HC Deb 07 February 2001 vol 362 cc1038-47

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mrs. McGuire.]

10 pm

Mr. Alasdair Morgan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale)

I am very glad to have this opportunity, which has perhaps come rather earlier than I expected, to raise in an Adjournment debate a matter of increasing concern to many of my constituents. It relates mainly to the test firing of depleted uranium shells from the Ministry of Defence base at Dundrennan, which lies on the Solway estuary in Kirkcudbrightshire in my constituency and which is now run by the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency.

My first foray into that area was in April 1998, when I asked a question about the firing of such shells at the range. The answer from Sir John Chisholm, chief executive of DERA, was that 6,255 shells had been fired at Dundrennan since 1982 and that four had been recovered—not 4,000 or 400, but four. To bring these figures up to date, 6,907 shells have now been fired at Dundrennan. Following national press stories, which sought to link depleted uranium to Gulf war syndrome, I wrote to Lord Robertson, who was then Secretary of State for Defence, on 1 December 1998, asking for action to be taken to recover the shells. I received a reply from the then Minister for the Armed Forces, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson), stating that DERA does not currently have a programme in place to recover DU projectiles from the Solway Firth, nor does it intend to initiate such a programme. I am interested in how many depleted uranium shells the MOD needs. In the Gulf war, 100 rounds were used against the Iraqis and some rounds were used during training in Saudi Arabia. Regardless of the argument about whether or not depleted uranium should be used, if we are going to use only approximately 100 rounds, do we really need to test 7,000 rounds? The United Kingdom has fired 70 times as much depleted uranium at Dundrennan as it did in the Gulf war. In asking those questions, I am well aware that a culture of secrecy seems to surround such matters, which only adds to the suspicion of many people about the actions of the MOD.

One example in relation to Dundrennan will suffice. In January 2000, the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith) asked a parliamentary question relating to meetings between DERA and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. He was informed by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) that he was withholding details of such a meeting under Exception 2 … of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information."—[Official Report, 28 January 2000; Vol. 343, c. 382W.] I hope that the Minister for the Armed Forces will not hide behind such get-out-clauses in responding to further questions on this matter. However, I was pleased to note that, in his statement in the House on 9 January, he said: I absolutely agree that we should have as much information as possible in the public domain for there to be proper scientific peer review of that information"—[Official Report, 9 January 2001; Vol. 360, c. 888.] Having secured this debate, I should like to stress that I am not saying that there has been any health effect so far on the general public in Kircudbrightshire as a result of the Dundrennan tests. However, increasing international worries about depleted uranium lead me to be concerned that, if thousands of she]]s are left in the Solway Firth, we are storing up potential problems for the future. I am also concerned about any health implications for civilian and military staff who have worked at the base.

I would now like to look at the W. S. Atkins report, which the Minister mentioned in his statement on 9 January. The MOD had agreed to implement an independent impact assessment in 1993, which was prepared by W. S. Atkins Consultants Ltd. and published by the MOD in January 1995. It is entitled "Environmental Assessment of the Firing of Depleted Uranium Projectiles at Eskmeals and Kirkcudbright Ranges".

I am somewhat concerned that the MOD is still trying to use the report, which is now six years old, to claim that there are no problems associated with the firing of depleted uranium at Dundrennan. In the Minister's statement, he said A detailed review of the environmental impact of firing DU at these ranges. … concluded that the radiation doses to members of the public and the associated risks from DU released into the environment were extremely low."—[Official Report, 9 January 2001; Vol. 360, c. 878–79.] Although that is indeed part of the report, other sections of the document, far from putting to rest any worries about DU testing, raise many more worries. One concern is the effect on current and past workers, both military and civilian, who have been present when a test malfunctions.

In relation to such malfunctions, which are shells that break up before they hit the target, W. S. Atkins identified several hazards as a result of the test firing programme, one of which is the release of DU material into the environment as a result of the malfunction. On that matter, the report states that the consequences will involve the release of DU material to the atmosphere. This material would most probably be in the form of very fine particulates or aerosols of either DU metal or DU oxides. That leads on to the question of how many malfunctions have occurred since the commencement of tests. The minutes of a presentation to the local council by Lieutenant Colonel David Brown for DERA on 22 September 1999 state: Some mishaps had occurred, notably at the Raeberry gun position where some years ago a projectile had broken up as it was fired from the gun. Also some projectiles had hit the ground at the targets instead of travelling through the target into the sea. The targets are usually hessian or plastic sheets, which are attached to a metal frame. The shells are supposed to be fired through the sheets and to land in the sea.

