from Sunday Herald, 25 February 2001
Faults in the firing of depleted uranium (DU) shells have caused radioactive contamination in breach of safety limits at a military testing range in south west Scotland, according to unpublished Ministry of Defence reports. Instead of plunging into the Solway Firth as they were meant to, up to two dozen shells have hit the ground, generating clouds of toxic DU dust.
An investigation by the Sunday Herald has uncovered a catalogue of alarming blunders at the Dundrennan army firing range near Kirkcudbright, which will fuel growing fears about the safety of testing DU shells there. The Ministry of Defence has lost DU shells on land, and has no idea what has happened to the 28 tonnes of DU that ended up in the sea. One shell has been accidentally brought up in the nets of a fishing boat.
An unprecedented experiment designed to discover the fate of the DU in the sea went disastrously wrong earlier this month (February) when 90 DU samples on the seabed disappeared after severe storms. And, as we reveal on page one, defence ministers have misled the House of Commons on the extent to which the dumping of DU has been regulated by government watchdogs.
These revelations have prompted widespread condemnation from experts, environmentalists and opposition politicians. They accuse the MoD of endangering human health and the environment, of behaving like the "Keystone Cops", and of blocking the release of information by its "culture of secrecy".
"Nearly 30 tonnes of this stuff in the sea is a disaster waiting to happen," said John Large, an independent nuclear consultant who currently advises the government. "It may not happen this year, or next year but sooner or later it will end up in the food chain. What they have done is outrageous and irresponsible."
Last week the testing of DU shells at Dundrennan was recommenced, with 12 fired on Tuesday and another 48 due to be fired by October. Despite mounting anger amidst the local community, the MoD continued to maintain that the shells were perfectly safe.
A very different picture, however, emerges from the environmental monitoring reports and other information obtained by the Sunday Herald. Since 1996 12 areas of the Dundrennan site have been significantly contaminated with DU from misfired shells. Soil samples taken from the Raeberry range, where most misfiring has occurred, have frequently breached the MoD's own internal 'investigation level' of 300 millibecquerels of radiation per gram.
To test their range and accuracy, the shells are fired from Challenger tanks over several kilometres at canvas targets erected on the cliffs. They are meant to pierce the canvas and drop into the sea, but up to two dozen since 1982 - including three since 1995 - have fallen short and hit the ground instead.
Survey reports for 1997 and 1998, prepared for the MoD by the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA) in Hampshire, disclose that DU from these "malfunctioning penetrators" has caused problems. "Penetrators that fragmented, either in flight, on impact with land, or on exiting the gun barrel, inevitably produced small quantities of DU particulates that were deposited in the local terrestrial environment," they say.
The MoD insisted last week that any contamination caused on land from misfired shells was cleaned up straightaway by military staff wearing protective clothing. But the survey reports say that although "procedures are in place" to do this, "in most cases where penetrators have been buried in the soil, DU has not been recovered, as the penetrators have not been located."
"This is very worrying," said Alasdair Morgan, the SNP MP and MSP for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale, particularly as the range was open to the public when firing was not taking place. "The MoD seem to have a cavalier disregard for anything other than what they are doing."
Although the survey reports are not meant to be secret, neither the MoD or DERA were able to provide them to the Sunday Herald last week. They were made available by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), which had itself received copies from the MoD.
The reports show that the 6,900 DU rounds fired at Dundrennan over the last 20 years contained 28 tonnes of DU, the vast majority of which will have ended up in the Solway Firth. Although the MoD has commissioned surveys of marine wildlife which have failed to detected any contamination, scientists do not know what has happened to the DU.
Repeated attempts by the MoD, involving divers and video surveillance, to locate DU in the sea have failed to turn up any. According to DERA, only one shell has ever been found, and that was accidentally dredged up by a local fisherman in 1997.
"A thorough examination was made but, because it had been fired six months before, the information gained from this round was limited," said a DERA spokeswoman. "An assessment of the health hazards posed from the round showed there was no significant risk either to the fisherman or to the public."
Dumping radioactive waste in the sea without any understanding of its likely fate would not have been permitted by SEPA, had it been asked. And because the agency does not regulate the firing range, it cannot guarantee public safety. "We are concerned because, although the MoD has looked, it has failed to find any of the shells fired into the Firth," said SEPA chairman, Ken Collins.
"That means we cannot be certain exactly what has happened to the shells - whether they have broken up or are still lying intact, embedded in the sediment. We would doubt that there will be any future enhanced level of DU in the area, but could only prove this by monitoring for DU in the Dundrennan area. Therefore, at present we are unable to provide proper public reassurance."
One of the fears of environmentalists is that some of the DU could break up and be washed ashore in storms, where it could pose a threat to children playing on beaches. In order to study what actually happens to DU on the seabed, DERA begun a unique - but ultimately ironic - scientific experiment last July.
The agency placed a heavy concrete and steel rig on the seabed off Dundrennan containing 66 250-gram DU samples, and buried a further 24 DU samples in the silt. The rig had radiation warning signs and its location was marked by two flashing buoys.
The idea was that divers would periodically revisit the rig to retrieve the samples so that they could be analysed. Unfortunately, when they tried to do this on 7 February, they found that the rig had been damaged and that all 90 DU samples were missing.
DERA suspects that the chains securing the buoys had damaged the rig during severe storms. The agency is sending down a team of divers from the Faslane nuclear submarine base on the Clyde to try and find the lost DU at the beginning of March.
Staff from Dundrennan have already patrolled their shoreline looking for evidence that the DU samples had been washed up, but failed to find any. DERA pointed out that the area of the seabed where the samples were lost was where many DU shells had previously landed.
"The total amount of DU in all the samples is no more than that found in four standard rounds, and so results in a negligible addition to the material on the seabed," claimed a DERA spokeswoman.
SEPA, however, pointed out that the accident showed the surprising strength of underwater currents in that part of the sea. If the rig could be damaged and its contents lost, a spokeswoman for the agency asked, could not DU shells be swept away or moved from the seabed too?
"This is a Keystone Cops episode that makes them look ridiculous," said the local MP Alasdair Morgan. "After 20 years they are now trying to discover the consequences of what they have done by firing DU rounds, and they have failed."
As well as criticising defence ministers for misleading the House of Commons on the regulation of DU firing, Morgan argued that part of the problem lay in the MoD's insistence on sticking to last century's closed notions of confidentiality. "The culture of secrecy that surrounds the MoD is appalling," he said. "It seems that every piece of information has to be dragged out of them kicking and screaming."