Bid to Bury Plutonium Factor
By Douglas Hamilton
Sat. Jan. 20, 2001
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Just when it thought it had the depleted uranium
(DU) scare under control, NATO may face a fresh onslaught of concern as the
United States belatedly confirms that some DU munitions contain minute
traces of plutonium.
Uranium is one thing. Plutonium is quite another, especially if it
arises from flaws at a problem-plagued U.S. nuclear plant.
Plutonium is a heavyweight in the lexicon of scare words -- according
media reports, a particle as small as a millionth of an ounce, if
inhaled, can cause a fatal cancer.
German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping last Wednesday took the highly
unusual step of calling in the U.S. charge d'affaires in Berlin to seek
more information -- after a German television network reported on the
Washington can rightly claim that the plutonium issue was not a secret
but its spokesmen have omitted to mention it.
U.S. experts brought in by NATO in the past 10 days to calm fears of
cancer risk from DU ammunition used in Kosovo, Bosnia and the Gulf
stressed that DU is 40 percent less radioactive than the natural uranium people
eat, drink and breathe.
What they did not say was that some DU comes from recycled nuclear fuel,
not ore, and contains traces not only of highly radioactive uranium-236
but of plutonium as well.
A review of transcripts and audio files shows that U.S. Army medical
experts flown from Washington failed to mention the word plutonium once.
One, asked if DU might contain uranium-236, said: "I can't answer. I
just don't know."
A NATO spokesman said pointedly that reporters were "getting exactly
same briefings as the NATO ambassadors just got."
Two days later, NATO had to issue a statement saying the presence in
of U-236 and plutonium in minute quantities had "long been established" but
was "irrelevant" as it did not increase the extremely limited DU risks
LINK TO TROUBLED NUCLEAR PLANT
The furor erupted over DU munitions in early January, but there has
no mention in NATO public records of serious safety failures at the
Kentucky plant which made the material.
Last Thursday, as the Clinton administration bowed out, the outgoing
Pentagon spokesman was asked about U-236 traces.
"As you know, we discovered some stray elements, transuranics they're
called, in depleted uranium, the Department of Energy did, a year or so
ago," Kenneth Bacon said.
"They consisted of plutonium, neptunium and americium. Now these are
very, very small amounts and as soon as they were discovered as indicating
possibly a flaw in production in the production process, the Nuclear
Regulatory Commission suspended the operation at this plant, which is in
Bacon said operations resumed after a 90-day examination.
"Now, the labs in Europe have found tiny elements of U-236, which is
normally in depleted uranium," he added. These were so small that United
Nations scientists said they did not change the very low radiotoxicity
of the depleted uranium...
"We're looking into how this could have happened."
NO DEFENSE AGAINST DOUBT
A World Health Organization team is going to Kosovo this week to take
more samples in places where DU anti-tank rounds were fired by U.S. planes in
the 1999 NATO campaign.
If plutonium shows up with any regularity, it may not matter that levels
are too small to pose a serious health risk, as the United States and
NATO insist: public doubt is likely to grow and opposition to the munitions
will rise with it.
Even minute levels could fuel speculation that a "bad batch" of DU from
Paduhac contained more plutonium than expected, and may have been
inhaled in dust kicked up later.
The Paduhac plant, which has made nuclear weapons material for 50 years
under government contractors, is being sued for $10 billion for
concealing health risks from workers and locals.
A February 2000 U.S. Department of Energy report said the plant
"operated in a climate of secrecy, with a strong sense of national need, and a
lack of understanding of a number of environment, safety and health risks."
Workers had "become ill because of workplace exposures."
The Paduhac plant was cited for scattering plutonium at 1,200 times
normal background level beyond its grounds and attempting to cover up
this and other safety violations.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said 1,600 tonnes of nuclear
weapons parts were littered around the grounds below ground and in ground-level
STILL NO EVIDENCE OF SYNDROME
There is no proof of any mystery illness among NATO peacekeepers and
"Balkans syndrome" to be explained, the medical chiefs of NATO's 19
armies all agreed last week after a day of comparing records.
But the issue remains one of credibility as much as health.
Finger-pointing could proliferate if governments faced renewed charges of not informing
the public in good time of what some will suspect they knew all along.
The information is all available on the Internet from U.S. newspapers
and groups using the U.S. Freedom of Information Act.
In a January 2000 letter to the activist Military Toxics Project, the
U.S. Department of Energy said it believed minute quantities of plutonium
might be contained in U.S. stocks of depleted uranium, but in amounts too low
to pose risk.
It noted health and safety concerns at Paduhac and said DU test rounds
"almost certainly" contained recycled uranium but did not directly
answer: did they contain plutonium?.
The Department's letter was recently passed on to NATO.
Neverthless, European governments appeared unprepared for media
"revelations" about plutonium traces in DU rounds and at NATO there are
differences about whether Scharping and others facing a media grilling
should have known what to expect.
Defense Secretary William Cohen had said earlier this month that DU
no more dangerous than "leaded paint," and a U.S. Army briefer assured
reporters it was safe enough to eat.
Now that the word plutonium has been mentioned, that may have been a
public relations miscalculation.