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Yugoslavia: Germans Upset Over Possible Plutonium In Weapons

A new dispute has erupted in Germany over the presence of radioactive material in shells fired by U.S. forces in Kosovo and Bosnia. The latest row involves the possibility that shells hardened by depleted uranium may also contain small traces of highly-toxic plutonium. German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping says Germany did not know this and has complained to the U.S.

Munich, 19 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Concern that weaponry incorporating depleted uranium may have caused disease in NATO some soldiers stationed in the Balkans has strained relations in recent days between the U.S., which uses the weapons, and many of its allies, which do not.

Now, new reports suggest minute traces of highly-toxic plutonium may also have been present in the DU weapons, posing a possible danger to soldiers and civilians in areas where the weapons were used.

The possibility the weapons may have released small particles of plutonium became generally known only this week as scientists were investigating the use of depleted uranium, which makes weapons harder, in shells. Several NATO peacekeepers have died of leukemia since serving in the Balkans, fueling concern that depleted uranium may have been the cause.

Many scientists reject a link between DU and disease, saying the amount of radioactivity in DU weapons is too small to pose a significant hazard. NATO has said it will investigate the matter.

Earlier this week, German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping summoned the acting U.S. ambassador in Berlin, Terry Snell, to protest. He told the ambassador his government knew nothing about the possible presence of plutonium and was outraged.

Scharping said afterward that he had protested the lack of detailed information about the manufacture of the shells, which originate in the U.S. He said he insisted that each member of the NATO alliance is entitled to receive the same information as others.

"I called in the acting American ambassador and told him of the fears associated with the word 'uranium.' It cannot be allowed to happen that there is not a completely open exchange of opinions within NATO on this matter. Every member must have access to the same amount of information about these shells and the same quality of information."

The Defense Ministry tells RFE/RL the U.S. has agreed in the future to share detailed information about munitions containing DU with its allies. The U.S. embassy in Berlin declined to comment.

The Defense Ministry said it first heard about the possible presence of plutonium in the weapons from scientists at the Technical University in Zurich, which is analyzing shells fired in Kosovo war at the request of the UN.

During the investigation, scientists reportedly found traces of the uranium isotope 236. The university said because of this it was "very probable" that plutonium particles were also present, if only in minute traces.

NATO headquarters in Brussels has since acknowledged that small particles of plutonium might be contained in shells using depleted uranium. But a NATO spokeswoman tells RFE/RL that the particles would be so small they could not be damaging to health.

German newspapers said today the U.S. had earlier disclosed the possibility the shells might contain plutonium particles. They point to a Pentagon statement in 1999 noting that depleted uranium was being used to harden U.S. battle tanks. It said then that it was "possible" the uranium contained particles of what was called "trans-uranium," another word for plutonium.

The Vienna newspaper "Der Standard" reported this week that the U.S. Department of Energy in Washington said last year it was possible that small particles of plutonium could be found in depleted uranium.

In a statement to the German parliament yesterday, Scharping said he recognizes the need for secrecy about weapons. But he said secrecy has to play a secondary role to the health of soldiers.

He said a lack of information about such things as the composition of shells could lead to a situation where Germany and other countries might be wary about joining the U.S. in joint combat missions.