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Tuesday, 20 February, 2001, 13:23 GMT
Dundrennan: Under friendly fire
Challenger Tank
The shells are used by Challenger tanks
The Ministry of Defence has long used parts of Scotland as a military testing ground - but that practice is being put under new scrutiny after health fears were raised over depleted uranium (DU) shells.

Scientists and servicemen have raised concerns about the effects of the DU used in the conflict with Iraq and the Balkans War.

Now those worries are being echoed by people who live in the Kirkcudbright area of south west Scotland near the Dundrennan range where a new batch of radioactive shells is being tested.

The people of Dumfries and Galloway are used to coming under friendly fire. Another range at Luce Bay has been used to test cluster bombs, while munitions have been dumped into the Irish Sea in an area known as Beauforts Dyke

DU tipped shell tests
The MoD is testing the latest batch of Challenger tank munitions
The shells are being tested for accuracy and range
The targets are canvas screens on a promontory overlooking the Solway Firth
There is no detonation involved as the rounds do not carry charges
This has vexed local politicians for many years, as various munitions and phosphorous flares have washed up along the Galloway coastline.

Cluster bombs were tested at Luce Bay at the time of the conflict in Kosovo and Dera, the government body behind the tests, has come under pressure to find and detonate unexploded shells.

Now attention is focused on Dundrennan as a new batch of the DU-tipped shells fired by Challenger tanks is evaluated.

The rounds, which do not carry charges, are being tested for their accuracy and range.

They are fired at canvas screens on a piece of land overlooking the Solway Firth.

The tested rounds pass through the soft target and fall into the sea - and even if they misfire and hit the ground there should be no detonation.

More tests scheduled

But, in theory, if the rounds were to hit a lump of rock, some of the depleted uranium on the nose cone might fracture.

Twelve rounds are expected to be fired in this series of tests. Further tests are due to run until October.

The health concerns over DU rounds relate to the material released into the atmosphere when a shell hits a tank or other "hard" target.

Warning flag
Shells were fired on Tuesday
The fears at Dundrennan relate to the spent - and intact - DU rounds lying on the bottom of the Solway Firth.

The Dundrennan range forms part of the MoD's Kirkcudbright training area, which was first established in 1942 and runs to 5,100 acres.

It is the only area in the UK where DU-tipped shells are now tested. Forty people are employed there on a full-time basis, although that number swells when testing is under way.

DU is an extremely dense and heavy substance.

'Ideal for missiles'

It is used as shielding for radioactive sources and radiotherapy equipment.

It is also used as a counterbalance weight in aircraft and its manufacturing is subject to stringent controls.

Retired hospital physician and editor of Medicine, Conflict and Survival, Douglas Holdstock, writing in the journal Science Public Affairs, said: "Its hardness and density makes it ideal for anti-tank missiles.

The range is part of a 5,100-acre complex
"On penetration, DU rapidly burns spontaneously to a fine aerosol smoke of uranium oxide."

People in the Kircudbright area are worried that the shells are harming their health. They point to cancer and leukaemia clusters around the Dundrennan range.

But an army spokeswoman said, on Tuesday, that the tests were entirely safe.

She said the allegations about localised cancer clusters had been investigated and no supporting evidence had been found.

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See also:

20 Feb 01 | Scotland
DU shell test-firing resumes
07 Feb 01 | Scotland
Call to stop uranium shell tests
15 Jan 01 | Health
Serb doctor's uranium warning
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