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Is Britain's Uranium Ammunition past its Use by Date?

Between March 10th and 14th, the Ministry of Defence and defence research company QinetiQ renewed the test firing of DU ammunition at the Dundrennan firing range near Kircudbright, Dumfries and Galloway, southern Scotland.

The story was initially broken by the BBC and triggered high levels of media interest, as well as catching the attention of policiticans and activists north and south of the border.

The MoD claimed that the tests were necessary to monitor stocks of CHARM3 ammunition as they approach the end of their shelflife. CHARM3 120mm anti-tank ammunition is now the only type of uranium munition in use by UK forces.

News of the tests drew fierce condemnation from both the Scottish Nationalists and the Scottish Greens. Green Co-convener Robin Harper MSP said: “Depleted uranium shells leave behind the kind of pollution normally associated with dirty bombs, radioactive material that damages the environment and risks future health problems. There is no safe place to test these shells, and there is no appropriate battlefield to use them on either. The MoD should be ashamed of going back to Dundrennan with this discredited technology, and should instead commit to the ban requested by the European Parliament.”

Also responding to the tests, an SNP spokesperson said: “When they were serving in areas where uranium weapons had been used, service personnel were issued with warning cards. That would suggest that the UK Government were well aware of the health problems associated with its use. We want to ask the Secretary of State for Defence about the UK’s position with regard to these international developments. Although we don’t have any powers over defence policy we are responsible for the health and well being of the people and service personnel of Scotland.”
Predictably the MoD deined that there was any danger: “Agencies and regulatory bodies responsible for health and safety and environmental protection have agreed the arrangements. Comprehensive environmental monitoring programmes involving air, water, and soil sampling, have been in place at and around Kirkcudbright since the beginning of the DU munitions trials.”

Ten days after the firing ended, and in response to a parliamentary question, Armed Forces Minister Bob Ainsworth said: “The shelf life of the stockpile is due to expire in 2009 and, as is normal practice where there is a continuing requirement, arrangements were made to extend its life. As part of the life extension programme, rigorous in-service surveillance testing is required to ensure that the munitions remain safe and suitable for continued service. The final element of this process involved live proof firings at Kirkcudbright.”

The response to the tests raises interesting questions over the continued use of CHARM3. The UK is tied into CHARM3 because of the type of gun barrels that the UK’s Challenger tanks use - unlike the rest of NATO who use ammunition that can be fired from each other’s tanks. CADU reported last year that trials were underway for a new main gun on the UK’s Challenger tanks, one that would allow greater levels of interoperability between states. The news that CHARM3 is now approaching the end of its life raises the question of what will replace it, and when?

Perhaps more importantly, how long will UK forces continue to use ammunition that is degrading and presumably more likely to misfire and disintegrate in the barrel?


Dundrennan Contamination at Highest Level for a Decade

DU contamination at Dundrennan has risen to its highest level for more than 10 years, according to a survey for the Ministry of Defence.

Soil on parts of the range is so contaminated that it breaches agreed safety limits. And the contamination is spreading, as DU fragments from shells misfired in the past start to corrode.
The contamination, revealed in a declassified scientific report passed to the Sunday Herald, was described as “very worrying” by Scottish environment minister Michael Russell: “The Scottish government was not adequately consulted on the test firing of DU shells at Kirkcudbright,” he said. “I have stated in the past that I am strongly opposed to the testing of such weapons on Scottish soil and this remains the case.”

More than 6000 DU shells were fired at the range near Dundrennan in Dumfries and Galloway between 1982 and 2004. Scientists from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down in Wiltshire have been monitoring the Kirkcudbright range every year.
According to their latest report, there was DU contamination in soil samples from three sites on the range. The highest registered 1384 millibecquerels of radioactivity per gram, which is worse than the contamination in any of the soil samples taken since comparable monitoring began in 1996.

Two samples breached the “investigation level” agreed by the government’s Depleted Uranium Firing Environmental Review Committee. Two other samples were above, or close to, the much higher “action level” agreed by the committee.

Contamination at India Target on the range was “an order of magnitude higher than results obtained in previous years”, said the MoD report.

The report also revealed that attempts to find DU shells which had misfired in the past had failed “despite extensive searching”. Control measures prevented public access to the contaminated areas, it said, and radiation doses were assessed to be “negligible”.

Environmental policy consultant, Dr David Lowry said: “Of course they say that no harm has been done, but we won’t know the full long-term effects of this contamination for years. We do know already that the DU shells fired in the invasion of Iraq have caused serious health implications.”


Citizen Weapon Inspectors Pay a Visit

Contaminated tank at Dundrennan

On Thursday 13th March, there was an attempt to enter the DU firing range at Dundrennan and disrupt the testing. At each entry point into the range, red flags were flying, indicating that the public were not to enter due to the test firing, and could possibly be subject to prosecution if stopped.

The range was entered from the Kirkcudbright side, following a footpath. Once inside the range there was no evidence of activity despite the red flags flying. The weapon inspection was observed by two ‘patrol’ vans which kept their distance and made no attempt to intervene.
For 90 minutes the range was explored. There was a contaminated and burned out tank which was subject to a Sunday Herald article in 2004 and several man-made rectangular holes covered by wooden boards. The holes are used to store DU debris, which is then measured to see how long it takes to corrode.

There were three newly built metal observation posts, with the slits facing west towards a field. This is unusual because the MOD claim that they fire DU southwards into the Solway Firth to test trajectory. There was some debris lying around, possibly from broken up shells, but they looked old.

Once the inspection ended, exit was made through the front gate, along the road leading out and past the unmanned road posts. The red flags were still flying.

After leaving the range, a car drove up and the driver tried to take photos of the weapon inspectors.

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Page last updated: September 29, 2008