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Tuesday, 20 February, 2001, 00:15 GMT
Scots fear ill wind
Soldier and tank
There has been opposition to the testing
By David Shukman

The weather conditions are ideal with clear skies and no wind.

The weapons themselves - tank rounds tipped with depleted uranium (DU) - have been delivered to this army range on the Scottish coast.

Military scientists and experts are in place to conduct the tests.

For the Ministry of Defence (MoD) it is perfectly routine, the usual business of Dundrennan range.

Another batch of DU weapons is to be handed to the army but must first be tested for quality control.

This is done by firing a dozen of the shells at a plastic target positioned on a cliff overlooking the Solway Firth.

Radiation monitors will check any environmental impact, though MoD officials are confident none will be found.

Confusion over safety

But when the first bangs and crashes erupt, and the sound of them carries over the hills and cliffs to the communities nearby, there will be a feeling of unease among many, maybe even dread.

The people of the Scottish Lowlands are not the sort to panic.

There is no sense of alarm on the streets in the local towns and villages. Instead though there is a deep confusion about whether these tests really are safe.

The fishing port Kirkcudbright is near the testing range
One woman out shopping in Kirkcudbright told me she was worried about whether depleted uranium weapons could harm her two children.

Over 6,000 of them have been fired over the years, most falling into the sea.

MoD tests have apparently shown no radiation impact on the local waters. But the widespread feeling here is that no one can really be sure.

Among some there is a determination to try to stop the tests until all the facts are known.

Call for ban

The constituency MP, Alasdair Morgan of the SNP, has called for a ban.

He told a debate at Westminster: "It is ridiculous that the MoD is happy for all these shells to be left lying in the Solway Firth."

The MoD is not likely to respond with anything other than the usual assurances. But ministers and officials might be privately worried about a profound change of mood here.

Jane Maitland is an independent local councillor who admits she has gone through a "sea-change in opinion" recently.

She considers herself pro-military and used to support the testing of DU weapons.

But Mrs Maitland now thinks there is so much concern and uncertainty that nothing less than a ban during the course of an investigation will be enough to restore confidence.

Ground shifting

The MoD needs people like Mrs Maitland and losing her support is indicative of the way the ground has shifted here.

The sharp crack of tank fire echoing here this week won't win them new supporters either.

The government is adamant DU weapons will remain an essential part of the army's arsenal, that nothing else can so effectively beat the toughest armour on enemy tanks.

Yet if the government wants to continue testing these shells on British soil, it faces a fight on the home front too - to beat public opinion, which is at best uneasy, and at worst downright hostile.

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