On the Minutes of the DUFERC Meetings

The Depleted Uranium Firing Environmental Review Committee (DUFERC) met quarterly from 1994 (possibly) to an undisclosed end date. Some of those Minutes were released after Freedom of Information requests.

More than discussions on the problems arising from leaks, misfires and accidents, the Minutes provide a textured account of the bureaucratic periphery that supported the firings at Kirkcudbright and Eskmeals.

Funding shortfalls, the privatisation of sectors of the MOD, the blurred or absent lines of responsibility are evident. As are the limitations of scientific tests for safety and uncertainties over measures to accommodate contaminated materials. Throughout, there is a disregard for the public.

The Minutes show the unintentional or accidental ‘exposures’ of both radiological and bureaucratic natures, and offer a both frightening and near-comedic account of the absence of effective responsibility.

Edited sections of the available minutes are in the Journal. Here is an introduction.

That the weapons fired into the Solway Firth contained Depleted Uranium was meant to be secret, the firings interleaved among the ordinary but undisclosed routines of the Customer and the Military. Discerning DU in any of the near-daily scheduled firings of conventional weapons or in the dumping of military hardware into the Solway would be impossible to do, unless that information was leaked. The public exposure of the Military’s actions came through Freedom of Information Requests by Aneaka Kellay at the Campaign Against Depleted Uranium, now the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons, requesting the Minutes of the Depleted Uranium Firing Environmental Review Committee (DUFERC), which met quarterly from 1994 (possibly) to an undisclosed end date. Some of those Minutes were released.

What the DUFERC Minutes expose is considerably more than the problems arising from leaks, accidents and misfires. These Minutes are a textured account of the bureaucratic periphery that supported these firings at Kirkcudbright and Eskmeals. At the start of the Journal, I’ve edited the Minutes, focusing on the exchanges about the Solway firings. Here is an introduction.

DUFERC was a committee of representatives from departments responsible for carrying out the testing who also performed the role of monitoring the environmental effects of the tests. The commercial and military imperatives for these firings are absent from the record; those orders operated in a different sphere.

'(Redacted name) also discussed the contingency of future stray rounds and the contamination caused and whose responsibility that would be as it would not fall under DIO’s remit for management of the legacy DU contamination. The general view of the committee was that under the principle of polluter pays it would be MOD but a top level decision would need to be made as to which department in the event of an incident.' (Meeting 59, 21 September 2011)

These are the minutes of a committee with scant function and no power to question policy or the course of military direction, merely to be informed after the firings occurred, and to review whether there might be any effect of these trials on the environments or on human health. These are the minutes of a committee endeavouring to make the actions as agreeable as possible to potential scrutiny, by the government or public, while supporting, without question, the use of DU weapons.

The consequentialist logic of the military is at work: if there are no adverse consequences for the Military, an action is justified.

These are minutes like those for many committees: ongoing action lists and the desiccated left-overs of discussions. The minimal redactions are generally only of people’s names. The text, though, is revealing. In places, it seems too lively, almost verbatim, as if the persons preparing the minutes had no need to censor.

By my reading, there are voices that do show concern, that are attempting, within their remit and available knowledge, to raise questions that would not be raised by other departments in efforts to trace the effects of these firings. Their imperative is to find them safe, or at least show that actions had been taken to assess the hazards and ensure a level of safety.

By my reading, too, other kinds of evidence emerge from these Minutes, including the bureaucratic shuffling of a committee thrown off course by funding limitations, by the perpetual organisational restructuring of the MOD and by upheavals caused by the privatisation of significant areas of military activity. Responsibility for immediate hazards, for historical hazards and for the effects of radiation and corrosion in the future are ever shifting, never definitive. The name of the Customer is never fully divulged, and there may be more than one. But it is clear that it is the Customer that needs to be satisfied.

Reading from one meeting to the next is like following a series of near prat-falls. One meeting might report no firings with no future firings scheduled. The next meeting could report that there had been firings in the intervening months, with no further firings scheduled. The next meeting can report on firings, or no firings, but disclose future firings, or that permissions have been requested for these. DUFERC seems continually to be uninformed in advance of MOD decisions on firings. The exact number of firings is not known, the relevant information is dispersed. From the Minutes available, it appears that there were permissions for firings through 2014.

Accidents occurred. Misfires left trenches of contaminated land. Radioactive materials were unaccounted for. Contaminated ‘sabots’ (shoes) and other weapon parts were found repeatedly on land and by the sea. How to ascertain the radiation hazard of these, how to handle, transport, fence off and make safe is a recurrent theme, without apparent conclusions.

‘Safety’ itself, has a specific meaning. The concept of thresholds of universal safety for humans is accepted, even though those dosage thresholds change. Safety is something to be proven by measurements of discrete entities.

No department or private company (QinetiQ) is responsible for retrieving shells from the sea. Proving the shells are safe involved, at first, creating an underwater ‘Garden’ of test materials, only for those ‘Gardens’ to be swept out to sea by the turbulence of the tides. Other laboratory tests, repeated over many years on shellfish from the fishing boats at Kirkcudbright, seaweed, seabed deposits, sea water were designed and calculated to show there is no higher than normal level of radiation detected. The crab showing high levels of radioactivity was a ‘safe’ anomaly. In the more recent Minutes, there is an indication that these repetitive tests and report were not sufficient, not in line with independent academic studies. Tests that looked at the mobility of radiation and corrosion in the environment, soils and sea, might be more valid, if they can be funded.

Throughout, the firings are regarded as ‘legal’. Too, the valorisation of DU as a weapon is a given. That DU is also nuclear waste and was being dumped in the sea, is not mentioned until Meeting 36, 17 June 2004, 22 years into the firing programme.

To quote from the Minutes:

‘(Redacted name) stated that there could be a future problem with regard to firing into the sea as the OSPAR agreement stated now that it was illegal to dump waste into the sea. There was some discussion surrounding the wording and (Redacted name) stated that currently we worked to the D SEF Pol (Directorate of Safety, Environment and Fire Policy) interpretation that the projectiles were placements not dumping.‘

Events impinge, like the outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease, which meant that the movement of materials was curtailed. The Iraq War and the Iraq Inquiry brought an increase in questioning over the effects of DU on humans. Questions in Parliament were to be side-lined where possible. Freedom of Information requests from anti-DU organisations were problematic, presenting the Military with a higher level of complexity and depth of enquiry than that expected of public meetings and activist protests. A lack of respect for the public is endemic; the public do not have sufficient knowledge to understand the situation. Protection measures available to Military personnel were not made available to the public. Efforts at controlling public opinion, or resistance, were praised. ‘Job well done’.

I found these Minutes compelling. The fluctuations and admissions represent a world as if through a dirty window. The Minutes do not offer sufficient information about the firings; they need to be read along with other reports. But they offer texture and context from an insider view. They show the unintentional or accidental ‘exposures’ of both radiological and bureaucratic natures, and offer a both frightening and near-comedic account of the absence of effective responsibility.