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Defence ministry orders plutonium tests for NATO ammunition

Nato ammunition is to be tested for plutonium in Switzerland

(Keystone Archive)

The defence ministry has ordered military experts to test depleted uranium (DU) ammunition from Kosovo for plutonium. The decision comes after traces of enriched uranium were found in samples brought back from the province.

Samuel Schmid, the defence minister, ordered the government's weapons laboratory in the town of Spiez to conduct the tests following a report from Zurich's Federal Institute of Technology, which suggested that plutonium might be present in DU weapons.

NATO used the ammunition in the Balkans to destroy Serb tanks. Earlier this month, its use became a major concern in Switzerland and other European countries, which supplied peacekeeping troops deployed in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Defence experts have stated that DU poses no known health risk. But questions have been raised about whether troops serving in the Gulf and the Balkans may have been exposed to radiation leading to various forms of cancer, including leukaemia.

To answer these concerns, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) sent a team of experts to collect samples from NATO bombsites in Kosovo. The samples were then sent to five laboratories, including the one in Spiez.

UNEP asked the Swiss to check the samples for enriched uranium, but not for plutonium, which is extremely toxic. The plutonium tests were handled by another lab.

Traces of uranium 236, an artificial isotope created during processing in nuclear power plants, were found in ammunition samples. However, the UN agency said the quantities found were so small that the munitions were no more dangerous than those containing only DU.

The results of the new Swiss tests should be known by the end of February. A spokesman for the Spiez laboratory said on Tuesday that even if traces of plutonium were found, they would probably be too negligible to pose an additional health risk.

swissinfo with agencies


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