Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:

Lord Gilbert: Uranium-238 is one of the three isotopes of uranium, all of which are sources of alpha particles. The health effects that may result from taking uranium-238 into the body depend not only on the route of entry, but also on the quantity and solubility of the uranium involved. The health effects of exposure to depleted uranium, which is around 99 per cent uranium-238, are summarised in a report produced by DERA Radiation Protection Services, Radiological and Chemical Hazards of Depleted Uranium (DRPS Report No. 13/93), a copy of which is available in the Library of the House. This report concludes that "The only clinical signs or symptoms from exposure to DU would arise if it was inhaled as a soluble compound or spilled on the skin. These would be transient kidney damage or skin irritation".

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:

Lord Gilbert: A single particle of uranium oxide having a diameter of 5 microns will contain less than 0.000018 Becquerels of radioactivity. This is well below the limit of detection of even the most sensitive methods of personal monitoring, including bioassay. The radiation dose associated with such a small quantity or radioactivity, by whichever route it is taken into the body, is infinitesimally small. For comparison, the annual limit of intake for uranium-238, for a member of the public, as specified by the International Committee for Radiological Protection, equates to breathing in a

2 Mar 1998 : Column WA148

mass of approximately 8 mg of depleted uranium, which would contain 200 Becquerels of radioactivity. This is more than 10 million times greater than that contained in a single particle of uranium-238 with a diameter of 5 microns.

Soils, including those in desert areas, contain measurable quantities of naturally occurring uranium, which normally exist in oxide form. These oxides inevitably get suspended into the atmosphere by the action of the wind and other disturbing influences, to be breathed in by anyone in the vicinity. British troops will, therefore, undoubtedly have inhaled such particles of natural uranium oxide during Operation Granby.

Depleted Uranium

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What facilities within the United Kingdom use, store, distribute or transport depleted uranium in all its forms; whether these facilities are required to be licensed, and, if not, under which circumstances would a licence not be necessary.[HL433]

Lord Gilbert: Depleted Uranium has had wide ranging use in both the civil and defence sectors, including shielding of radioactive sources, as counterbalances for aeroplanes and oil rigs, and also in tank and naval weapon ammunition.

The use and handling of depleted uranium is controlled by a number of different regulations, none of which requires a licence. The basic control of depleted uranium is provided by the Radioactive Substances Act 1993 (amended 1995) which is administered by the Environment Agency. Other regulations which may be applicable are the ionising radiation regulations and associated code of practice 1985 and 1993, and the Radioactive Material (Road Transport) (Great Britain) Regulations 1996. Disposal, as opposed to use, of depleted uranium is, however, authorised only for licensed nuclear sites.

The British Army's depleted uranium munitions, 120mm tank ammunition, are stored in purpose-built ammunition facilities at various locations throughout the UK. Batches of depleted uranium rounds are stored and transported in unit load carriers which are protected to ensure emissions are kept below 5 milli-Sieverts, the annual radiation dose limit for non-radiation workers. All army ammunition, including depleted uranium tank ammunition, requires an explosives licence from the Chief Inspector of Explosives (Army).

The Royal Navy use depleted uranium in ammunition for the Phalanx close-in weapon system. The majority of this ammunition is stored aboard Her Majesty's ships afloat. The safety of naval munitions, including those containing depleted uranium, is the responsibility of the Chief Inspector Naval Ordnance, who issues safety statements concerning their handling and use.

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:

2 Mar 1998 : Column WA149

    Whether in March 1991 a signal was raised by United States military personnel detailing important health and safety information concerning the use, handling and contamination risks associated with the use of depleted uranium munitions in the combat zones of the Gulf War; whether, and if so when, British military commanders became aware of this information; and, if there was a delay, what investigations there were to ascertain the effects on British troops; and[HL434]

    Whether during the Gulf War special United States units were tasked with the collection of raw data concerning the nature of battlefield contamination resulting from the use of depleted uranium munitions by coalition forces, whether British commanders were informed of the likely hazards; and, if they were, what measures were taken to protect British troops from exposure to DU and its products of combustion.[HL435]

Lord Gilbert: A search of surviving contemporary departmental records has not found any information about the US data collection units and US signal referred to in the questions of the noble Countess. The US Department of Defense Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses, OSAGWI, which is currently in the process of investigating Depleted Uranium related matters with a view to publishing its findings in a detailed "case narrative" on depleted uranium later this year, was therefore consulted and has provided the following advice:

