LLRC Journal Radioactive Times. Vol.5 No 1

Radioactive Times. Vol.5 No 1

Something in the air

In January 2001 Nippon TV asked Chris Busby to accompany them to Kosovo, in order to see if there was any sign of Depleted Uranium in the environment. At this time, about one year after the conflict, a number of teams had visited the area. They had reported variously, no uranium, only uranium near the site of impact, and no health risk. Some of the reports are listed in the table on page 3. Concerns about DU in Kosovo came to a head in early 2000 following media reports about leukemia deaths in Italian peacekeepers who served as part of the international presence KFOR.

As early as 1997 Green Audit had suggested, in a paper written to address increased child leukemia near the Atomic Weapons Establishment, Aldermaston, that Plutonium and Uranium particles might be resuspended in sunny weather and thus be available for inhalation. When Chris visited Iraq in September 2000, levels of alpha activity were much higher in the southern desert area (where the DU had been heavily used). Alpha activity was twenty times greater than it was in Baghad, suggesting that the DU particles were present in the air. The Iraq trip proved that looking for DU required a sensitive scintillation counter, like the instruments used by the nuclear industry to measure contamination. This is because Uranium is an alpha emitter (although it does have a very weak gamma emission) and alpha particles in air have a range of only a few centimetres. However, the two daughter decay products, Thorium-234 and Protactinium-234 are beta emitters, with a range in air of about twenty centimetres, so a scintillation counter can be trailed about 10cm from the ground and will detect the beta emissions from the DU so long as there is nothing in the way, like sand, water or snow. Ordinary Geiger counters, however, will not detect DU in small amounts, as the alpha and beta particles do not penetrate the Geiger tube window.

The background to the Kosovo trip was the decision made by the United Nations Environment Programme, UNEP, to send a team of scientists under the Finnish Green Party Minister Pekka Haavisto to look for contamination near the places where DU had been used. NATO had been forced to release a map showing these locations and a team of scientists set out in November 2000 to measure radiation and take samples for analysis. The interesting results of the UNEP study are discussed on page 10. Nippon TV were out to anticipate the UNEP findings and having learned that Chris Busby had been measuring DU in Iraq asked him to come with their team to look at Kosovo. Flying into the capital Pristina in January the weather was freezing cold, with snow on much of the ground. The postwar mayhem was being administered by French, Russian, US, German, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese troops working as part of KFOR. The muddy, smashed-up cities and villages were enveloped in a blue haze of suspended dust; everywhere were khaki armoured vehicles of KFOR and the dirty white land cruisers belonging to UNMIK. As only Press were admitted and could move around the wrecked country, Chris had to keep his head down at floor level as the elderly VW transporter carrying the Nippon TV crew passed through the various military checkpoints. The areas where DU had mostly been used were in the west, where the mountain villages were snowbound and very cold. At one place, on the Albanian border, the team had to race back to the van, pursued by a pack of wolves! In another area, near the town of Decan,

Chris was moving across some grassland with the scintillation counter looking for a signal that would show the presence of DU when the driver shouted,’Doktor Kris - you in minefield!’. This was followed by a careful exit on tiptoe.

DU was difficult to find in the snowy mountainous areas, owing to the shielding by snow and water that was on the ground. However, where the snow had melted on the lower ground there were a number of places where beta radiation signalled the presence of DU. One such place was Pec; the tell tale lines of bullet holes stitched along the roads gave off radiation signals which indicated - as in Iraq and other parts of Kosovo - that the A10 rotating multi-barrelled Gatling guns had been strafing. Another was Gjakove where a considerable amount of radioactive dust was discovered on a parking square near an abandoned armoured car. The dust containing the DU had clearly been precipitated out of the atmosphere by the snowfall and had been left behind when it melted. The armoured car had not been hit by DU and here there were no radioactive DU bullet holes in the road. Local children who were playing near the dust said that the snow had melted about a week before the team arrived. Measurement indicated levels of about 4000 Becquerels per kilogram (Bq/kg) of beta activity and samples were brought back to the UK where they were sent for analysis to two laboratories. David Assinder at University College Bangor (Wales) measured gamma spectra and alpha spectra and Ian Croudace at Southampton University measured DU by a sophisticated mass spectroscopic method. This costly exercise (about £1000 in total) was paid for by BBC Newsnight, who had negotiated with NTV for the rights to use the results the day before the UNEP results were due to be released. Results are given in Table 1.