In a letter that I received from the chief executive of DERA in February last year, I was informed that only one projectile had been recovered from the Solway Firth. The other three were recovered from the land. There are four separate testing ranges at Dundrennan. The W. S. Atkins report refers to the malfunction rate at three of the ranges between commencement of the trials in 1981 and January 1994, when the survey was conducted. The rates vary between 4 per cent. at Raeberry and 0.6 per cent. at Balig. Taking into account the fact that 4,595 shells were fired at Dundrennan during the period in question, and taking even the lowest malfunction range, as the figures are not split for the various ranges, that means that 27 firings were subject to malfunction in that period.

If a similar malfunction rate had continued between 1981 and the present, that would mean that about 41 malfunctions had occurred to date, each potentially creating DU-contaminated dust, although I have anecdotal evidence from constituents working on the range who have seen as many as five malfunctions in one day.

I would appreciate some clarification from the Minister about how many malfunctions have occurred since the testing started, and whether the malfunctions are included in the numbers provided in parliamentary answers relating to the number of shells fired. Does he agree that there is a good case for voluntary testing for depleted uranium poisoning to be made available to all staff involved in the tests at Dundrennan?

That brings me to the matter of misfired shells—shells that have not hit their target. The W. S. Atkins report goes on to state: The point of contact of eight misfired DU penetrators is not known and they may have hit agricultural land. That is clearly unacceptable. Will the Minister inform the House how many misfires have occurred to date and whether any of those shells have been recovered?

Some 6,907 shells have been fired into the Solway, and, even allowing for misfires and malfunctions, more than 6,000 are presumably now lying in the Solway. Many of us instinctively object to the Solway being used as a radioactive munitions dumping ground by the MOD. W. S. Atkins commented: For Kirkcudbright, a major unknown factor relates to the fate of projectiles once they enter the marine environment. Distribution of the projectiles within the area of the seabed is unknown, in spite of a monitoring that has been operational since commencement of DU firing. It goes on to say: The state of a projectile after it strikes the sea bed is not known. The projectile may hit the bottom at speed and become embedded in mud, silt or sand, or if it strikes a hard object fragmentation may occur. The degree of fragmentation and penetration beneath the surface cannot be predicted and it therefore follows that the concentration in bottom sediments cannot be estimated. It also states: Penetrators that impact at sea may corrode and release DU into sea water. My understanding from reading the report is that the expectation is that any such release of DU would be very diluted, and, therefore, apparently not a problem. That may or may not be the case at present, but my real concern is for the future. I understand that DU has a half-life of 4.5 billion years, so we could be sowing the seeds of environmental problems for some time in the future. It is obvious that little is known about the exact whereabouts of all those shells. However, I fail to see how it is beyond the Government's capability to remove them from the Solway and dispose of them more appropriately, or—if they do not wish to embark on that course straight away—to undertake a feasibility study into that option.

That brings me to the legislation on radioactive disposal. On 15 January, in a parliamentary answer on the firing of DU, the Secretary of State for Defence stated: Statutory regulations govern the use of DU on ranges in the UK. These are the Radioactive Substances Act 1993, which controls radioactive waste discharges to the environment and the Ionising Radiations Regulations (IRR) 1999."—[Official Report, 15 January 2001; Vol. 361, c. 42W.] The 1993 Act lays down strict guidelines for the disposal of radioactive materials, including depleted uranium. In order to dispose of radioactive waste, authorisation must be sought from the appropriate environmental agency, which in this case is SEPA. Before granting such authorisation, the agency must consult the relevant local authority, among others.

