Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Foreign and Commonwealth Office on Depleted Uranium

  You asked for a note about what steps are being taken to assess the effects of depleted uranium on civilians in Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo, and what has been done to remove debris possibly containing depleted uranium.

  Much work has and is being done by the United Nations, NATO and other organisations, as well as by the governments of individual nations, to assess the possible health effects of depleted uranium. The Committee may wish to have a summary of this work.

  NATO has released full details of depleted uranium use during the Kosovo conflict and in Bosnia to all past and present troop contributing nations, all nations in the region and interested international organisations. Most locations where depleted uranium munitions were used have been identified. Most of the sites from the Kosovo conflict are in Kosovo, but 10 are in Serbia and one in Montenegro. These details have been passed on to the FRY authorities. In Bosnia, depleted uranium munitions were mainly used in the 20 km exclusion zone around Sarajevo.

  NATO has co-operated fully with the follow up environmental study on depleted uranium being carried out by the Balkans Task Force of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) in Kosovo. NATO passed on the details of the sites where depleted uranium missions were used in July 2000 and assisted the Task Force during its field study of sites in November 2000. The Task Force, which includes representatives of the World Health Organisation, is testing water, soil, vegetation and other samples taken during this visit. It plans to visit sites in Serbia and Montenegro soon. NATO has offered to assist if the Task Force visits sites in Bosnia: UNEP should decide on this in the next few weeks. Further UN studies on depleted uranium in the Balkans will probably depend on the results of the tests on the Kosovo samples. The Task Force hopes to report on them in March.

  The Ministry of Defence lead on this subject. A Ministry of Defence reconnaissance team visited seven out of the eight sites identified as having been hit by depleted uranium in the British sector from 18-22 January 2001. This visit was made to help inform the development of a more detailed environmental monitoring programme as announced by the Minister of State for the Armed Forces in the House of Commons on 9 January. Soil samples were taken during this initial visit, and depleted uranium penetrators were recovered at one of the sites visited. Other nations are carrying out radiological studies in other sectors in Kosovo.

  NATO has ensured that information on depleted uranium is available to all with an interest. A meeting of NATO's Heads of Military Medical Services (COMEDS) on 15 January looked at the possible effect of depleted uranium. NATO has set up an Ad Hoc Committee on Depleted Uranium to exchange information on this subject. It is open to all Allied and Partner nations, past and present troop contributing nations, international organisations, and all countries in the Balkans. A representative from Bosnia has attended meetings but not, so far, anyone from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

  The UK has presented details of the independent peer reviewed epidemiological studies carried out on UK Gulf Veterans to the NATO Committees. These studies provide useful background on the possible effects of depleted uranium. Allied and troop contributing nations have also presented details on the health of personnel who have served in the Balkans, and the US has presented details of the illnesses amongst its Gulf Veterans. Croatia has provided a detailed study on the increase of cancers in the general population which concluded that increases were probably caused by stress related to the 1991-92 war.

  None of the evidence gathered by the UN or NATO committees has shown any link between the use of depleted uranium from munitions and illnesses. Work is continuing, however. Allies are preparing detailed epidemiological studies on personnel who have served in the Balkans, and in the UK the Royal Society is preparing a wider report on depleted uranium. The evidence on depleted uranium is also being reviewed for the European Commission by an Experts Group of Euratom, the European Union's Civil Atomic Energy Authority. So far we are not aware that there are any epidemiological studies looking at the possible impact of depleted uranium on the health of the civilian population in the Balkans. However, all the information being shared on depleted uranium would help with preparing any such studies.

  Following a request from the Interim Administration Council in Kosovo, a committee of experts from all ethnic communities is being set up under the auspices of UNMIK, the United Nations administration in Kosovo, to follow the issue. The Kosovo office of the World Health Organisation has also seconded a staff member to UNMIK to co-ordinate the establishment of a voluntary testing programme at Pristina University Hospital.

  UNMIK is organising the identification of all sites in Kosovo where depleted uranium munitions were used, in co-operation with the Mines Action Centre and KFOR contingents. Once all the sites have been located, UNMIK will prioritise them according to proximity to water sources and habitations. The sites will then be clearly marked. UNMIK has already advised the local population of the possible dangers of depleted uranium munitions and that, as with unexploded ordnance, debris from depleted uranium munitions should be avoided.

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