Table 1: samples analysed by mass spectrometry* and alpha spectrometry** Sample A5 Sample A6* Sample A5A
  Gjakove, dust Gjakove, dust Cermjan, soil
Field scintillation beta cps 14 27 4.5
NATO A10 rounds fired in area 225 225 655
Date of attack 7/6/99 7/6/99 7/6/99
U-328 Bg/Kg 353* 5443** 19.6**
U-325 Bg/Kg 6.8* 69.6** 0.86**
U-324 Bg/Kg 26.1* 91** NA
Th-234 Bg/Kg 1721 4988 NA
Pa-234m Bg/Kg 1836 5352 NA
Mass ratio 335 504 146
Mass ratio if natural U 137.8 137.8 137.8
DU present? yes yes yes
These results show two things. First, the presence of DU in the dust from Gjakove, some twelve months after it was fired, shows that (contrary to the assertions of the military) the material becomes widely dispersed in the environment and does not magically disappear to join the natural uranium in some harmless way. Second, and more intriguing, the difference between the activity of the daughter isotopes Protactinium-234 and Thorium-234 and that of the parent U-238 indicated that following precipitation in the snow, the uranium particles were disappearing from the dust, probably through resuspension in the atmosphere.

To understand this, you need to know that when the half life of daughter isotopes is very short compared with the parent each decay of the parent will be followed by decays of the daughters. Therefore if we were to put the U-238 in a closed box, after a short while the number of decays per second from U-238 would be the same as the number of decays per second from Th-234 and Pa-234. (The sequence is said to be in ‘secular equilibrium’.) These measurements are evidence that the uranium particles were removing themselves from the dust. The mechanism by which this happens is not known but it might explain why DU is widely dispersed in the environment.

These results were featured on Japanese TV, in a special report from BBC Newsnight and also in the Daily Express shortly before the UNEP report came out. In addition to bringing back radioactive dust from a number of sites Chris bought used air filters from the bemused drivers of three cars. Because of lack of funds only one of these filters has been analysed so far and it did not show any significant DU. However, beta measurements from twelve sites suggested that DU was fairly widespread and seemed to exist in parts of Kosovo quite close to the capital, Pristina, which was heavily bombed using Cruise missiles. There is presently a large question mark over the DU content of such weapons.


Table - Some studies of DU.
Report Finding
1999 May; Belgian Medical service checks 152 samples No trace of DU found
1999 July; Greek team examines 9 soil samples No pollution found
1999 October; First Italian survey of Kosovo where troops were deployed No radiation above background except adjacent to strikes
2000 March; US team collects samples No measurable levels of DU
2000 March; Four KFOR surveys None found any radiation hazard
2000 April; Second and third Italian surveys No radiation above background
2000 November; Fourth Italian survey in Kosovo No radiation above background except near destroyed tanks
2001 Bulgarian survey No health risk found in Suva Reka, Kosovo
2001 Jan; Polish survey No environmental hazards
2001 Jan; Greek atomic energy survey, 70 samples No DU detected
2001 Jan; Portuguese team, 52 sites, then 36 sites All normal except near target
2001 Jan; German team conducts survey No elevated radiation levels
2001 Jan; Greek survey, 70 soil samples No elevated radiation levels
2001 Jan; UK MoD survey No widespread contamination
2001 Jan; Chris Busby/ Nippon TV Widespread DU contamination measured in field and confirmed by two separate laboratories in UK
2001 Jan; UNEP survey Widespread DU found in samples; levels too low to constitute health risk

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