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Depleted Uranium Contamination

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:

Lord Gilbert: The text of the letter referred to is set out below:

"In my letter of 2 February I undertook to write separately to you on the subject of the 1991 UK Atomic Energy Authority, UKAEA, paper on Depleted Uranium contamination, a matter which you raised shortly before Christmas in one of your Questions for Written Answer.

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Both the UKAEA and the Ministry of Defence are aware only of a paper written in April 1991 entitled "Kuwait--Depleted Uranium Contamination". Having sought UKAEA's approval, I attach a copy of the report, which has been declassified, and am placing copies in the Library of the House. You should be aware that the report was not commissioned by the Ministry of Defence, but was produced for Royal Ordnance plc on a commercial basis.

When I first read the report, I was startled to see the figures quoted in the text on the apparent extent of the potential contamination. Further investigation, however, has uncovered that a number of assumptions made in the paper are very far from realistic. Indeed, the paper itself makes clear that it is not a rigorous scientific analysis of the actual situation, but a theoretical appraisal of the possible worst-case effects of Depleted Uranium ammunition in Kuwait.

In particular, the paper assumes that a large number of Depleted Uranium rounds were fired in Kuwait, that all the Depleted Uranium fired was converted into respirable dust, and that all of this dust was inhaled by a very large number of people. Although uranium is a pyrophoric material, a Depleted Uranium shell needs to hit an extremely hard target to cause the burning which produces various oxides in the form of dust. In practice, our tests show that this occurs only when the shell hits extremely hard armour, as found on only the most modern main battle tanks. Such burning does not occur if the shell hits other types of armoured vehicles, or if it misses its target and is fired into the ground.

The US estimate that they fired approximately 4,000 tank rounds in combat, not all of which would have hit a target hard enough to cause the Depleted Uranium core to burn. Our assessment, based on the large number of trials carried out in the UK and US, is that only about 20 per cent. of the Depleted Uranium in a shell that has hit such a target is converted into respirable dust. Since the rounds were fired in the desert, many kilometres from the nearest village, it is highly unlikely that the local population would have been exposed to any significant amount of respirable oxide. You may wish to know that, on the basis on which the calculations in the AEA paper rely, 500,000 people would die in Britain if we were to inhale all the natural uranium that exists in 20 square kilometres of average British soil, to the depth of 1 metre.

The paper goes on to refer to a radioactive dose of 1 milli-Sievert per year as a dose which "could easily be exceeded", and that "exceeding [this] dose puts the public at risk". In fact, in the UK, the average member of the public receives about twice this dose during every year of their life from natural background radiation. This is in the ordinary course of life, rather than in the event of such unrealistic, hypothetical scenarios as those used in the paper.

The only situation in which exposure to respirable Depleted Uranium oxide is a real hazard is when someone is working inside a tank which has recently been destroyed with Depleted Uranium ammunition. In this situation, a mask should be worn at all times. As you will be aware from the RAOC Technical

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Ammunition Bulletin No. 21/2024, which I enclosed in my letter of 2 February and which is also available in the Library of the House, our standing instructions are that service respirators should be worn at all times during clearance of ordnance by service personnel in such circumstances for this very reason.

I hope this is helpful. I assume that, like me, you will wish the text of this letter to appear in the Official Report. I understand that the only way in which this can happen is in response to a Question for Written Answer. If you would like to table a Question to this effect, I will be glad to oblige."

Letter to J. Y. Sanders, Royal Ordnance, from P. G. E. Bartholomew, Business Development Manager, Defence, AEA Industrial Technology, dated 30 April 1991.

"When we spoke on the telephone, I promised to produce a threat paper on the contamination of Kuwait with depleted uranium used by the US and UK forces in the recent war. I attach a short paper which covers the threat, identifies the need to size the problem and outlines the action we believe is necessary for health safety.

The whole subject of contamination of Kuwait is emotive and thus must be dealt with in a sensitive manner. It is necessary to inform the Kuwait Government of the problem in a useful way and this Mr. Alastair Parker, Regional Marketing Directorate 1, Defence Export Services has suggested is probably best done in conjunction with the UK Ambassador to Kuwait. He said that a threat paper should be sent by him to the UK Ambassador. He also said that he believed that the work of dealing with the depleted uranium might best be let to AEA Technology as an extension to the Royal Ordnance contract.

