Review of latest reports to the UN Secretary General on DU
Overall state reporting this year was down on previous years; nevertheless reports were received from Columbia, Ethiopia, the Netherlands, Serbia, Japan and Qatar. In addition, reports were also submitted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). The reports are available at the end of this article.
One particularly interesting development appears to be the attempt by the IAEA to become the primary authority on DU hazards, despite the fact that observers have noted that they lack effective field capacity. They also seem poorly placed to comment on the chemical hazards of DU, discussion of which has been missing in their reports, yet repeatedly highlighted by UNEP as a major concern. It has also been noted that the use of DU is in direct contravention of the radiation protection norms promoted by the IAEA which, amongst other things, argue that all releases must confer some benefit to those who may face exposure.
The IAEA report features a discussion on their activities to date, for example:
IAEA provided the results and recommendations of these studies to the national authorities in the affected regions with the competence to carry out further surveys and monitoring activities, where applicable.
In a surprising development, that is perhaps indicative of the move by the IAEA to become the lead organisation on DU, they argue – in contradiction to previous statements, for example in their study of DU in Kuwait, that the results of their work can be used to judge civilian exposures at the time that the DU is used. This is contrary to their original line, which clearly states that their results are only relevant to exposures at the time of the study:
IAEA stated that the studies dealt exclusively with civilian inhabitants and that the results and conclusions were valid at the time that the assessments were carried out and, when possible under certain circumstances, prospectively.
As with their statement in 2010, the IAEA once again argue that DU problems can be dealt with by simple countermeasures, this view may come as a surprise to the Iraqi authorities tasked with managing thousands of tonnes of contaminated scrap vehicles, for example:
IAEA reiterates that, in all the cases where the Agency was involved, the radiological risk to the public and the environment from the localized contamination of territories, observed by means of environmental survey campaigns, was not significant and can be controlled with simple countermeasures conducted by national authorities.
The IAEA briefly touch on the potential for DU use to leave a significant psychological legacy on civilian populations. However they then belittle this by claiming that their work alone is sufficient to calm the fears of communities:
Nevertheless, it was also observed that in a post-conflict environment, the presence of depleted uranium residues further increases the anxiety of local populations. Finally, the results of the radiological evaluations conducted by IAEA, in cooperation with UNEP and WHO, provided a basis for public reassurance in all of the countries concerned.
In a further sign of the IAEA’s push to become the lead organisation on DU, the report from UNEP is the shortest and most puzzling to date. Most of the brief statement highlights a yet to be published UNSCEAR study on internal uranium exposure:
The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, as part of its current programme of work, is conducting a comprehensive review of the latest information in the scientific literature on the effects on humans of internal exposure due to inhalation and/or ingestion of uranium. It will cover natural uranium, enriched uranium and depleted uranium.
The report then concludes with a brief note highlighting the chemical toxicity of uranium – something that is not discussed in the IAEA’s previous research on DU, which has solely focused on radiological risks:
The review is limited primarily to the radiological effects, although clearly the chemical toxicity effects are important for human health (and especially so for depleted uranium). The review is expected to be completed for publication in 2014. Depleted uranium is primarily a chemical, rather than a radiological, hazard.
UNEP’s concise report is a far cry from their previous submissions, which have argued for a precautionary approach to the weapons on the basis of environmental uncertainties. Their call echoed those made in each of their reports undertaken in the Balkans.
Columbia indicted that DU weapons may breach international law by posing a threat human health and the environment, noting that:
In the context of international humanitarian legal standards, the use of armaments and munitions containing depleted uranium poses an imminent danger to the safety of human beings and their environment because of the toxicity and contamination that may result.
They also identified that the use of DU may result in long-term health risks, whose effects may not be immediately apparent, and called for measures to mitigate their impact:
The use of depleted uranium may entail collateral damage to human health that is not measurable in the short term, and therefore States that produce and use armaments and munitions containing depleted uranium are urged to reflect on the consequences that using them has on the environment and the population and to mitigate their impact.
Columbia then reiterated the importance of the call for user transparency that was present in the 2010 resolution:
States are encouraged to take the steps indicated in United Nations General Assembly resolution 65/55 so as to comply with the recommendations of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Health Organization.
The Netherlands, which has submitted its views in previous years recognised that more research into DU’s long term effects is warranted:
The Netherlands recognizes the need for additional research on the effects of the use of armaments and ammunitions containing depleted uranium and appreciates the fact that this issue is being discussed in the forum of the United Nations.
They then continued to focus on their longstanding discomfort over the word potential – they prefer the word possible – in relation to DU’s health and environmental impact. Again focus is drawn to the WHO, in spite of it not having undertaken any significant studies on DU for a decade:
However, the Assembly’s reference in the resolution to the “potential” harmful effects of the use of depleted uranium munitions on human health and the environment cannot thus far be substantiated by scientific studies conducted by relevant international organizations, such as the World Health Organization.
