On October 4, 1992, an El Al Boeing 747 crashed in Amsterdam's Bijlmermeer, killing 43 people. In recent years questions have remained about the cause of the crash, health problems among citizens and rescue workers, the exact cargo, depleted uranium counterweights, and other issues. Last year a Parliamentarian Inquiry (called Commission Meijer, after its chairman) was started to resolve these questions. On 22 April 1999 the Commission Meijer published its results.
One of the Bijlmer crash issues was the presence of depleted uranium (DU) in the plane's counterweights. A total of 282 kilograms was constructed in the plane´s tail wings. Laka made this public in October 1993 (1) after which a discussion started on the potential burning of DU and the risks for citizens and rescue workers.
From the beginning, Laka pointed out emphatically that bystanders and Bijlmer residents ran potential health risks as a result of airborne uranium from the burning wreck. The presence of DU is among others based on a publication by Paul Loewenstein (2), then technical director and vice-president of the American company Nuclear Metals Inc. (currently named Starmet), the supplier of the DU to Boeing. Loewenstein says in his article that "large pieces of uranium will oxidize rapidly and will sustain slow combustion when heated in air to temperatures of about 500 degrees celcius".
The great danger from this chemical reaction is that the escaping cloud of dust with thousands of microparticles of uranium oxide can be inhaled or swallowed by bystanders. The American physicist Robert L. Parker wrote in Nature (3), in a worst-case scenario involving the crash of a Boeing 747, that about 250.000 people would run health risks (or near-poisoning) as a result of inhalation or swallowing of uranium oxide particles. Parker's conclusion assumed the presence of 450 kilos of DU in a Boeing 747. He says: "Extended tests by the American Navy and NASA showed that the temperature of the fireball in a plane crash can reach 1,200°C. Such temperatures are high enough to cause very rapid oxidation of depleted uranium."
Paul Loewenstein said that DU would disperse particles in a fire, depending on the following factors: temperature, the surface condition of the fragments (a measure of the accessibility of the metal to surrounding oxygen), and wind speed. This means that the weather at the time of the Bijlmer crash was conducive to the dispersion of burning uranium and that there was every reason for concern. The temperature of the jet fuel fire apparently went higher than 500°C, sufficient for the likely combustion of the outer surfaces of the DU fragments. Moreover, there was a strong northeast wind blowing at the time (windspeed 7). People should have been concerned because a big part of the uranium in the form of dust clouds could have spread across the area, especially towards the southwest. It is known that dust particles can be blown by the wind for kilometers (4).
To calm troubled minds in the Amsterdam suburb Bijlmermeer, the radiation expert A.S. Keverling Buisman of the Energy Research Center (ECN) issued a press release (5) the same day that the news of the uranium contamination swept the world. He confirmed the presence of DU in the wrecked plane, but denied any hazard to public health or the environment. He declared that the uranium remained intact. A day later, the same expert spoke in the town hall in the Zuidoost (Southeast) district, where the Amsterdam Research Service on Environmental Protection and Soil Mechanics (Omegam) presented a definitive version of its investigation on the polluted soil in the immediate surroundings of the flats named Kruitberg and Groeneveen where the plane crashed. Throughout the hearing, Keverling Buisman was pressed to answer all kinds of questions about uranium, and to calm the uneasiness of the Zuidoost population.
Neither the Zuidoost council nor the Amsterdam Environmental Service nor Omegam was aware at that time of the extent of the presence of DU in the accident. The clearly nervous radiation expert did not convince the neighborhood people that uranium carried no risks. The Bijlmer working group on Air Traffic and associated neighborhood groups like Service Platform and Sounding Board were already in possession of a variety of documents in which it was clear that depleted uranium in a jet fuel fire is definitely harmful to public health and the environment. The district council had obviously not grasped the message from the information, because in cooperation with the ECN the next day (October 14), a letter (6) was carried door-to-door with the advice that all was well and that there was not a single reason for concern: "It is possible that recent publications on the presence of uranium-bearing materials in the unfortunate plane crash have led to unease among neighborhood residents. The concern is misplaced. From the information of the Dutch Aviation Administration it was already known that depleted uranium metal is used as a ballast in airframes. About 400 kg of uranium metal was incorporated into the unfortunate Boeing plane for this purpose. The uranium metal was simultaneously removed with other fragments from the plane crash in the week after the accident. Uranium metal is not dangerous to the public health. The surrounding effects were therefore not influenced by the accident."