In relation to the Ionising Radiations Regulations, W. S. Atkins states: A requirement exists within the Ionising Radiation Regulations for an operator to be able to account for all radioactive material under his control. Up to the point of firing this is done. Beyond that point the material, unless recovered, is presently considered by HMIP (HM Inspectorate of Pollution) to be part of the Kirkcudbright facility 'procedure' and as such does not attract concern. However should the projectiles be recovered then they would be classified as waste and require appropriate dispersal with the relevant letters of approval obtained. I would like the Minister to inform the House, and my constituents, whether depleted uranium is subject to strict controls before it is fired and if it is recovered, but not if it is left lying in the Solway Firth. That would be unacceptable. If that is not the case, given that the MOD obviously considers the Solway Firth to be the final resting place of the depleted uranium shells, will the Minister confirm whether the MOD has the authorisation required to dispose of them in the Solway Firth, as the Secretary of State seems to have stated that the 1993 Act applies in this case.

Dundrennan is not the only location in my constituency to play host to the leftovers of the activities of the MOD. In the sea between Galloway and Northern Ireland, in the deep trench of Beaufort's Dyke, lie many hundreds of tons of first and second world war explosives, phosphorous bombs and the like. Many of those are not even in the deep trench of the dyke, but in the shallower waters near the coastline, and the phosphorous flares are frequently washed up on the coast of Galloway and Ayrshire.

Further to the east at Luce Bay, near the DERA establishment at West Freugh, live cluster bombs lie on the bottom of the bay as a result of pre-Kosovo trials. These are in the process of being covered over by blocks of concrete. Further east still, we come to Dundrennan, which I have been talking about tonight. The whole area is then gently washed by the tides of the Solway, which are themselves host to whatever radioactive discharges the plant at Sellafield chooses to release. Perhaps Galloway is getting more than its fair share of these man-made problems.

I am not an alarmist. Any inspection of my statements since 1997 would make it clear that I have not sought cheap headlines at the expense of public confidence. However, there comes a stage at which any reasonable person must say that enough is enough. We have an obligation to leave this planet to our children in at least as good a state as we found it, if not better, and clearly in this case we are not doing so.

A couple of years ago, the Government did the agriculture industry in my constituency and elsewhere no favours with their short-term ban on beef on the bone—a ban undertaken largely on the precautionary principle that although the risk of infection was infinitesimal and certainly no higher than that posed by many everyday activities, it was nevertheless a risk, and one that should be addressed. I submit that the same precautionary principle should apply to the test firing at Dundrennan, that as a result no more should be undertaken and that the debris of what has been undertaken should be removed as expeditiously as possible.

10.15 pm
The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Morgan) on securing the debate. It is understandable that there might be concern within his constituency about depleted uranium, following heavy media coverage of the subject in January, but I hope I can reassure him about its use at the Kirkcudbright range.

The armour-piercing rounds for the British Army's Challenger 2 main battle tank are manufactured from depleted uranium, commonly known as DU. The rounds are built around a solid rod of DU metal, which has a density almost twice that of lead. DU also has the important property of self-sharpening on impact with armour. Those properties give it a unique capability as a penetrator, and at present no satisfactory alternative material exists that might provide the level of penetration needed to defeat the most modern battle tanks. For that reason DU will remain part of our arsenal for the foreseeable future. When this country commits our forces to conflict we fight to win, and our troops need the best available equipment to enable them to do that.

Kirkcudbright is an MOD-owned site that is now run by the Army as a training area. It is also used for the proof and trials firing of DU rounds by the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency—DERA. DU firing began at Kirkcudbright in 1982, following an announcement in the House by the then Secretary of State for Defence. Since then, a total of 6,907 DU rounds have been fired at Kirkcudbright in order to assess the accuracy of the guns and ammunition, and more recently for in-service quality control or proofing. Usually 12 rounds are fired, in order to sample every production batch of 1,056 projectiles. The current programme of trials comprises production batch testing, and will be completed by the end of this year. Thereafter, further proof testing while the ammunition remains in service may be required, but that has yet to be confirmed.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the DU rounds are fired from prepared positions within the range at soft targets mounted in gantries on the cliff top. They pass through the targets and then continue out to sea, where they enter the water—which is approximately 20 m deep—between 1 km and 3 km from the shoreline. Only one target area is currently in use, together with two firing points.