We believe that this may be the most straightforward method and AEA Technology therefore request that RO consider extending their contract with the Kuwait government to include the survey and clean up of depleted uranium by AEA Technology as their subcontractor.

If you agree to our proposal, may I suggest that we meet with Alastair Parker to whom I am copying this letter, in order to decide on the way ahead."

Paper presented by AEA Technology:

Kuwait--Depleted Uranium Contamination

1. This paper is presented by AEA Technology which is the trading name for the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority. AEA Technology is the UK Government's official adviser on nuclear safety. The paper gives a realistic appraisal of the effects of depleted uranium on the Kuwaiti population.


2. Munitions containing depleted uranium (DU) were used by both the UK and US forces in the recent war in the Gulf. The use of depleted uranium was an important contributory element in defeating the armour of Iraqi vehicles. Equipments known to have fired DU ammunition included both UK and US main battle tanks and US aircraft.

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3. DU is the product of the enrichment process of U 2 3 5 which is used for nuclear fuel. DU is both mildly radioactive and chemically toxic like other heavy metals. Handling of heavy metal munitions does pose some potential hazards as does the possibility of the spread of radioactive and toxic contamination as a result of firing in battle. These hazards are small when compared to those during a war, but can become a long term problem if not dealt with in peacetime and are a risk to both the military and the civilian population.


4. An accurate figure for the quantity of DU fired is difficult to acquire. A best estimate is that the US tanks fired more than 5,000 DU rounds, US aircraft many tens of thousands and UK tanks a small number of DU rounds. The tank ammunition alone will amount to greater than 50,000 lbs of DU, which is equivalent to approximately 360 GBq of radioactivity. This equates to a total dose of 10 7 Sv. If the tank inventory of DU was inhaled, the latest International Committee of Radiological Protection (ICRP) risk factor of 5 x 10- 2 per Sv calculates 500,000 potential deaths. Obviously this theoretical figure is not realistic, however it does indicate a significant problem.

5. The DU will be spread around the battlefield and target vehicles in varying sizes and quantities from dust particles to full size penetrators and shot. It would be unwise for people to stay close to large quantities of DU for long periods and this would obviously be of concern to the local population if they collect this heavy metal and keep it. There will be specific areas in which many rounds will have been fired where localised contamination of vehicles and the soil may exceed permissible limits and these could be hazardous to both clean up teams and the local population.

6. Inhalation of airborne DU dust particles can lead to unacceptable body burdens and manufacturers of DU munitions take precautions to ensure that their staff are not exposed to undue risk for this reason. The limit of intake for members of the public is less than 2.2 x 10- 3 g in one year and this could easily be exceeded if special arrangements are not made. This would equate to a radioactive dose of ImSv per year, the limit that has been proposed by the ICRP. Exceeding the dose puts the public at risk. DU can also be a danger if taken into the body by ingestion or through a cut. Furthermore if DU gets into the food chain or water then this will create potential health problems.

7. A further concern is a political one of leaving significant quantities of uranium around Kuwait. The problem will not go away and should be tackled before it becomes a political problem created by the environmental lobby. It is in both the Kuwait and the UK interest that this is not left to rear its head in the years to come.


8. There is initially a need to identify the size of the problem. It will never be possible to remove all the DU from Kuwait left as a result of the allied forces' action, but it should be possible to remove the worst concentrations and minimise the potential health hazard.

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DU requires sensitive equipment and well trained operators as it is difficult to locate.

9. Therefore we propose that an exercise should be carried out by AEA Technology to ascertain which areas of Kuwait are most contaminated. This would concentrate on the knocked out vehicles and other known hard targets that are likely to have been engaged with DU ammunition. A radiological survey would ascertain the quantity of DU in such a target.

10. A clean up plan would be produced as a product of the survey to work in conjunction with the other clean up operations. This survey and the clean up can be carried out by a small and dedicated team from AEA Technology in total confidentiality.

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