Gaffe exposes monitoring sham: Ministry of Defense admits officer's slip-up is ‘unhelpful’

Sunday Herald - 16 February 2003
by Rob Edwards, Environment Editor

Official monitoring of the radioactive contamination caused by depleted uranium (DU) weapons is no more than a cynical ploy designed to reassure a worried public, a senior army officer has admitted. His admission comes amidst mounting anxiety this weekend about the risks of DU poisoning people and the environment. Millions of shells containing hundreds of tonnes of DU are on their way to the Gulf from Britain and the US for the expected attack on Iraq, while nearly 200 DU rounds have just been tested at a firing range in southwest Scotland.

Now, in an extraordinary gaffe, the retired lieutenant colonel in charge of the Dundrennan military firing range in Kirkcudbrightshire, Grant Oliver, has let slip what many have long suspected: that the Ministry of Defence's environmental surveys of DU pollution are only meant to prove that there is 'absolutely no significant hazard'.

This has prompted criticism from scientists, politicians and Scotland's official pollution watchdog, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa). Clearly embarrassed, even the MoD has disassociated itself from Oliver's remarks, describing them as 'unfortunate'.

In an article in the latest issue of the MoD's glossy annual conservation magazine, Sanctuary, Oliver recounts the fuss that surrounded the testing of DU shells at Dundrennan in 2001.

'In early February, when there was little news from Westminster, the media persuaded the MoD to allow them to film a firing. The circus descended,' he wrote.

'The trials activity is now at an end. The aim is to survey any area that might have been affected by the firing and be able to announce that absolutely no significant hazard exists. This will enable more areas to be opened to public access.'

The MoD has been regularly monitoring radioactive contamination at the Kirkcudbrightshire range since the 1980s, and has always claimed there is no risk to human health. In the most recent analysis made available last year, ministry scientists concluded that there was 'negligible risk to anyone arising from DU contamination outside the controlled areas'.

But now, according to critics, Oliver's remarks have cast doubt on the independence and reliability of the MoD's surveys. Unlike other public and private agencies, pollution caused by the ministry is exempt from statutory regulation by Sepa.

'It is very clever of the range commander to predict the outcome of the survey before it has been done,' said independent nuclear consultant, John Large. 'But it is scientifically wrong because having such an objective beforehand prejudices the outcome.'

Alasdair Morgan, Scottish National Party MSP for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale, was also worried that the monitoring could be biased.

'If you go looking for a clean bill of health, hey presto, it's no surprise if you find a clean bill of health. It makes one wonder how rigorous the monitoring is,' he said.

Morgan called for future monitoring to be carried out by agencies that were independent of the MoD, like Sepa. This was echoed by the senior Liberal Democrat MP for Gordon, Malcolm Bruce, who has investigated DU pollution.

Oliver's remarks were 'absolutely in the spirit of a military man who can't be bothered with all these nosy journalists and politicians,' Bruce said.

'It does appear that he is looking for a self-fulfilling survey to give predetermined results.'

Sepa has also called on the MoD to allow contamination at Dundrennan to be impartially checked.
'If the firing of depleted uranium projectiles at the MoD Kirkcudbright range poses no significant hazard to terrestrial and marine environments, the MoD should have no reason to object to an external environmental audit of this site. I think the public would be greatly reassured if this were the case,' stated Sepa's chairman, Ken Collins.

DU is used in armour- piercing shells because it is extremely dense and, as a waste by-product of the nuclear power industry, very cheap. The newest design of British tank, Challenger 2, is equipped to fire 120mm DU shells known bizarrely as 'Charm 3'.

The MoD confirmed that 120 Challenger 2 tanks armed with DU rounds were currently on their way to the Gulf. DU munitions are also expected to be widely used by US forces, which during the last Gulf war in 1991 unleashed 290 tonnes of DU on Iraq.

DU is blamed by some for causing Gulf War Syndrome amongst veterans of the conflict and a rise in cancer and other illnesses amongst Iraqi civilians. When DU shells hit hard targets they burst into flames and release clouds of toxic dust which can be inhaled.

In preparation for an attack on Iraq, Challenger 2 tanks fired up to 192 DU rounds at the Kirkcudbright range between February 3 and 7. The MoD said the aim was 'to test the performance of fire control and sighting systems', and promised that the site would be monitored for contamination.

But an MoD spokeswoman was careful to disown Oliver's comments about the point of monitoring. 'He was expressing a personal opinion,' she told the Sunday Herald. 'It's unfortunate the way he has phrased it but all he was trying to do was draw attention to the fact that we have a com prehensive monitoring programme before and after firings.'

The MoD has previously admitted that there have been 93 occasions since 1982 when DU shells have misfired and caused radioactive contamination on the Dundrennan range. More than 6000 shells have been fired into the Solway Firth and only one is known to have been recovered -- and that was dredged up by a local fisherman in 1997. depleted_uranium/ conserva/index.htm email: