Radiological Impact of the Use of Depleted Uranium Ammunition

Concerns have been expressed about the possible health and environmental consequences of exposure to depleted uranium (DU) arising from the use of this material in ammunition some ten years ago in the Gulf and subsequently in the Balkans. This exposure would have been caused by external radiation arising from DU or by the inhalation, ingestion or intake through wounds of DU spread in the environment. It has also been suggested that adverse health effects, notably leukaemia and other forms of cancer, could be attributable to such exposure.

Uranium is a naturally occurring radioactive material; its three principal radioactive isotopes are U-238, U-235 and U-234. One of the by-products of the process of uranium enrichment is DU that is comprised almost entirely from U-238 isotopes. It is about 60% as radioactive as natural uranium. Physically and chemically, DU behaves in the same way as natural uranium 

The IAEA has statutory responsibilities for establishing standards for the protection of health against exposure to ionising radiation and for providing for the application of these standards at the request of any State. In fulfilment of these functions, the Agency has established a comprehensive corpus of radiation safety standards in close collaboration and consultation with other relevant organizations in the United Nations system. The International Basic Safety Standards for Protection against Ionising Radiation and for the Safety of Radiation Sources (Basic Safety Standards), which were established jointly with the International Labour Organization (ILO) and other international organizations including the World Health Organization (WHO), are the authoritative radiation protection standards for assessing the potential radiological impact of the uses of DU. The exposures to which the requirements of the Basic Safety Standards apply are any occupational exposure, medical exposure or public exposure. However, they only cover risks of radiation and do not cover the toxic risks that may be associated with uranium intake. In the past, the IAEA, based on its statutory mandate and competence has prepared comprehensive scientific radiological impact assessments.

In May 1999, at the request of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) established a Balkan Task Force (BTF) with a view to carrying out an environmental impact assessment of the Balkans conflict. As it has been concluded that one of the issues to be addressed is the possible consequences of the use of depleted uranium ammunition in the conflict, UNEP has initiated fact finding missions to Kosovo in order to identify the magnitude of the problem. At the invitation of UNEP, experts of the IAEA have participated in this work. Most recently, in November 2000, the Agency's experts participated in a fact finding mission to Kosovo, led by UNEP and supported by the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) and NATO. The team that comprised 14 experts from Finland, Italy, Switzerland, USA, Sweden, the United Kingdom as well as UNEP and the IAEA, visited 11 sites where, according to information provided by NATO, DU ammunition has been used, carried out initial measurements and took samples of soil, water, vegetation and cow's milk. These samples are currently being analysed in European laboratories, including the Agency's Laboratories at Seibersdorf.

Notwithstanding the ongoing work referred to above, information available to the Agency on the levels and precise location of DU contamination in the territory of Yugoslavia is limited. The level of research carried out so far is not yet sufficient to warrant a scientific conclusion and, therefore, further work, including additional field mission(s) will be required. The objective of the assessment should be to make a comprehensive survey of the area and of the people and make recommendations from the point of view of toxic and radiological safety at specific locations in Kosovo where depleted uranium may have been spread. At the request of the States concerned, the IAEA is prepared to continue to contribute its scientific know-how and experience to clarify the radiological impact of the use of DU ammunition in the Balkans.



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Last update: 9 March 2017