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Depleted Uranium

3.30 pm

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement. I apologise to the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), for the short time that the statement has been available.

During the last few days, concern has been expressed in the media and in the House about the possible exposure of United Kingdom forces to depleted uranium in the Balkans. This reflects a series of reports from the media and elsewhere that the health of peacekeepers in Bosnia or Kosovo may have been affected by its use. It is suggested that some UK service personnel may have become ill as a result of exposure to depleted uranium in the Balkans.

This afternoon, I shall set out our position on depleted uranium, and list the steps we are taking and intend to take. Depleted uranium is a very dense heavy metal. It results from the uranium enrichment process, and because the majority of the more radioactive isotopes are removed in this process, depleted uranium is about 40 per cent. less radioactive than natural uranium. Because of its density and metallurgic properties, depleted uranium is ideally suited for use as a kinetic energy penetrator for use in anti-armour munitions. The UK has developed and deployed a 120 mm armour-piercing round for use in the Challenger main battle tank. This ammunition was used in the Gulf war, where about 100 rounds were fired by us against Iraqi armour, as well as some rounds during training in Saudi Arabia. This ammunition provides a battle-winning military capability. Alternative materials are not as effective. Therefore, DU will remain part of our arsenal for the foreseeable future, because when this country commits our forces to conflict, we fight to win. Our troops need the best available equipment to enable them to do that. To deny them a legitimate capability would be quite wrong.

Handled in accordance with the regulations, DU shells present no hazard to our forces. We have long recognised, however, that on the battlefield its debris might present a hazard from chemical toxicity, in the same way as any heavy metal such as lead, and a low-level radiological hazard. The risk from chemical toxicity would arise from ingestion of the soluble depleted uranium oxides, and the radiological risk primarily from inhalation of the insoluble depleted uranium oxides. Those risks arise from the dust created when DU strikes a hard target such as an armoured vehicle. In its massive form, as expended rounds or solid fragments, it is a negligible hazard.

In response to the health concerns of Gulf veterans, the Ministry of Defence has, both in 1993 and 1999, published details of those hazards together with our estimates of the risk that they might have posed to troops in the Gulf. We believe those risks to have been low, which is borne out by the findings of our medical assessment programme for Gulf veterans. There has been no evidence, during the deployment or subsequently, of the kidney damage that would be the chief indication of heavy metal poisoning. Radiological damage would become manifested as an increased rate of cancer only after a long period of latency. Furthermore, there is currently no evidence, after 10 years, of a higher rate of

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cancer among Gulf veterans compared to a control group. We currently offer tests to Gulf veterans who attend the medical assessment programme for whole body load of uranium, if there is a clinical indication that uranium might be linked to the illnesses that they manifest.

Substantial amounts of research into the health risks of uranium have been conducted and published over many years. Recent work by reputable bodies has assessed this literature in the context of possible battlefield exposures to DU.

The conclusions of all that work, including that by the RAND corporation, the US Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry, and the US Institute of Medicine, is that there is no evidence linking DU to cancers or to the more general ill health being experienced by some Gulf veterans. As regards exposures, important work at the Baltimore Veterans Affairs clinic in the United States is monitoring Gulf veterans known to be at the highest risk of exposure due to "friendly-fire" incidents. None of those troops, including those who retain DU shrapnel in their bodies, have health problems related to DU. Testing of Gulf and Balkans veterans for uranium in the US, Canada and Belgium has failed to show any of them excreting higher than background levels unless they have embedded shrapnel.

Depleted uranium has also been fired by NATO forces during operations in Bosnia in 1994 and 1995, and in Kosovo in 1999. Compared with around 300 tonnes fired in the Gulf, only 3 tonnes were fired in Bosnia and around 9 tonnes in Kosovo, very little of it in the British sector.

Conscious of the potential risks that DU posed, we issued precautionary guidance to our forces in Kosovo about the need not to approach recently struck, burned-out armoured vehicles possibly hit by DU, which present the main hazard, and about the need to wear suitable protective clothing if they had to work in the vicinity of those vehicles.

The working environment of our forces in the Balkans is already closely monitored because of health and safety and environmental concerns about the theatre, which extend well beyond the question of DU. The Ministry of Defence is aware of no evidence to date of unusual ill health among our Balkan peacekeepers, or specifically of any ill health that would suggest heavy-metal poisoning. Indeed, a thorough epidemiological study was done by King's college in the context of Gulf health, which examined a cohort of nearly 4,000 Bosnia peacekeepers. The study found no difference in the level of symptoms between them and troops who had been deployed neither to the Gulf nor to Bosnia.

Media reports have also focused on the test firing of DU at UK ranges. Apart from a small amount of contained firing at Foulness and Aldermaston, that has been concentrated in the ranges at Kirkcudbright on the Solway Firth, and at Eskmeals in Cumbria. It is fired at Kirkcudbright into the sea, and at Eskmeals--until 1995--into armour plate targets. Safety at the ranges, and in their environs, has been a paramount concern. The DU firing programme is subject to regulation under the Ionising Radiation Regulations 2000. The Environment Agency and the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency also have oversight of the firing programme. A detailed review of the environmental impact of firing DU at these ranges was undertaken by the independent environmental consultants W. S. Atkins. The consultants

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concluded that the radiation doses to members of the public and the associated risks from DU released into the environment were extremely low.

