Copyright 2001 Agence France Presse
Agence France Presse

January 24, 2001, Wednesday 1:23 AM, Eastern Time

Contamination at plants source of plutonium in munitions: Pentagon

By Jim Mannion

WASHINGTON, Jan 23, 2001

Plutonium and a highly radioactive isotope, U-236, found in US depleted uranium (DU) munitions has been traced to the use of contaminated equipment at US government plants where the heavy metal was produced during the Cold War, the Pentagon said Tuesday.

Pentagon spokesmen said that the amounts found in US stocks of depleted uranium were minute and the risk to health or to the environment was insignificant.

"We have seen nothing in our studies that this would have more than an insignificant impact either on personal health or the environment," said Rear Admiral Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman.

"It is just incredibly small quantities here that we're talking about both in the armor and in the munitions themselves," he said.

But the disclosure that DU munitions contain even trace amounts of highly toxic plutonium as well as U-236 has outraged Germany, whose defense minister protested the Pentagon's failure to keep its allies informed.

NATO has been struggling for weeks to allay fears in some European countries that a rash of reported cancer cases among veterans of Balkans peacekeeping missions were linked to exposure to depleted uranium ordnance fired by US forces during conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Quigley said a NATO committee set up to look into the depleted uranium issue has been informed in recent days about the plutonium found in US DU stocks.

It was detected as early as 1999 in the course of an investigation by the Department of Energy into contamination at its processing plants in Paducah, Kentucky; Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Piketon, Ohio, defense officials said.

The investigation found that all three plants during the 1950s through the 1970s were contaminated by operations involving recycled uranium that contained plutonium, neptunium and technetium-99, defense officials said.

Depleted uranium produced with the contaminated equipment itself became contaminated with plutonium and the other transuranic elements, they said.

Trace elements of U-236, which normally would not be found in depleted uranium, also were noted when depleted uranium stocks were checked in 1999, said Lieutenant Colonel Paul Phillips, a Pentagon spokesman.

"The source of the contamination as best we can understand it now was the plant themselves that produced the depleted uranium during the 20 some year time frame when the DU was produced," said Quigley.