HL Deb 22 January 1998 vol 584 cc1607-10

3.16 p.m.

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:

Where, and under what conditions, depleted uranium ammunition is being manufactured in the United Kingdom.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Gilbert)

My Lords, the 120 millimetre ammunition for the Challenger 2 main battle tank has a depleted uranium component, which is being manufactured at Royal Ordnance plc's specialist materials facility at Featherstone, near Wolverhampton; the ammunition is then assembled into complete rounds at the Royal Ordnance factory Birtley. Responsibility for conditions of manufacture and compliance with legislation on radiological site licensing rests with Royal Ordnance plc, which is owned by British Aerospace plc.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. Does the noble Lord accept that depleted uranium has a half-life of 4.5 billion years; that because of its highly pyrophoric nature on impact it produces uranium dioxide dust which can be carried several miles in the wind; and that that dust is both chemically toxic and radioactive and is implicated in a number of cancers, including lung cancer and leukaemia, kidney problems and birth defects? Therefore, is the Minister satisfied with the safety of the community in Scotland where, I understand, test firing is carried out into the ground and into the Solway Firth from the Dundrennan army base near Kirkcudbright?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, far be it from me to challenge the remarks or the mastery of statistics of the noble Countess, Lady Mar. All I can say is that we have no knowledge whatever of any danger to the civilian population living in the neighbourhood of that particular test range, just as we have absolutely no knowledge of any dangers sustained by Her Majesty's Forces in the Gulf when DU was used in the conflict.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister aware of the fact that the use of depleted uranium has killed and maimed thousands of Iraqis, hundreds of American troops and an unknown number of British troops as a result of its use in the Gulf War? Therefore, will the Government do two things? First, will they investigate the possibility that this weapon is already bannable under the chemical weapons convention? Secondly, if it is not banned, will the Government consider doing so because it is ultimately a chemical weapon and should be banned under existing legislation? If that is not so, then there ought to be legislation to ban it.

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, not for the first time I am not sure that I can share all the premises in my noble friend's questions. In 1993 the defence radiological protection service concluded that there was no indication of harmful over-exposure of British troops to DU in the Gulf. Tests were made on some Gulf veterans who were concerned that they might have inhaled depleted uranium dust and that that might have had an adverse effect upon them, but none was found to have experienced detectable contamination. Similarly, as far as we know, no British troops sustained injuries from DU ammunition.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House what is good about depleted uranium ammunition?

Lord Gilbert

Yes, my Lords; it is extremely hard and is the only ammunition that is capable of penetrating the armour of the latest main battle tanks.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, I have a simplistic question for the Minister; namely, what is the definition of depleted uranium with particular reference to the degree of toxicity?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, the noble Lord asks a highly technical question. Indeed, I should be in great difficulty if I try to answer it and give technical definitions of what constitutes depleted uranium. However, I shall be happy to get the noble Lord a technical answer and will ensure that it is put into the record.

Lord Parry

My Lords, on a simpler level, can the Minister reassure the House as to whether civilian carriers of the shells were warned of possible dangers, whereas the military users of them, often in contained tank space, were not?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I have no recollection as to whether or not specific warnings were given to Her Majesty's personnel at the time of the Gulf War, but we continue to have an inventory of depleted uranium ammunition. I am sure that those responsible for handling it are well aware of the risks, if any, to which they might be exposed. Our view is—it was the view of previous administrations—that those are very small indeed.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, I am sure that the House is aware that neither the noble Lord nor I can go too far into radio chemistry. Can the Minister confirm that depleted uranium is about 60 per cent. as radioactive as undepleted uranium? Since there is nothing to do with depleted uranium except to make it into bullets, about a billion pounds' weight of depleted uranium is in store in the United States. If that is so, what is the corresponding figure in this country?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I think that I should bring an encyclopedia with me to answer some of my noble friend's questions. Not for the first time my noble friend defeats me with his statistics.

This material is not made into bullets in the normal sense of the word. It is put into the front end of tank shells. The only exception is the Royal Navy which has some depleted uranium ammunition for the Phalanx close-in weapons system.

Earl Howe

My Lords, have the Government any assessment of the potential environmental effects of depleted uranium contamination on the battlefield? If so, what conclusions have they reached?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I am not aware of whether our predecessors made any assessment. Certainly this Government have not been invited to do so. It is rather out of date for us now to make such an assessment.

However, the only specific source of concern is that in some circumstances we believe that the radiation can be slightly increased when one of the shells hits the armour of an opposing tank.

Lord Ironside

My Lords, are there any proposals for using depleted uranium—of which there is quite a lot in the world—to replace lead shot in shotguns? Would that alter the ballistics of the gun and create safety problems?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I am not normally familiar with the habits of the hunting-shooting fraternity. I should have thought that noble Lords opposite would know far more about its intentions than I would. But I have heard nothing of the kind.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is evidence that the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority was asked to go to the battlefields in Iraq and Kuwait to estimate the problems that might result from the depleted uranium left there after the war? Is the noble Lord aware that it was estimated that there might be some 500,000 deaths of civilians and soldiers; and that some 300 to 800 pounds of depleted uranium had been left in the Gulf?

I have put down a number of Questions for Written Answer on the subject, to which I have had no Answer. Will the noble Lord answer them and publish the answers in Hansard?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I cannot reply off the top of my head to the quite extraordinary statistics that the noble Countess produced; but I should be very surprised if 500,000 people were killed from any causes during the Gulf War.