Peace Time: The Packrats Of Doom


February 2, 2014: On January 24th an explosion in a military ammunition warehouse in southern Congo (formerly Zaire) killed at least twenty and more than fifty were wounded. The cause was a lightning strike that started a fire that reached some of the ammo before firefighting efforts could deal with it. This took place near Congo’s third-largest city, Mbuji-Mayi. Like many African countries Congo received ammo supplies from Western and Russian sources since the 1960s and a lot of it was never used and has simply grown old and unstable. In the last few years there has been some effort to improve the security of these ammo dumps, to make theft or spontaneous detonation (from age and heat) less likely. Russia has, in the last decade, done more to warn and advise owners of its elderly ammo how to avoid disastrous explosions. From 2008-12 Russia suffered 17 of these ammo depot explosions, all of which included some fatalities. While there were five of these incidents in 2012, there were only two in 2013. The new safety measures are taking place outside Russia as well. There are things you can do to avoid lightning problems, but the Mbuji-Mayi ammo storage site had not been upgraded to deal with that.

These ammo explosions are 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 led to dangerous side effects. Over time, the compounds, that make the propellants and explosives work, deteriorate and change. This renders the propellants and explosives useless or, in many cases, unstable and very dangerous.

Africa has been the scene of many of these explosions, largely because of the climate (often hot and damp) and lax safety standards. Back in 2012 ammunition stored at an armored regiment base in Brazzaville, capital of Congo (the smaller one Congo north of the larger Congo) 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 is not over once the explosions have died down. Many shells and rockets are thrown, unexploded, hundreds of meters from the storage area. These will have to be carefully removed before someone, or an animal, disturbs the munition and sets it off. Some of these munitions are buried in the wreckage of damaged or destroyed structures. After the 1990s ammunition explosions like this became increasingly common. At least once a year, there is a really big one somewhere, and 10-20 smaller ones.

For example, in 2012, some 2,000 tons of Iranian munitions and explosives, stored in the open at a naval base in South Cyprus for the previous 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.

Although most of these munitions were of recent manufacture, you cannot be too careful how you store, and handle, this stuff. For example, in 2010 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.

This has resulted in many spontaneous explosions on Russian ships and in ammunition depots. These accidents also happen outside Russia. In 2008 an Albanian ammunition processing facility north of the capital exploded. There were over 200 casualties, including at least nine dead (largely among the 4,000 civilians living nearby). Over 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.

Russia has long had problems with elderly, and cranky, munitions. In the 1990s, there were several munitions depot explosions, some of them quite spectacular. Russia, however, tended to put these depots in isolated areas, so the casualties were low. However, the Russians took the hint, and disposed of huge quantities of Cold War surplus munitions.






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