A 19th century citadel on Cape Arza is located on the Adriatic Sea shore in Montenegro (former Yugoslavia). This place had been a tourism attraction site before the NATO-Serbia War. Today this place has become more popular with environmental scientists than with foreign tourists. This is because Cape Arza happened to be a full scale depleted uranium decontamination project. Two tons of contaminated soil, crashed rocks, fallen leaves, and pine needles together with seventy five kilograms of depleted uranium were removed from Cape Arza. The clean-up was necessary after 480 bullets (300 of them with depleted uranium penetrator) were fired by A-10 Thunderbolt NATO airplanes during two attacks on May 29 and May 30, 1999.
It took a total of 220 days in 2001 and 2002 for an expert team of seven civilians and eight military officers with the help of ten people involved in logistic operations to complete the decontamination of the area of 22 thousand square yards. Prior to radiological inspection the whole area was cleaned from bushes, and all trees were trimmed. The next step undertaken was to divide the area into rectangular sections 10 yards wide and from 10 to 90 yards long. Then each section was even further divided by rope into 30 inch wide paths. Two team members equipped with dosimeters very slowly moved along a path. They made frequent stops to check the places with radiation levels higher than natural levels of radiation. All those places were marked with a flag. After that, contaminated soil was removed layer by layer until the depleted uranium penetrator was found.
A total of 242 penetrators and 49 large fragments were taken away, which equals 85% of the depleted uranium used by NATO at Cape Arza. The highly contaminated soil, along with depleted uranium penetrators, was stored at Vinca Nuclear Research Laboratory in Belgrade. The low radioactive soil, stones, and leaves were collected inside a World War I bunker located in the area. By the end of October 2002 it looked like the decontamination process was completed. But, when another expert team from the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) arrived in November 2001, they found four more depleted uranium penetrators in the non-decontaminated area, adjacent to the decontaminated terrain. It was only beginning. A big surprise waited for scientists inside the already decontaminated area. The examination of soil samples showed the contamination up to 70% of depleted uranium in several soil samples. Those samples were taken from areas of the most intensive decontamination. The UNEP conclusion was that it was the result of the secondary contamination. The decontamination process itself is complex and dangerous, because it creates a possibility of a new contamination. Residue from digging up depleted uranium contaminates air and soil with toxic black dust of uranium oxide.
As you can see the decontamination process must be completed manually mainly due to the nature of contamination. Could it be done a different way? Probably yes, because six years later, in 2008, researchers at the University of Dundee, UK published a report about fungi’s amazing ability to transform pieces of depleted uranium into uranyl phosphate minerals. Unstable depleted uranium, when tightened in mineral form, becomes stable and less likely to find its way into plants, animals or the water supply.
As usual we can rely on nature to respond to mankind’s clean-up needs. In 2007 another research team from Albert Einstein College of Medicine at New York’s Yeshiva University discovered fungi using radiation as the sole source to fuel its growth inside the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (Ukraine).
The only problem with a reliance on nature could be the fact that humans destroy the environment at a much faster pace than nature can cope with the problem. With that in mind maybe everybody would be better off if the United Nations members would finally agree to ban the use of depleted uranium as a weapon.
1. Radiation Survey and Decontamination of Cape Arza from Depleted Uranium by P. Vukotic, T. Andelic, R. Zekic,
M. Kovacevic, S. Savic
2. Role of fungi in the biogeochemical fate of depleted uranium. Current Biology
3. Depleted Uranium in Serbia and Montenegro. Report UNEP 2002
4. The radioprotective properties of fungal melanin are a function of its chemical composition, stable radical presence and spatial arrangement. Dadachova E. and others.