Updated: 13-Feb-2001 NATO Information

10 January 2001

Statement by the UK Minister for the Armed Forces on Depleted Uranium

AD HOC Committee on Depleted Uranium (AHCDU)

With permission Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on Depleted Uranium. During the last few days concern has been expressed in the media and in this House about possible exposure of United Kingdom forces to Depleted Uranium in the Balkans. This reflects a series of media reports that the health of peacekeepers in Bosnia or Kosovo may have been affected by their deployment. 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 will set out our position on depleted uranium, and list the steps we are taking and intend to take.

pleted 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% 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 millimetre armour piercing round for use in the Challenger Main Battle Tank. This ammunition was used in the Gulf war, where around 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 this. 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. These 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 these hazards, together with our estimates of the risk which 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 kidney damage which would be the chief indication of heavy metal poisoning. Radiological damage would only become manifested as an increased rate of cancer after a long period of latency. Furthermore, there is currently no evidence after 10 years, of a higher rate of cancer amongst 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 which 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 battlefield exposures to DU. The conclusions of all this work, including that by the RAND corporation, the US Agency for Toxic Substances 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 these troops, including those who retain DU shrapnel in their bodies have health problems related to DU. Testing 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 to around 300 tons fired in the Gulf, only 3 tons was fired in Bosnia, and around 9 tons in Kosovo, very little of it in what is now the British sector.

Conscious of the potential risks which 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 to wear suitable protective clothing if they had to work in the vicinity of these 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. There is to date no evidence of which the Ministry of defence is aware of unusual ill health amongst our Balkan peacekeepers, or specifically 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. They found no difference in the level of symptoms between them and troops not deployed to the Gulf or Bosnia.

Media reports have also focussed on the test firing of DU at UK ranges. Apart from a small amount of contained firing at Foulness and Aldermaston, this has been concentrated in the ranges at Kirkcudbright on the Solway Firth, and at Eskmeals in Cumbria. It is fired at Kirkudbright 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 independent environmental consultants WS Atkins. The consultants 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 spelt out the background to Depleted uranium and ours and other's existing research on the issue. These issues are not new, and we must not unduly alarm service personnel or their families about the position.

That said we do recognise that some of the recent coverage will have caused some concerns amongst our people, and we recognise a need to reassure them. We take very seriously our responsibility to the Service personnel and civilians given the demands which 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 will do this on the basis of the best available science. We will consult appropriate national bodies such as the UK National Screening Committee of the UK 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 also will be important 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 which they plan, and to ensure that all data available across NATO is pooled as a basis for subsequent decisions. We are also conscious that the United Nations Environmental Programme have surveyed sites in Kosovo and we await the publication of their final report with interest. I should add that their interim statement refers to only slightly elevated levels of radiation at 8 of the sites they 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 then tests for uranium levels will be carried out.

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