I have spelled out the background to depleted uranium, and to our and other existing research on the issue, because it is important to put some of the inaccurate and inflammatory media coverage in context. These issues are not new, and we must not unduly alarm service personnel or their families about the position.

That said, we recognise that there are concerns among our people, and we recognise a need to reassure them. We take very seriously our responsibility to our service personnel, given the demands that we make on them during operations.

Our response, therefore, will be to identify an additional appropriate voluntary screening programme for our service personnel and civilians who have served in the Balkans. We shall do that on the basis of the best available science. We shall consult appropriate national bodies, such as the United Kingdom national screening committee of the Department of Health. Another important source of external scientific advice will be the report currently under preparation by the Royal Society, which is taking an independent look at depleted uranium.

It will be important also to co-ordinate an approach with allies, many of whom are assessing the same reports as I make this statement. A crucial part of our approach will be to discuss with allies their data on risks to health in the Balkans, the health of peacekeepers in the Balkans, the responses that they plan, and to ensure that all data available across NATO are pooled as a basis for subsequent decisions. We are also conscious that the United Nations environmental programme has surveyed sites in Kosovo and we await the publication of its final report with interest. I should add that its interim statement refers to only slightly elevated levels of radiation at eight of the sites that the programme monitored. I am also announcing that the UK will enhance its existing environmental surveillance programme in the Balkans to ensure that no health threats to our forces, and indeed to the local civilian population, are overlooked. In the meantime, any individual who believes that their health may have been damaged by service in the Balkans should seek medical advice. If their doctor considers that there is evidence that depleted uranium might have contributed to ill health, tests for uranium levels will be carried out.

I hope that this statement puts the current debate into context, provides the necessary reassurance to the House as well as to our forces and their families, and indicates the way ahead. We are providing battle-winning equipment for our forces and taking seriously our responsibility for our forces' welfare. I am sure that the House will agree that they deserve no less.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): I thank the Minister for his courtesy in giving me a copy of the statement before he came to the Dispatch Box. I also welcome the statement generally, given all the press speculation over the past few weeks.

The Minister is right to be here today. The reasons for the Government to have acted are threefold: first, to calm the speculation that has been raging for some time, not only in the past couple of days but over the Christmas

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period and before; secondly--as the Minister said--to reassure service personnel and their families that the Ministry of Defence is concerned enough about their well-being to be prepared to investigate if such investigation is necessary; and, thirdly, to find out whether there is any basis in truth for the recent spate of allegations, which appear to have come mostly from the Italians, but also from elsewhere. Most of the Italian cases come from Bosnia, as I am sure the Minister will confirm. I shall say more about that in a second.

The Minister referred to reports published earlier that suggest that there is no risk. For example, the World Health Organisation and the United Nations have said that they do not think that there is a radiation risk. They refer to this as a toxicity issue rather than a radiation issue. Will the Minister spend a little more time explaining the basis for those statements? The Ministry of Defence produced a report, "Testing for the presence of depleted uranium in UK veterans of the Gulf conflict", which came to similar conclusions.

I also note, given the point about the Italian cases in Bosnia, that a Mrs. Obradovic, a haematologist in the Serb-controlled half of Bosnia, said recently that the leukaemia rate among the 500,000 residents in that section was the same as before the Bosnian war. That was one of the areas that experienced the greatest concentration of the use of these weapons. I would, therefore, be concerned if they were experiencing no change while we are apparently seeing a change in service personnel, whoever they may be.

Will the Minister confirm that there was no firing of depleted uranium rounds on the testing range at Bovington on the Salisbury plain?

I would like to know what has changed in the past 24 hours. A Ministry of Defence spokesman ruled out health checks yesterday, then suddenly, in today's papers, we were being briefed that there would be health checks. The Minister said that there was no new evidence, so perhaps he could explain whether this change has been driven from sources outside the Ministry of Defence, particularly from Downing street, which appears to have provided the statement. Will he explain the reason for the change and for this early statement?

Given that this issue has created some concern over the past few weeks, why did the Minister and his colleagues choose not to make the sort of statement that he has made today to clarify the position? Surely that would have soothed some of the more ludicrous press comments. Why, then, did the Ministry choose to leave officials to make only simple statements?

What will the Minister's response to other NATO nations be? The Italians are reported as saying that if they do not get the weapons banned, they will withdraw from NATO. What discussions has the Minister had with his counterparts in the Italian Government on that? Expletives can be deleted in this case.

Is not the Minister's real point, with which I agree, that there is an issue of balance of risk? After all, we are dealing with war-fighting weapons that are used in the most dangerous and risky circumstances. The weapons are used to protect British or allied forces, which may have to engage tanks or armoured vehicles that would otherwise be likely to destroy their position or even kill them. Is not that ultimately the main decision--whether there is any risk and what the balance of risk is, given the

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nature of the circumstances in which such weapons are likely to be used? Establishing these factors quickly, and doing so in the public domain as much as possible, would reassure service personnel and their families as much as others in the country who want to know that the Government and the Ministry of Defence will do whatever it takes.

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