As DU is a heavy metal with chemical toxicity, and also has low-activity radioactive qualities, precautions need to be taken when it is being handled and fired. The use of DU at Kirkcudbright is undertaken in accordance with statutory regulations, including the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and the Ionising Radiations Regulations 1999, which were made under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 and are enforced by the Health and Safety Executive.

The Ionising Radiations Regulations 1999 replaced similar regulations dating from 1968, 1969 and 1985. In addition, although formally exempt, the MOD voluntarily acts in accordance with the provisions of the Radioactive Substances Act 1993, which controls radioactive waste discharges into the environment. Periodic visits to the ranges are carried out by the Health and Safety Executive and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. The last such visit took place in January 2001.

The firing programme is undertaken by teams of DERA range staff. Effective steps have been and continue to be taken to protect those who have taken part in the testing of DU ammunition. All staff involved in the DU firing programme are fully briefed on the radiological safety aspects of working with DU before commencing work with the material. Moreover, they are designated "classified persons" under the terms of the Ionising Radiations Regulations. That means that they are subject to a pre-employment medical examination and are kept under surveillance by a medical practitioner approved by the Health and Safety Executive.

Mr. Alasdair Morgan

I apologise to the Minister if he is coming to the point, but during their visits, do the Health and Safety Executive and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency look purely at the land area of the base, or do they also look at the area of sea into which the shells are meant to fall?

Mr. Spellar

The hon. Gentleman is right. I will come to the sea later.

In addition, checks on the effectiveness of the safety procedures are carried out by the use of dosimeters, personal air samplers, urine analysis and whole-body monitoring. In the whole history of DU firing, none of those personal monitoring measures has ever shown a result that has given any cause for concern.

Indeed, in 1999, the latest year for which complete results are available, the average annual yearly dose for a worker at Kirkcudbright was 0.65 millisieverts. That is well below the statutory annual dose limit of 20 msv for an employee set by the regulations, and lower even than the statutory annual dose limit of 1 msv for a member of the public.

Access to target areas, firing points and, if DU is present, storage areas, must be within the terms of the regulations and is strictly controlled. Routine monitoring of those areas is carried out in accordance with the regulations. Special local safety regulations are enforced, concerning magazines, vehicles, firing and target areas, and they cover the contingency of accidents.

As I have said, the targets at Kirkcudbright are made of soft material through which the projectiles pass. In uncommon cases when projectiles have struck the target gantry, any subsequent risk of contamination from touching or disturbing DU material can be contained by means of relatively simple safety precautions. Personal protective equipment is issued when entering DU strike areas at Kirkcudbright, including protective overalls, gloves and boots. Access to areas known to be contaminated is strictly controlled.

Work on the estate is controlled by risk assessments and range safety rules, made on behalf of the Secretary of State for Defence and administered by the local range commandant. There is public access to the estate outside firing hours, but there are warning signs along the range boundary. Furthermore, the out-of-bounds areas are fenced and signed, where appropriate, with radiation signs.

Even if a member of the public or a soldier on training exercises were to ignore the warnings, enter the restricted areas, pick up and handle any DU fragments, or even picnic on top of one of them, the risk is minimal, according to an assessment undertaken by DERA radiation protection services. Such an individual might, on worst case assumptions, receive an additional radiation dose equivalent to less than 10 per cent. of the statutory annual dose limit for members of the general public.

A long-term environmental monitoring programme on the effects of firing has taken place at Kirkcudbright since 1983, and to date it has shown only very low levels of DU contamination—well below any level that could be considered a health hazard. The monitoring involves taking samples of soil, grass, animal droppings, shellfish and sea-bed sediment from 13 separate points in the range each year—twice each year for grass. None of the samples has ever indicated any concentration of DU above background levels, except for some known contamination in soil at the firing and target sites, which, as I have explained, are fenced.

That monitoring gives us confidence that DU firing does not have an adverse impact on the local environment or the food chain. I know that the hon. Gentleman is particularly concerned about the possibility of DU raising radiation levels in the Solway firth. Scientific modelling, again using pessimistic assumptions, concluded that corrosion of DU rounds would make a negligible difference to the level of uranium that already exists naturally in sea water. That conclusion is confirmed by the samples of sea-bed sediment and shellfish that we collect in the area where the projectiles land. No uranium is detected above naturally occurring background levels.

