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Calls for inquiry into the firing of depleted uranium shells in Britain
8 January 2001
By Cahal Milmo
Veterans' groups demanded a public inquiry into the use of depleted uranium ammunition yesterday after the Ministry of Defence confirmed that the shells have been routinely fired at military ranges. The MoD said that armour-piercing shells containing the radioactive metal had been tested since 1990 near Esk-meals, Cumbria, and Kirkcudbright, Dumfries and Galloway.
The disclosures come as Britain's EU allies are demanding an inquiry into a "Balkan syndrome" among soldiers after the use of depleted uranium (DU) by Allied forces in Kosovo and Bosnia. Up to 15 soldiers who served there, including six Italians, five Belgians and two Portuguese, have since died from leukaemia – leading to calls for the Government to screen UK troops for excessive radiation levels. The Italian and Portuguese governments are investigatingpossible links between DU munitions and cancer.
Confirmation this weekend that the ammunition is also being used in Britain drew an angry response from politicians and watchdogs about its potential effects on civilians and the environment. Campaigners battling for recognition that DU weapons fired in the Gulf War have contributed to veterans' illnesses said it was clear that exposure to DU was more widespread than originally believed.
Tony Flint, of the National Gulf War Veterans Association, said: "We have been saying for years that there are genuine questions to be answered on DU. If it is being tested close to civilian populations then it is a matter for a public inquiry.
"The MoD are acting like ostriches with their heads in the sand on this issue – they do not want to believe it is a problem and are hoping it will simply go away. The fact is, it won't."
Opposition politicians and two Labour MPs, including the former defence minister Peter Kilfoyle, have called for fresh research into the effects of DU and a moratorium on its use.
Bruce George, the Labour chairman of the Defence Select Committee, which is to call Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, to give evidence, said: "The MoD has got to come up with a statement pretty quickly to allay fears and reassure servicemen and their families."
Despite being only slightly radioactive, DU shells vaporise into fine dust on impact. Some medical and scientific experts believe this could cause cancer.
An estimated 12 tonnes of DU ammunition was fired from American A-10 "tankbuster" aircraft in the Balkans from 1994. A further 300 tonnes was used during the Gulf War. The Defence Evaluation and Research Agency says 1,421 shells have been fired from the Scottish range into the waters of the Solway Firth since 1995.
British soldiers coming into contact with vehicles destroyed by DU shells now have to wear protective clothing and masks. But the MoD, which with Nato and the United States says there is "no significant health risk" from DU, insisted its testing in Britain was legitimate and fell within safety guidelines.