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Scottish independence and the UK’s depleted uranium weapons

With the referendum vote looming, we take a look at the implications of a Yes vote for the UK’s depleted uranium weapons. Whichever way it goes - it could be a headache for the MoD. #indyref
16 September 2014 - ICBUW

welcome to scotland

In the late 70s, the UK MoD was busy massaging ministerial approval for its plans for a controversial DU firing range in south west Scotland. The site, near Dundrennan in Dumfries and Galloway, had been selected after other areas that could have provided open range firing were deemed politically unacceptable. The Scottish Office was nervous. In a strongly worded memorandum a WK Fraser, who had been busy trying to mitigate public opposition to a nuclear power station in the area noted that: “The allegation that Scotland has been made a “nuclear dustbin” is receiving a good deal of publicity in the press”. The plans went ahead regardless.

From Dundrennan to Dalgety Bay – where former Prime Minister and No campaigner Gordon Brown has been campaigning for clean-up, the MoD’s actions over the years have only helped reinforce the nuclear dustbin claim. The Dundrennan range is one of two main UK DU ranges. Both are situated on the shores of the Solway Firth, which separates Dumfries and Galloway from the English Lake District and Cumbria. On the English side, Eskmeals was used for testing the penetration of DU rounds. Poor management of the fumes created by firing resulted in DU particles being found six kilometres away in the village of Milom. Across the Solway, Dundrennan has been used for assessing the accuracy and range of the UK’s 120mm DU tank rounds. Since 1982, more than 6000 rounds have been fired from the cliffs into the Solway, equating to 31 tonnes of DU.

Following their early developmental testing, the UK’s CHARM3 tank rounds require additional testing every five years throughout their lifespan; this is to guarantee that the explosive propellant functions as intended. This has ensured a regular cycle of firing and local and national opposition. The UK Campaign Against Depleted Uranium CADU) has been a leading voice against the tests. Yet the only event to fully disrupt this cyclical process has been the Scottish independence referendum. Last year, in what can only be described as a U-turn, the then Minister for Defence Equipment, Support and Technology, Philip Dunne, told Katy Clark, MP for North Ayrshire and Arran, that the MoD will not fire DU as part of the current Life Extension Programme. This unprecedented decision flew in the face of the historical ammunition management cycle and it can only be assumed that fear of antagonising the Scots played a part.

Local Scottish National Party (SNP) MSP Aileen Mcleod said at the time“There’s no question as far as I am concerned that this is a clear U-turn on the part of the UK government. Until now they have only ever been willing to say there are no current plans to test-fire DU munitions. The concerted efforts of the Campaign Against Depleted Uranium have obtained the clearest statement to date that there are in fact no plans to test fire DU shells at all during the current, planned life extension programme of the munitions.”

Mcleod added: “Although this is a big step forward, the campaign must continue until there is a clear guarantee that there will be no more test firing of DU shells in Scotland at any point in the future.”

Despite the assuarnces, the MoD has said nothing that would guarantee an end to test-firing, hiding behind the phrase ‘no current plans to test fire’. However, the current Scottish government has taken steps to claw back some control over radioactive emissions at MoD sites in Scotland. As defence matters are retained by Westminster under the current political settlement, the Scottish government and the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) have limited powers to oppose tests. However, in March this year, and after a scandal concerning a radiation leak at the Vulcan test reactor at Dounreay, the SNP government moved to remove the Crown Exemption from MoD sites. This gave more control to SEPA over emissions and licensing, where previously there had only been a weak memorandum of understanding over access and oversight. In theory, this shift would allow the Scottish government a greater say over any plans for renewed testing at Dundrennan, particularly as the dumping of DU in the Solway may be a breach of the OSPAR Convention – an environmental law designed to protect the north Atlantic marine environment from toxic waste.

Future headaches   

The SNP, which passed a conference motion supporting a ban on DU in 2011, is on record as being opposed to any continuation of DU test firing in Scotland: “The SNP is committed to ending the use of DU shells, and has supported local, national and international campaigns on the issue as well as raising the matter in the Westminster parliament.” It therefore seems possible that a future independent Scotland would oppose any further DU testing. Equally, increased devolution following a No vote might also see greater powers transferred that would allow future testing plans to be challenged more effectively, plans which the MoD doubtless has in place.

If it's a Yes, losing access to Dundrennan would leave the MoD’s DU programme in a greater pickle than it already is. UK tanks require a bespoke 120mm round therefore the MoD cannot buy NATO standard ammunition ‘off the shelf’. Plans to upgrade the main guns on the UK’s Challenger tank fleet that could have allowed an easy shift away from DU and to more readily available ammunition have been shelved for some time following an existential crisis over the future of tank warfare and the hefty price tag involved. Doubtless the MoD is also considering whether DU itself has a future, with global opinion and the UK's allies' defence programmes turning against the material. Meanwhile, the UK no longer has a national manufacturing base after BAE Systems acquired Royal Ordnance - the manufacturers of CHARM3, then promptly shut various facilities and stated that it no longer makes DU rounds. The ability to buy off the shelf must seem like a promising option to the MoD – if it were possible.

Until then such time as it is, the MoD is sitting on a slowly deteriorating stock of DU ammunition, determined to challenge any criticism of the weapon, be it from the UK parliament or UN General Assembly, until it finds an alternative. This begs the question, in the event of a Yes vote, where else could it be tested to ensure it functions properly? Is there a suitable range in England, Wales or Northern Ireland where DU could be fired into the sea in breach of maritime environmental law? Will the MoD have to push for controversial testing on an onshore range such as Lulworth in Dorset, or will they have to ask their DU allies the French and US for permission to contaminate their ranges? Though this would mean losing the convenience and privacy of Dundrennan.    

Scottish independence would also require that another question be resolved – that of liability for the environmental clean-up of sites such as Dundrennan and Dalgety Bay: a not insignificant sum of money would be needed and it would be a process beset by the risk of setting dangerous precedents.

Whichever way the vote goes on Thursday, it’s clear that either result would mean additional headaches for the MoD and its insistence on retaining its indiscriminate and unacceptable DU weapons.