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Revealed: how the MoD gets away with dumping radioactive waste at sea

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has been evading an international ban on dumping radioactive waste at sea by defining thousands of uranium weapons lost in the Solway Firth as “placements”.
13 March 2013 - Rob Edwards

Minutes of secret meetings released under freedom of information law reveal that the MoD was worried about breaching an inter-government agreement on marine pollution by firing depleted uranium (DU) tank rounds into the sea from a military range at Dundrennan near Kirkcudbright. 

But officials found a way round the problem, by arguing that the munitions were not being “dumped” in the sea, but “placed” there. This is despite the fact that attempts to retrieve them have failed, and their locations are unknown.

Campaigners have accused the MoD of desperately resorting to “semantic trickery” to justify its plans to dump more DU weapons in Scottish waters. Based on past practice, the MoD will restart test-firing at Dundrennan this year, they say.

In the last 30 years, army tanks have fired more than 6,700 shells into the Solway Firth from the range, containing nearly 30 tonnes of DU. The shells pierce canvas targets set up on the cliff tops, and then plunge into the sea.

At an MoD meeting in June 2004, a defence official was minuted suggesting that there could be "a future problem" firing DU into the sea. The OSPAR convention agreed by 15 governments, including the UK, to protect the northeast Atlantic said "it was illegal to dump waste into the sea", he warned.

According to the MoD minute, this provoked "some discussion surrounding the wording". But another official pointed out that there was no problem because the MoD's interpretation was that "the projectiles were placements not dumping".

Dundrennan Bunker

The 1992 OSPAR convention clearly prohibits waste dumping at sea. But it says that dumping does not include “placement of matter for a purpose other than the mere disposal thereof”.

“The Scottish public will struggle to understand how the MoD thought that they could evade their legal and moral responsibility not to pollute the sea by calling this a placement,” said Aneaka Kellay from the Campaign Against Depleted Uranium.

“However the MoD name their firing programme, the fact remains they have purposefully released nuclear waste into the Solway Firth, with little idea of how this will affect the marine environment.”

She called on the MoD to retrieve the DU rounds it had fired in the sea, and to refrain from firing any more there “as we seek legal advice on this glorified form of dumping.”

Other MoD documents show that an assessment of the proposed test-firing programme in 1974 concluded that losing DU rounds in the sea was unlikely to be an approved method of disposal. UK ministers have since said that it’s impossible to recover them.

Katy Clark, the Labour MP for North Ayrshire and Arran, said: “These latest revelations reveal the legal basis on which the test-firing has occurred is open to serious questioning.”

She accused the MoD of “not being wholly transparent” about plans to restart test-firing this year. The DU munitions were in the final stages of a life extension programme that required test-firing, she said.

The MoD insisted, however, that there were “no plans” to test-fire DU at Dundrennan. “All testing is in accordance with procedures agreed with the Environment Agency and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency,” said an MoD spokeswoman.

The Scottish government said that it was “strongly opposed to the testing by MoD of DU shells on Scottish soil and in Scottish waters”. It had received no notification of any proposed test-firing “in the near future”.