Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),
Prevention and Suppression of Terrorism
Question agreed to.
SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY COMMITTEE
Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [31 January],
That the Select Committee on Science and Technology shall have leave to meet concurrently with any committee of the Lords on science and technology or any sub-committee thereof, for the purpose of deliberating or taking evidence, and to communicate to any such committee its evidence or any other documents relating to matters of common interest--[Mrs. McGuire.]
Question again proposed.
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst):
On 31 January, I posed the question: what added value would we get from joint or concurrent meetings? That was at column 406 of Hansard. I went on to say that I wanted to challenge the basis on which the motion was predicated. It assumes that the Committees will produce better results by meeting concurrently. That is the point of the argument that I want to develop as it continues, as it will for some
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time. The question is whether the two Houses of Parliament, in the context of the Committee that we are now discussing, can make a better contribution separately or jointly--or, as the motion quaintly states, "concurrently". In other words, do they have distinctive roles and can they bring a distinctive or different perspective to matters?
It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.
Debate to be resumed tomorrow.
SITTINGS IN WESTMINSTER HALL
Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [23 January],
That, following the Order [20th November 2000], Mr. Nicholas Winterton, Mr. John McWilliam, Mr. Barry Jones and Frank Cook be appointed to act as additional Deputy Speakers at sittings in Westminster Hall during this Session--[Mrs. McGuire.]
SELECT COMMITTEES (JOINT MEETINGS)
That, for the current Session of Parliament, Standing Order No. 152 (Select committees related to government departments) be amended as follows:
Line 40, before the word 'European' insert the words 'Environmental Audit Committee or with the'.--[Mrs. McGuire.]
LANGUAGE OF PARLIAMENTARY PROCEEDINGS
(1) this House approves the First Report from the Procedure Committee, Session 2000-01 (HC 47); and
(2) the Resolution of 5th June 1996 on the Language of Parliamentary Proceedings be amended accordingly by inserting, after the word 'Wales,', the words 'and at Westminster in respect of Select Committees'.--[Mrs. McGuire.]
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Depleted Uranium (Shelling)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mrs. McGuire.]
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 l 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
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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,
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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.]
7 Feb 2001 : Column 1041
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 lonising 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 l993 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
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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.