We are still not complacent about safety or DU contamination at Kirkcudbright. Although the risks from DU fragments are, as I have said, minimal, we have decided to conduct a general survey to find any previously undetected DU fragments on the range and, if necessary, to take appropriate remedial measures. The survey will be conducted using a new, more sensitive device called the exploranium. That device detects, but does not measure, the X-rays and gamma rays associated with the radioactive decay of DU. It is about twice as sensitive as the monitor previously used for detecting DU fragments on the surface of the range, and about 200 times better at detecting fragments below the surface of the range.

The survey will provide an overview of any radiologically significant DU surface contamination on areas of the range, believed to have been caused by a very small number of DU projectiles that failed to reach the sea. As the hon. Gentleman said, some of the early prototype rounds broke up just outside the gun barrel, leaving DU fragments in the soil. Additionally, a few rounds have struck the ground prior to reaching the target. The hon. Gentleman asked for figures, and I shall write to him. We shall also further investigate the areas of known DU contamination round the firing points and targets.

The survey will be conducted by the DERA radiation protection services, with preliminary work commencing in March 2001—as soon as the weather, ground conditions and day length are suitable—and measurement starting in April and May. Allowing for contingencies, the report on the survey should be completed by the end of the year. The undertaking of the survey, in addition to the continuing environmental monitoring and range control measures, shows how seriously we take our responsibilities in connection with firing DU. We shall publish the results of the survey in due course, in line with the long-established openness that we have demonstrated on the subject.

Mr. Morgan

I thank the Minister for that. However, we do not know the rate at which the shells deteriorate. Although he turned up his nose at the idea of 4.5 billion years, the problem will be with us for centuries, at least. Governments cannot bind their successors. Do we not have to deal with that problem?

Mr. Spellar

The hon. Gentleman should understand that a longer half-life for a radioactive substance indicates a lower level of radioactive dispersal. The dangerous stuff has a much shorter half-life, because it is dispersing radioactivity at a much higher rate. In fact, depleted uranium is 40 per cent. less radioactive than natural uranium, which, as I said, is found in the soil—on land and under the sea—throughout the world. This is a useful opportunity to bring that matter to the attention of the public and put it in an accurate context.

Our activities at Kirkcudbright have been characterised by considerable transparency. As the hon. Gentleman said, in 1995, an independent environmental assessment by the consultants W S Atkins, commissioned by the MOD, was released into the public domain. It concluded that there were no significant risks from exposure to DU released into the environment. Subsequently, those conclusions have been sustained and, from 1983 to date, the routine environmental monitoring programme has shown only very low levels of DU contamination, which are well below any level that could be considered a health hazard.

DERA has ensured that the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and Dumfries and Galloway council have both been informed of firing activities, and have also been provided with the annual environmental monitoring reports. DERA holds regular meetings with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, and DERA representatives have attended public meetings arranged by Dumfries and Galloway council to discuss the findings of the annual environmental monitoring report. Copies are also circulated to hon. Members and given to the Library.

On 15 January 2001, at a "community" meeting of Stewartry area committee, concern was apparently expressed in the public forum about recent press coverage of the firing of DU projectiles from the range at Kirkcudbright. A letter dated 23 January 2001 from the chief environmental officer to the Secretary of State requested a full report on the issue. We have had other representations from local residents. They will, of course, receive full replies. Meanwhile, however, I should like, through the hon. Gentleman, to provide that reassurance to the local population.

The fact is that, despite the recent media furore, no new evidence has emerged in the past month or so to change our assessment of the risks of DU or its effects on health or the environment. It is far more important for local residents to focus on the reassurance of our precautions, our monitoring of range workers and our environmental analysis of the impact of DU on the range and its environs. That material has been shared with them publicly for many years. The material shows that the risks of firing DU at Kirkcudbright are understood, monitored and managed, and that local residents, farmers and visitors to the ranges can be confident that it has a minimal impact on the range.

The risks, minimal as they are, have been acknowledged and handled throughout that period in accordance with the relevant statutory requirements, and our responsibilities to service and civilian personnel, as well as to the general public, are taken very seriously. That will continue, as our intention to conduct a new survey of the site clearly demonstrates.

The motion having been made at Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.