Solway’s deadly MoD legacy of depleted uranium may be illegal

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  By Ken Ferguson

The main claim to fame of the ancient burgh of Kirkcudbright on the Solway coast is its links to a thriving artists colony in the last century which included notables such as Jessie M King and Charles Oppenheimer.

However, under the tranquil waves of the Solway, the British Army has left a more sinister legacy of some 30 tonnes of depleted uranium (DU), fired at the nearby Dundrennan tank testing ranges.

  By Ken Ferguson

The main claim to fame of the ancient burgh of Kirkcudbright on the Solway coast is its links to a thriving artists colony in the last century which included notables such as Jessie M King and Charles Oppenheimer.

However, under the tranquil waves of the Solway, the British Army has left a more sinister legacy of some 30 tonnes of depleted uranium (DU), fired at the nearby Dundrennan tank testing ranges.

DU has been linked with a range of cancers and illnesses of the brain, kidneys and lungs, and the scale of the Solway pollution can be judged by comparing the 30 tonnes in the Solway to the 1.9 tonnes fired by British forces during the entire Iraq war.

Cleaning up the DU pollution caused by coalition forces in Iraq is set to cost $30million and may result in the current Iraqi government suing UK and US forces.

Panic

For more than 30 years, the radioactive waste product depleted uranium has been fired into the Solway Firth as a part of the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) test firing programme at the Dundrennan range, near Kirkcudbright. Some 6,759 DU tank rounds have been fired from the range, amounting to approximately 30 tonnes of DU.

Now panic is spreading in the corridors of the MoD as a Freedom of Information (FoI) request from the Campaign Against Depleted Uranium (CADU) has revealed internal MoD concerns over whether the controversial DU test firing programme is legal after it emerged that the dumping of radioactive and toxic DU into the Solway Firth would be in breach of EU legislation protecting the marine environment.

Minutes from an internal MoD committee released to CADU in a FoI request highlight concerns that “…there could be a future problem with regard to firing into the seas… the OSPAR agreements stated now that it was illegal to dump waste into the sea.”

OSPAR agreements exist between fifteen European governments, including the UK, and the European Community, with the aim of protecting the marine environment of the north-east Atlantic.

Concern over whether the MoD has been acting illegally by firing DU into the sea was echoed exactly 30 years earlier in an assessment of the then proposed MoD firing programme. In 1974, the assessor Safety Official Bowman pointed out that it was unlikely that all the fired projectiles would be recovered from the seabed, and therefore that the firing programme would be contrary to the Oslo convention (the predecessor to the OSPAR agreements).

Bowman was clear in his disapproval, stating that: “It is unlikely the ‘losing’ of the projectiles in this way would be considered an approved method [of disposal]”.

In 2001 when a potential project for recovering a small number of DU rounds for research purposes was considered, it was shown to be technically complex and expensive and concerns were raised over setting a precedent for recovering DU rounds.

Later that year, Dr Lewis Moonie, the then Labour Secretary of State for Defence stated at a public meeting that: “…the MoD did not consider it possible to recover fired rounds from the seabed”.

Facing the prospect of managing a potentially illegal test firing programme, the shadowy mandarins in Whitehall came up with a defence which is straight from the pages of Yes Minister.

The current agreements prohibit the “dumping” of such waste, but not its “placing” in the sea – so the likely defence from best brains advising ministers look likely to be to suggest that loading a shell in a tank or field gun pointing it out into the Solway and firing it amounts to “placing” it into the sea. This will, of course, not alter by a gramme the amount of DU sloshing about the seabed in the Solway’s notoriously fast moving tides with a radioactive life of some 700 million years, just provide a legal fig leaf for crown forces who put it there.

This is confirmed by the FoI response which says: “According to Annex II of the OSPAR convention, states are prohibited from dumping waste in the sea. The agreements state that dumping does not include ‘…placement of matter for a purpose other than the mere disposal thereof…’

“Thus as the purpose of firing of DU rounds into the Solway Firth is to test fire weapons as opposed to disposing of nuclear waste, officially DU can be described as being ‘placed’ into the sea.”

Not only are the military polluters in Britain’s war machine dodging the problems of the existing 30 tonnes of pollution but, campaigners fear, despite evasion from MoD officials, further testing to add to it is planned.

The charge for the misnamed CHARM3 tank ammunition, the UK’s last type DU  munitions will expire this year and the military want to extend the life of the round even as international pressure grows over the acceptability of the use of DU in weapons.

Pollution hazard

This has to, at the end of the process, involve live firing, and the Dundrennan Range is the only range suited to the purpose of test firing in the UK.

Those fighting to defeat a Yes vote next year never tire of hyping the “benefits” to Scotland of British war spending north of the border but have said little about this pollution hazard which, should independence happen, be left for the locals to sort out.

The Voice was greatly helped in producing this report by Aneaka Kellay at the Campaign Against Depleted Uranium which has and continues to oppose the use of DU and campaigns to have it banned. See: www.cadu.org.uk

This article appears courtesy of the Scottish Socialist Voice