The Dutch military contingent in Iraq in 2003 had major concerns over the presence of DU in the environment after contamination was found around one of their bases. They therefore highlight the risks to their troops from ‘hazardous materials’ in the context of joint operations:
The Dutch armed forces do not use munitions containing depleted uranium. In the context of multinational missions, however, it is not impossible that Dutch service personnel may operate in areas in which munitions containing depleted uranium are being or have been used by allies. The health and well-being of Dutch soldiers deployed on international missions is under the continuous scrutiny of the Dutch Government. Exposure to hazardous materials must be avoided to the greatest possible extent.
Japan’s report was very similar to that submitted in 2010. Again they highlight that considerable uncertainties exist over the long-term impact of DU munitions:
Japan has neither owned nor used armaments and ammunitions containing depleted uranium. Japan recognizes that despite the studies conducted by relevant international organizations on the effects of the use of armaments and ammunitions containing depleted uranium on human health and the environment, at present, no internationally definitive conclusion has been drawn. Japan will continue to follow carefully the developments of the studies conducted by the relevant international organizations.
Recognising that previous DU studies have generally only provided a snap shot of conditions at the time of the study, Japan then called for longer term research into DU contamination. They also considered that the views of civil society should be taken into account:
Japan would like to call upon all relevant international organizations to conduct successive on-site studies and further information gathering, including the latest scientific findings, with due attention to the opinions and activities of the interested non-governmental organizations in this field, and to provide their views on the effects that the use of depleted uranium munitions may/can cause on the human body as well as on the environment.
The role of civil society was further reinforced by Japan’s pledge to continue its dialogue on the issue:
In this connection, Japan intends to continue to engage in dialogue, where appropriate, with civil society on this matter.
Qatar submitted a strongly worded statement, calling for a DU ban and the disposal of stockpiles:
The State of Qatar has not conducted studies or research on the effects of depleted uranium on health. However, in light of studies published in this regard, the State of Qatar recommends the adoption of а resolution that would prohibit this kind of armament and ammunition, and the disposal of stockpiles in order to safeguard present and future generations.
Serbia submitted a highly detail technical report, which described their work in documenting and managing DU contamination following NATO strikes in southern Serbia in 1999. They confirmed that:
The analysis of bioindicators (moss and lichens) has shown that those projectiles that hit a solid target have created uranium aerosols, which could have been moved further, depending on weather conditions.
Continuing, they discussed the nature of the threat that the weapons pose:
The danger of inhaling these aerosols poses the most serious risk to the health of those people who were exposed to them during the air raids. Inhalation of uranium oxide aerosols may have immediate or delayed health effects. There is also a danger with water ingestion if the projectiles lodged in the ground obstruct underground water flows, which was not the case in Serbia. It is likely that all depleted uranium munitions have not been found and removed, because after a certain number of years it is impossible to identify their precise location by dosimetric means.
They noted that their response to the use of DU had been swift:
All contaminated locations were duly marked by off-limit signs without delay, followed by soil rehabilitation, depending on the level of contamination and potential risk to the population.
Their report also confirmed that, even today, work to monitor the level of DU contamination at different locations in Serbia is ongoing and limits have been set for the levels deemed to be acceptable at each location:
Activities aimed at determining radionuclide presence in the environment at locations affected by depleted uranium are still under way within the framework of the programme of systematic environmental radioactivity testing in the Republic of Serbia. According to the results of lab analysis of the samples taken (during the initial and subsequent radiological surveys), and considering the defined level of allowed radioactive soil contamination, the definitive limits of radioactive contamination have been set for each location. The level of 200 Bq per kg of uranium content, both natural and depleted, existing in isotope 235 in the upper layers of soil has been adopted as the allowed level of radioactive contamination.
They ended by discussing their efforts in trying to map the potential health impact of the weapons, noting that biomarkers associated with exposures had been found in civilians and that the incidence rate of cancers had increased in the region, although added that they had been unable to find a statistically significant correlation with DU exposure due to the small sample size involved:
There is a clear trend of increased incidence of malignant diseases, especially in southern Serbia, although the incidence of many of them has significantly decreased in member countries of the European Union. Very often, such diseases occur at a young age, progress very rapidly and are detected only when well advanced. Even though the incidence of malignant diseases may, in theory, be explained by the presence of depleted uranium or prior exposure to it, owing to the lack of adequate equipment it was not possible to prove the internal contamination of patients. Nor was it possible to prove the statistical relevance of the cause-effect link, because of the comparatively small number of tested inhabitants.
UN Sec Gen 2010 report on uranium weapons (46 Kb - Format pdf)UNThe report contains views of Columbia, Ethiopia, the Netherlands, Serbia, the IAEA and UNEP on the effects of the use of armaments and ammunitions containing depleted uranium.This document is in PDF format and can be read using Acrobat Reader.
UN Sec Gen 2012 report on uranium weapons (addendum) (72 Kb - Format pdf)UNThe report contains the views of Japan and Qatar on the effects of the use of armaments and ammunitions containing depleted uranium.This document is in PDF format and can be read using Acrobat Reader.