    "Numerous messages were generated in March 1991, as the US Army transitioned from a combat mode to a peacetime mode when US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) license requirements governed the handling and disposal of DU-contaminated equipment returned to the US. Since this was the first time that DU had been used by US forces in combat, it was also the first time that US military forces had had to deal with DU-contaminated equipment. Previously, only isolated preacetime incidents had been experienced. As such, there were considerable communications between US Army personnel in-theatre and various Army commands in the US detailing the specific handling and disposal requirements for contaminated US (friendly fire and accidental fires) and Iraqi equipment. Specific guidance was sought and provided on what could and could not be disposed of in-theatre, what had to be shipped back to the US for burial at the low-level waste burial site, and on monitoring and shipping instructions for the contaminated equipment. Again, the emphasis on this message traffic dealt with the transition from wartime to a peacetime setting when NRC guidelines govern.

    Our investigation of DU-related matters has not focused on when or whether British Military commanders were informed of these actions. Since we are not aware of any British combat vehicles being involved in friendly-fire incidents involving DU munitions, the message traffic involving disposal guidance for equipment contaminated by

2 Mar 1998 : Column WA150

    DU during friendly-fire incidents would not have been relevant to British forces in the Gulf.

    There are several US teams involved with the assessment of battle damaged equipment. These included teams interested in the intelligence aspects of damage to Iraqi equipment as well as Battle Damage Assessment Teams responsible for assessing the nature of damage to US equipment. In addition, an in-theatre team was assembled to monitor suspected friendly-fire vehicles for DU contamination and eventually to assist with complying with the NRC's requirements for preparing DU-contaminated equipment for shipment to the US. Again, our investigation has not focused on what was or was not communicated to British Forces."

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:

    In the light of statements in the United States Army Environment Policy Institute report Health and Environmental Consequences of Depleted Uranium Use in the US Army about the chemical and radiological toxicity of DU (depleted uranium), whether they consider munitions and other materials manufactured with depleted uranium to be safe in both the short and the long term to British troops and civilians who may come into contact with products of combustion; and[HL475]

    Whether they accept scientific evidence that, upon impact, the products of combustion of depleted uranium (DU) munitions and other materials include microscopic uranium, beryllium and insoluble uranium dioxide particles which, if inhaled, ingested or absorbed may many years later result in beryllosis, cancer of the lungs, lymph nodes or bone, kidney damage, and birth defects in the children of individuals exposed to these products; and, if they do not, whether they will publish the evidence which demonstrates that the products of combustion of DU are safe to humans, animals and the environment.[HL472]

Lord Gilbert: The health effects which may arise from the use of depleted uranium in munitions, including combustion products, were considered in the then Defence Radiological Protection Services Report 13/93 Radiological and Chemical Hazards of Depleted Uranium, a copy of which is available in the Library of the House.

Significant concentrations of combustion products are liable to be present only within a small radius, about 200-300 metres, around hard targets that have been struck by a depleted uranium projectile. Realistic estimates of exposure, even within this area, indicate little risk either of cancer induction through radiological effects, or of kidney damage due to chemical toxicity. We are not aware of any published research which indicates that uranium oxide dust is a cause of birth defects, at whatever concentrations.

Berylliosis can only be caused by exposure to beryllium. There is no beryllium present in the depleted uranium shot, explosive charge or igniter used in the DU

2 Mar 1998 : Column WA151

ammunition deployed by the UK in Operation Granby or since. Similarly, the US Department of Defense have advised that the DU ammunition used by their forces during the Gulf conflict also did not contain beryllium. The only way, therefore, in which beryllium could be released into the atmosphere would be if it were present in the target hit by a DU, or any other, munition. It is not possible to state categorically whether or not this ever happened. However, the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency have advised that there is currently no use for beryllium in either armour or armour piercing ammunition, and that it is extremely unlikely that it would be used in any other country's ammunition.

The potential hazards presented by depleted uranium combustion products are taken into account when providing training to service and civilian personnel who may have to enter areas contaminated with such products. With respect to public protection, comprehensive environmental monitoring programmes are in place at the two locations in the UK, Eskmeals and Kirkcudbright, where depleted uranium ammunition is fired. To date, calculated public radiation doses from all direct and indirect routes have been trivial, representing much less than 1 per cent. of the national annual radiation dose limit for members of the public. These monitoring programmes will continue until such time as the Environment Agency considers that no further monitoring is necessary.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page