GENEVA Ammunition tips found at sites targeted by NATO during the 1999 Kosovo conflict contained traces of enriched uranium from nuclear reprocessing plants, the U.N. Environment Program says.
That finding indicates that at least some of the "depleted uranium" ammunition used by the United States and other NATO countries may have come from reprocessed nuclear fuel and therefore may also contain more hazardous plutonium, scientists said. The news was likely to intensify the controversy raging within NATO over depleted uranium ammunition, which some European countries fear could cause cancer or other diseases.
Depleted uranium, a slightly radioactive heavy metal, is used in anti-armor munitions because of its high penetrating power. U.S. forces fired weapons containing depleted uranium in Bosnia in 1994 and 1995, and in 1999, NATO fired such weapons during its 78-day bombing campaign in Yugoslavia.
"One part, a very small part, has been made out of recycled nuclear material coming from nuclear reactors and reprocessed," said Pekka Haavisto, chairman of the U.N. environment team that visited Kosovo last year.
A UNEP statement on Tuesday said the team had found faint traces of uranium 236, which does not occur naturally but comes from nuclear power stations.
"Everybody knows that U-236 is much more radioactive than depleted uranium," Haavisto told The Associated Press in a telephone interview, adding that the World Health Organization has been asked to assess the implications.
But Haavisto stressed that given the minute trace of the U-236 0.0028 percent in the samples analyzed, there did not appear to be any increased risk of cancer.
"The amount in the material is so small that at least our laboratory is saying that this doesn't change the overall picture of radiological effects," he said. He added that the United Nations wants to await the results of further studies from other laboratories currently analyzing material before drawing further conclusions.
The initial findings came from a respected Swiss atomic and chemical research laboratory in Spiez. Based on the findings from the same laboratory, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology said it was "highly probable" that the ammunition used in Kosovo also contained traces of plutonium.
"It is no secret that, after the separation (of plutonium from uranium), there are always traces of plutonium," the institute said.
It said that plutonium is about 200,000 times more radioactive than uranium and its radiotoxicity is about a million times higher. Even less than a thousandth of a gram of plutonium in the lungs could cause serious health problems, such as bone and lung tumors, it said.
However, the head of the Swiss research laboratory, Bernhard Brunner, said there was no sign that plutonium had been found.
"If there is plutonium, then we will find it," Haavisto said.
Public concern about the munitions has swept Europe in recent weeks as various nations have reported cancer cases among soldiers sent to the Balkans as peacekeepers. NATO, though, says an initial study of health records showed no connection between depleted uranium munitions and cancer among soldiers who served in the Balkans.
In Germany on Wednesday, Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping called the new depleted uranium reports "a very serious suspicion." He said the military is investigating.
Scharping also called in the top U.S. diplomat in Berlin Wednesday to express concern that the United States isn't telling its NATO allies everything it knows about depleted uranium ammunition. He did not elaborate.
U.S. charge d'affaires Terry Snell responded that Germany is ``receiving all the information that we have,'' embassy spokesman Mark Smith said.
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