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Uranium scare worries NATO

Alliance's unity at risk, internal document warns

Mike Blanchfield
The Ottawa Citizen
27 February 2001

NATO officials are concerned that "a legacy of doubt" could weaken the alliance if it does not properly address the controversy over whether depleted uranium poses a cancer risk to its troops.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization fears some of its 19 member countries might opt out of military missions if depleted uranium is, or has been, used in proposed areas of operation.

"This could have profound impacts on future coalition operations and Alliance cohesion," warns a NATO briefing document recently tabled at the alliance's Brussels headquarters, a copy of which was obtained by the Citizen.

The document, intended primarily for the eyes of NATO member countries, summarizes the controversy that flared in Europe last month over depleted uranium, and whether it is responsible for "Balkans Syndrome," a label that has been given to unexplained deaths and illness among some alliance troops.

The leukemia deaths of about 20 peacekeepers from Italy, Germany, Portugal, Spain and elsewhere raised concerns about whether the 40,000 anti-tank missiles used during the Kosovo and Bosnia bombing campaigns might be posing a health risk. The weapons were tipped with radioactive depleted uranium.

Since the flare-up of the controversy, NATO health officials have presented a calm and confident public response. At two Brussels press briefings they restated the fact that there is no proven scientific link between exposure to depleted uranium and increased cancer rates, but added that because of the concerns raised, the alliance favours further studies of the issue.

While NATO might have science on its side, the internal document expresses concern that political fallout in some countries over the depleted uranium scare could undermine the strength and solidarity of the alliance.

"Public opinion in many European nations is already skeptical about official advice on health issues following a history of confusion and U-turns on BSE or 'mad cow disease,' " the document says.

"No matter what the scientific evidence, it is possible that the current debate over depleted uranium munitions will leave a legacy of doubt and suspicion such that certain NATO allies might be unwilling to become involved in operations -- or the aftermath of operations -- where depleted uranium munitions are used."

The document concludes that the level of radiation emitted by depleted uranium is too low to cause cancer and that it is "unlikely to be a source of a 'Balkans Syndrome.' "

It recommends that a special NATO committee, recently formed to address the issue, ensure that the results of further studies are rapidly disseminated.

"It might well be the case that the committee's mandate should be broadened if studies indicate the presence of a health hazard but exonerate depleted uranium."

The committee includes representatives from 50 countries and five international organizations.

The report also says NATO should adopt a suggestion by the World Health Organization that calls for cleaning up or cordoning off heavily bombed areas to minimize radiation exposure.

Since depleted uranium re-emerged as a political issue in Europe last month, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling for a ban on the substance.

The United Nations Environment Program is gathering data on the radiation levels at bomb sites in the Balkans and is to report its findings in a matter of weeks.

Canada has said that voluntary testing of its peacekeepers has shown no elevated levels of cancer.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Manley is in Brussels today for informal meetings with his NATO counterparts.

The ministers are to discuss a range of topics, including the future prospects for peace in the Balkans and the U.S. plan to build a national missile defence system.

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