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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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