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Sunday, 14 January, 2001, 16:40 GMT
Hoon backs DU weapons
A scientist checks a DU bullet
A Yugoslav scientist checks the radioactivity of DU ammunition
Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon has warned that banning the use of depleted uranium (DU) weapons would put British servicemen's lives at risk.

Mr Hoon said the controversial weapons were "astonishingly effective" and had saved lives in the Gulf War and the Balkans.

His comments come 24 hours after the Royal Navy revealed it was phasing out DU ammunition because the manufacturer had ceased production.

The governments of several European countries are investigating claims that DU - which is toxic and radioactive - has affected the health of servicemen and women.

On Monday there is to be a House of Lords debate on the issue, which coincides with the 10th anniversary of the outbreak of the Gulf War.

We've always recognised that there was a limited risk to the use of depleted uranium weapons.

Geoff Hoon
Mr Hoon said it was "inappropriate" to ban DU-tipped ammunition because there was no scientific evidence to support claims that it caused illness, including leukaemia, in military personnel exposed.

He told Sky News: "We've always recognised that there was a limited risk to the use of depleted uranium weapons. We have always instructed members of the armed forces accordingly.

"Beyond that specified, limited risk there are no risks associated with depleted uranium and certainly no proven link between its use and any illness.

Geoff Hoon
Geoff Hoon: "They are astonishingly effective"
"The best scientific evidence we have been able to secure indicates that there is no link between the consequences of the use of depleted uranium and any specific illness."

Mr Hoon said the British armed forces would continue to use DU weapons because they were "astonishingly effective" and: "In that sense are protecting British forces in time of war."

He promised that if "clear scientific evidence" emerged which convinced him there was a link between their use and illness then he would take the appropriate decision.

But he added: "In the absence of such evidence it would not be appropriate to put British lives at risk."

Labour peer Lord Morris of Manchester, who is sponsoring Monday's debate in the Lords, warned the government that it had a "compelling duty" to act justly towards those who fought for their country.

Screening programme

There have been claims that contaminated land in Kosovo where DU was used by Nato in tank-busting missiles.

Armed Forces Minister John Spellar told parliament last week DU-tipped ammunition was safe if used correctly but he announced a voluntary screening programme for any military personnel who had served in the Balkans.

British soldiers in Kosovo
British soldiers who served in Kosovo will be eligible for health checks
The Navy has been forced to phase out its use of DU-tipped weapons because the US manufacturer has ceased production.

The shells will be replaced by more expensive but equally effective tungsten-tipped alternatives.

The ammunition is understood to be used in the American-designed Phalanx anti-missile system, which is fitted to the Navy's Type 42 destroyers and three other vessels.

The Royal Navy's stocks of DU ammunition will be exhausted by 2003, although the shells may well be withdrawn before then.

The US Navy has been phasing out DU for a decade and it is believed the ammunition has been replaced totally by tungsten.

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Should depleted uranium weapons be banned?
See also:

12 Jan 01 | UK
UK considers DU testing
11 Jan 01 | Europe
Uranium sites 'should be sealed'
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