public concerns, which focus on the possible environmental and health impacts of depleted uranium. Certainly we can acknowledge the expert advice already in the public domain, which advises that the radiation effects on health from depleted uranium are of a secondary nature compared with other radiological hazards.

But issues of concern remaining; for example, potential lasting environmental effects and possible long-term health risks to affected individuals and populations need to be addressed in a systematic and scientific manner. The Agency's mandate includes the provision for assistance, guidance and advice in such areas, and so we are pleased to respond to our Member States' requests for information and training. We are co-operating with UNEP and WHO in this initiative because of their involvement and scientific expertise. In this way we are able to address all aspects of the problem in a harmonized way inside the UN system.

The Training Course will benefit from the expertise in radiochemical and environmental analysis techniques provided by the Training Center in Karlsruhe, Germany, which will coordinate contributions from German experts in radio- ecological modeling. Our thanks must go the Government of Germany for this valued contribution to Agency's activities, and also to the Governments of Italy and Switzerland for their extrabudgetary contributions towards the course.

I would like to turn now the purpose of our meetings:

The Seminar is aimed at a broad audience of authorities in public health and public information organizations and the relevant research institutes who would be the national advisors for the issues posed by depleted uranium. Its objective is not only to provide information, but also to be a forum for an informed exchange of views. It will look at the questions of whether, to what extent, and under which conditions, the presence of depleted uranium in the environment could have long-term detrimental effects to human health and the environment. The experts will present the results of field studies and epidemiological studies. The exposure pathways will be described and estimates will be provided for the associated radiological and toxicological effects and risks.

Following the Seminar, the Training Course will take place in the Agency's laboratories at Seibersdorf and then at Karlsruhe in Germany. Participants have been selected from the countries directly affected by depleted uranium contamination and from countries providing peacekeeping forces in potentially contaminated areas. They are already involved in laboratory and fieldwork related to depleted uranium. The course will address environmental and biological monitoring of areas and people potentially contaminated with depleted uranium. Participants will be trained how to obtain representative samples and reliable data, and how to establish the basis for assessing the health significance of the contamination and the consequential protective measures or remedial actions.

In conclusion, and extending my best wishes for a successful Seminar and Training Course, I would like to remind you that these are the first events that have been organized on the topic. Your inputs, comments or recommendations will be important to help us to judge their effectiveness, and to make possible future events more effective. Please do not hesitate to let us know your thoughts.

I wish you a very fruitful seminar, pertinent training sessions and useful exercises.

Last update: 27 October 2014