Spokesmen for Boeing, El Al, the Dutch Ministry of Traffic and Water Supply, and the Dutch Aviation Administration admitted immediately that there were DU counterweights in the tail rudder of the illstarred aircraft. They claimed that the plane contained 390 kg of DU. El Al declared that during the maintainance work on the plane, 45 kg of a total of 435 kg of DU was replaced by tungsten (7). Last year it appeared that the total amount of DU at the crash time must be 282 kg rather than 390 kg, because of measurement faults. The 90 kg of DU retrieved from the wreckage by KLM was transported in the beginning of 1993 to COVRA, the Dutch national agency for radioactive waste management. After the October 1993 media attention, a new search started into the missing DU. In the remaining wreckage a counterweight of 37 kilograms was found and on a polluted-soil repository, another broken weight of 3 kilograms was found. No search was conducted at the waste repository, where a lot of debris from the flats and cargo was dumped after the crash (8).
On September 13, 1994, the Amsterdam Health Service (GG and GD) declared that effects on the health of neighbors by the DU are unlikely. In a letter to the city council of Zuidoost, the Health Service wrote: "The complaints which were put forward by a group of residents were not such as these that a relationship was acceptable with the plane crash." The physicians of the municipal service based this conclusion on information of family doctors in this part of the city and on declarations of industrial doctors. Additionally they mentioned that the service personnel who were thrown into gear for the rescue work had also experienced no disadvantageous consequences. Even when small particles of DU oxides have been spread by burning, the Health Service said, nobody would run any risk to inhale or to ingest the radioactive particles, because "the airstream is always directed to the seat of fire". (9)
The research results of the Health Service made part of the final report on the DU by the city council of Zuidoost, published on October 4, 1994. On a public hearing about this report, Laka made many critical comments on the function of the Dutch Aviation Administration (RLD), the city council, the Environment Service of Zuidoost and the Amsterdam Health Service. Especially the last service had to pay to it. Together with Bijlmer residents and the Dutch Greens, Laka called for a long-term in-depth epidemiological search for the presence of uranium in the bodies of the service personnel and residents.
Since the publication of the final report from the city council, which strongly played down the health and environmental effects of DU, Laka has obtained more and more documents which strongly emphasized the chemical and radiological toxicity of DU. One interesting aspect about this particular case is probably the report, "Health risks during exposure of uranium", made by radiation expert Leonard A. Hennen from the Dutch Ministry of Defense. By accident, this report was published just a week after the final report on DU from the city council of Zuidoost. The author is very thorough about the radiotoxic nature of DU in the human body.
The findings of Hennen strongly contradicts the findings in the final DU report of Zuidoost. He said that people in a DU crash site are running risks. In his report, he proposed the taking of urine samples and in vivo measurements when there is suspicion of internal contamination of the DU. This is exactly what Laka has been insisting upon. In the last six years, Laka has continuously referred to the possibility that DU had been burned, causing a potential risk for people. Besides, Laka repeated the need to conduct medical tests to get clearance on the relation with observed health problems. (10)
The ongoing publications and rumors on the plane crash, also called "the disaster after the disaster", was reason to appoint a Parliamentarian Inquiry Commission in September 1998. This Commission had to give clarity on questions about the cargo, the exact cause of the crash, the depleted uranium issue, observed men in white protective suits, etc. The Parliamentarian Inquiry Commission investigated the DU issue intensively. On request of the commission, research was conducted and people were heard (among them from Laka).
