NATO officials said yesterday they had turned a corner in the public relations battle over depleted uranium, but the scare over the armor-piercing material has exposed rifts in the alliance not seen since the 1999 Kosovo war.
Top military health officials from the 19 NATO countries met yesterday in Brussels to examine claims of health problems reported by peacekeepers in the Balkans exposed to the depleted uranium (DU), employed extensively by U.S. and British bombers in the 1994-95 Bosnia conflict and in the 1999 air war against Yugoslavia.
A preliminary summary of their findings is to be presented today to a special NATO committee looking into the DU controversy.
“Scientist after scientist after scientist has been coming out saying they do not see a link between leukemia and depleted uranium,” NATO spokesman Mark Laity told reporters in Belgium yesterday.
Mr. Laity said he sensed that the “slight hysteria” over DU, promoted in a number of European news outlets and by anti-nuclear activists, was beginning to subside.
In Paris, the French Ministry of Defense reported that tests on five French soldiers who served in the Balkans and had contracted cancer revealed no traces of DU in their systems
But the DU probe has revived tensions within NATO that had largely subsided after the defeat of strongman Slobodan Milosevic in the 78-day air war in Serbia. Many of those most forcefully questioning the use of DU have come from countries such as Italy and Greece, where domestic opposition to the Kosovo campaign was high.
A less radioactive byproduct of the uranium used in nuclear power, DU is prized by military planners for its density, which allows it to penetrate armored tanks and other vehicles. The main health concern: that DU released from fired weapons in the form of small particles may be inhaled or ingested by soldiers or civilians, causing long-term health problems.
Although a Pentagon Web site ( www.gulflink.osd.mil/du_index.htm ) details nearly three dozen studies that found no link between DU and blood cancer and other diseases, a report that six Italian soldiers serving in the Balkans had contacted leukemia has ignited fresh controversy over the issue.
A front-page editorial in the Italian newspaper La Stampa depicted the DU debate as “the latest example of continental Europe’s struggle to come out from under the yoke of Anglo-Saxon hegemony in security and defense.”
Officials in Greece, where the war against Serbia was deeply unpopular, said yesterday they were pressured to keep their own concerns about the use of depleted uranium quiet by fellow NATO members during and after the war.
The government in Athens said that some 140 Greek soldiers have asked to return home in the wake of reports about potential health risks from DU.
Fueling the debate have been news accounts of British and U.S. military warnings about the health risks of handling or coming into contact with depleted uranium. Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and Pentagon experts say the warnings amounted to simple prudence, analogous to industrial rules for handling nonradioactive heavy metals such as cobalt.
And Russia, which harshly criticized NATO’s military campaign against Serbia, last week accused NATO of using as “dumping grounds” for DU, even through defense officials in Moscow said they had found no cases of DU-related diseases among the 3,600 Russian peacekeepers serving in Kosovo.
Caught off guard, NATO’s leading powers have moved to reassure the public about the safety of DU while attacking the motivations of those who have fed the controversy.
“I think it is very important for the facts to be made known and not to have hysteria and emotion take over,” Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright told reporters during a European farewell tour last week.
This article was based in part on wire service reports.