Attrition: Old Ammunition Self-Disposes

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July 8, 2013: On June 18th there was another ammunition explosion in Russia. This one was in Central Russia (near the city of Chapayevsk) where a fire began in an ammo storage base, forcing the evacuation of over 7,000 people. Two people died and 48 were wounded. It took over a week to deal with the aftereffects. Five warehouses were destroyed and over 20,000 shells, thrown (some for over a kilometer) clear were collected for disposal. The damage will cost the military nearly $5 million. Disasters like this are increasingly common in Russia, largely because there is still over six million tons of ammunition in storage, much of it obsolete and in need of disposal. Getting rid of this stuff is expensive and the government has not allocated enough money to get it done quickly.

This is a common problem in countries that have long used ammunition bought from Russia or China. During the communist period, as per the Soviet custom, old ammunition was not destroyed but kept around. Communist countries were poor. It made sense to keep those old mortar and artillery shells (plus bombs and military explosives) for the inevitable war with the enemies of socialism. But the chemical reactions taking place in propellants and explosives, after these items are manufactured, eventually cause dangerous side effects. Over time the compounds that make the propellants and explosives deteriorate and change. This renders the propellants and explosives useless or, in many cases, unstable and very dangerous.

This has resulted in many spontaneous explosions on Russian ships and in ammunition depots. There was another one similar to the Chapayevsk incident last October. That one was traced to human error. Not enough money is spent to properly take care of what is held in storage. Part of that is the army use of conscripts or minimum-wage civilians to take care of these ammo storage sites. The accident last October was traced to a soldier who carelessly tossed aside a lit cigarette, which led to the disastrous fire.

These accidents also happen outside Russia. Five years ago an Albanian ammunition processing facility exploded. There were over 200 casualties, including at least nine dead (largely among the 4,000 civilians living nearby). At least 300 buildings were destroyed and over 2,000 damaged. The facility was used to destroy old ammo, which is a condition for Albania to be allowed to join NATO. There were about 100,000 tons of old ammunition in Albania and the destroyed facility dismantled 500-600 tons of the stuff each month. The explosion in Albania probably occurred during the process of extracting explosives from the old ammo. This can be tricky, as the least little spark can set this stuff off. Worse, older ammo in an unstable state can go off without a spark.

This disaster was part of a worldwide trend. Six years ago there was a large explosion in an ammo depot in the African nation of Mozambique. About a hundred died. Nine years ago an even greater disaster occurred in Nigeria, when a munitions depot near the capital cooked off, killing over 200 people. Two years before that another ammo storage site in Nigeria exploded, killing over a thousand.

Last year ammunition stored at an army base in Brazzaville, capital of Congo (the smaller one next to the larger Congo that used to be called Zaire), exploded. The fire was brought under control the next day, before it could spread to ammo stored at another army base 100 meters away. Over 300 people were killed because, as is common in Africa, military units are often based inside major cities, the better to deal with any attempts to overthrow the government. Large quantities of ammunition are often stored on these urban bases, so the troops can handle any contingency. This particular disaster occurred because of faulty electrical wiring causing a fire that was not promptly extinguished. African armies tend to be poorly trained and led, which often expresses itself in sloppy safety procedures and hazardous handling of munitions.

The danger lasted for quite a while in Brazzaville. Many shells and rockets were thrown, unexploded, hundreds of meters from the base. These had to be carefully removed before someone, or an animal, disturbed the munition and set it off. Some of these munitions were buried in the wreckage of hundreds of damaged or destroyed structures. Thousands of people are now homeless and many of them are injured.

Ammunition explosions like this are usually not as catastrophic as the 2012 one in Brazzaville. But at least once a year there is a really big one somewhere and 10-20 smaller ones.

For example, two years ago some 2,000 tons of Iranian munitions and explosives, stored in the open at a naval base in South Cyprus for two years, caught fire and exploded. The blast knocked out a nearby power plant (supplying 60 percent of the electricity in South Cyprus), killed over a dozen people, damaged hundreds of buildings, and was totally avoidable. Munitions experts had warned the government that storing all those explosives in the open, under the hot Mediterranean sun, was dangerous. They were right.

Russia had plenty of warning about the growing problems with elderly, and cranky, munitions. In the 1990s, there were several munitions depot explosions, some of them quite spectacular. Russia tended to put these depots in isolated areas, so the casualties were low. However, the Russians took the hint and began disposing of huge quantities of Cold War surplus munitions. The problem is there is so much old stuff to deal with.

Although some of these exploding munitions are of recent manufacture, you cannot be too careful how you store, and handle, this stuff no matter what its age. For example, three years ago four Ukrainian sailors were seriously injured when two 30mm cannon shells spontaneously exploded. Actually, those shells didn't go off entirely without warning. The navy reported that the shells were old, beyond their “use by” date, and were probably set off by vibrations ships generate during training exercises.

Because most of these Cold War surplus munitions are stored in poor, often corrupt, nations they are not likely to be disposed of properly and these tragic explosions will continue.

 


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