From the Parliamentarian Inquiry Commission Bijlmer Disaster, chaired by the Christian-Democrat Meijer, it appeared that some authorities were aware of the DU issue but never informed responsible ministers and others. For instance, the Dutch Aviation Administration found DU weights at the third day after the crash but failed to inform rescue workers at the crash site. For as long as a year, the Ministry of Environment's Inspection Environmental Health failed to inform its own minister on the presence of the DU weights in the plane. From October 7, 1993, three days after the disaster, the Inspection knew about the presence of DU, but didn't forward it to the fire brigade, the police and the people on the place of the disaster. As well as the Minister for Environment, the chiefs of the fire brigade and the police and others only learned about it after media publications one year after the crash. The Commission called this "inconceivable" and "negligent". In their final conclusions, the Commission stated: "The risks of DU were not recognized sufficiently. " (11)
Apart from the finding and recognition of DU weights three days after the crash, it also became clear that one day after the crash, the possible presence was already recognized by the Dutch Royal Airways (KLM). From maintainance manuals, the KLM knew about DU weights in 747s and informed the Dutch Aviation Administration and the Ministry of Environment (likely the Environmental Health Inspection) immediately. So, one day after the crash, safety measures could have been taken when people at the crash site were informed. This information was given directly by the KLM to Laka, which informed the Inquiry Commission about it. However, in its final report the Commission did not mention this. (12)
Another remarkable absence in the report of the Commission is the discussion about the behavior of DU in a fire. In fact, the heart of the whole matter. Until last year, all concerned ministers repeated again and again the statement of the radiation expert Keverling Buisman that the DU could not have been burned, and thus therefore no health risks were present. After repeated claims by Laka and others that temperatures of a few hundred degrees would be sufficient to cause rapid oxidation and dispersion, the Minister of Traffic announced a new research on this matter. (13)
The research was conducted by ECN and Laka acted as an advisor on request of the Minister. The outcome, mainly based on US Army research (14), confirmed low-temperature burning. Between 350 and 600 degrees Celsius DU will oxidize and loosen it as fine powder. From 650 to 800 degrees, however, the formed oxides mainly stuck to the surface of a weight. At higher temperatures, the counterweights would oxidize completely. The day the report was published, a lot of media attention was given to a conflict that had risen between Laka and ECN on the final text of the conclusions that could be made from the study. This conflict is said to be the reason to undertake a full Parliamentarian Inquiry, instead of a much smaller "Parliamentarian Research" (15)
As DU was found in dust in the hangar, where the plane's remains were stored, the Commission concluded that: "In the crash, particles of depeleted uranium were formed and released. The Commission expects that a release of DU particles has taken place at the crash site and in hangar 8. In all probability, the particles had been inhaled by rescue workers and citizens."
But the Commission refers to scientific research reports that state that inhaled particles does not necessarily mean that people are at great risk, as the exact radiation dose is related to the amount of DU inhaled. Apart from the cancer risk, the Commission refers to the possible relation between uranium and the observed increase in auto-immune diseases. Pathologist Weening of the Academical Medical Center mentioned uranium one of the possible causes for this disease.
The final conclusion on the health aspects of DU:
Although the Commission thinks that the partly or total oxidation and dispersion of the DU could be real, it concludes: "Based on exsisting scientific literature, research on the Bijlmer crash, its hearings and own research, that it is unlikely that big groups of citizens and rescue workers have contracted a uranium poisoning." But: "The Commission explicitly states that it can not be excluded that in specific circumstances, some individuals have inhaled that much respirable uranium oxide particles that a contamination has taken place." (16)
Contact: Laka Foundation, Ketelhuisplein 43, NL-1054 RD Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
Tel: + 31 -20-61 68294; Fax: + 31 -206892179 E-mail: email@example.com
1. "Crashed El Al Boeing contained Depleted Uranium", Laka Foundation Press Release, 12 October 1993
2. "Industrial Uses of Depleted Uranium", P. Loewenstein, American Society for Metals. In: Uranium Battelfields Home and Abroad: Depleted Uranium Use by the US Department of Defense, G.Bukowski and D.A.Lopez, March 1993, p.135141
3. "Fear of Flying", R.L.Parker in Nature, Vol.336, 22/29 December 1988
4. See Uranium Battelfields Home and Abroad, p. 136
5. "Depleted Uranium Metal: What is it?", A.S.Keverling Buisman, ECN Radiation Technology, Petten, 12 October 1993
6. Letter to the residents of Kikkenstein, Kruitberg, Groeneveen, Gooijoord and Kleiburg of he Zuidoost district of Amsterdam. Subject: Soil pollution from the plane crash at Bijimermeer, Amsterdam, 14 October 1993
7. a.o. dutch newspapers Parool, VolksErant, PZC
8. "Research depleted uranium airplane crash Bijimermeer" (in Dutch), ECN, September 1998
9. NRC Handelsblad, 13 September 1994
10. " Health risks of exposure to uranium" (in Dutch), Ministry of Defense, Sector radiation protection DMGB,11 October 1994
11. "A Loaded Flight" (in Dutch), Parliamentarian Inquiry Commission Airchrash Bijimermeer, 22 April 1999
12. Letter to the Commission, Laka Foundation, 25 February 1999
13. Dutch Parliament, emergency meeting, 2 April 1998
14. "Potential Behavior of Depleted Uranium Penetrators under Shipping and Bulk Storage Accident Conditions", Pacific Northwest Laboratory, PNL-5415, 1985. Also called the "Batelle Study"
15. "Research depleted uranium airplane crash Bijimermeer" (in Dutch), ECN, September 1998
16. "A Loaded Flight" (in Dutch), Parliamentarian Inquiry Commission Airchrash Bijimermeer, 22 April 1999