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Rogue explosions at munitions dumps – an escalating problem

18 September 2012

The rate of accidents at munitions storage sites around the world rose to unprecedented levels in 2011, despite a growing international commitment to assist countries in managing their weapons and ammunition stockpiles. In this series of articles we look at the extent of the problem, some of its causes, recent UN guidance and the assistance available to countries wanting to destroying stockpiles, or indeed to clean up after an incident has occurred.

Explosions at munitions sites can litter the surrounding area with unexploded but primed ordnance that can pose a lethal danger for years after the event
Explosions at munitions sites can litter the surrounding area with unexploded but primed ordnance that can pose a lethal danger for years after the event

Facilities for the storage of weapons and ammunition require constant surveillance by a technically skilled workforce, careful monitoring of the humidity and temperature levels of the stockpile, and the safe disposal of ammunition that has reached the end of its functional life.

Ammunition has a usual shelf life of about 20 years under correct storage conditions, after which it becomes either unreliable or unstable. Many storage sites in eastern Europe and Africa, and indeed elsewhere in the world, contain ammunition left over from the Cold War, which ended just over two decades ago, so the problem has now come to a head.

One of the main risks to munitions storage sites is unstable ammunition propellant, especially in mortar rounds, which are popular weapons in most of the world’s armies. 

Propellant degrades over time and the expected lifespan is primarily determined by storage conditions. In well-managed storage sites inspectors test and dispose of ammunition at risk of spontaneous combustion, but in many countries lack of trained personnel and financial resources mean this does not happen.

Determining the cause of an unplanned blast is often difficult, as the main witnesses more often than not perish in the blast. The Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based research group which monitors these incidents, says that almost one-third of unplanned explosions at munitions sites (UEMS) have no definite attributed cause.

Urbanisation is also increasingly putting civilians at risk. The Malhazine ammunition dump was built by the former Soviet Union in 1984 on the outskirts of the Mozambican capital, Maputo, but the area has since become a bustling neighbourhood. 

In March 2007, high temperatures and negligent storage practices were cited as the cause of an explosion that killed more than 100 people and injured over 500. The deaths and injuries continued after the blast because munitions had been hurled into densely populated areas nearby and exploded days, and months, after the event. 

The disaster is often compounded by the fact that a proportion of munitions will fail to explode in the initial blast and will be propelled outside of the immediate blast area. The force of the explosion often arms the ammunition making it very sensitive to initiation if disturbed, and so should be treated as unexploded ordnance. This complicates clean-up operations and heightens the risk for personnel. 

Damage to a hospital after the 2007 Malhuzine explosion in Mozambique, which killed over a hundred (Photo: HALO Trust)
Damage to a hospital after the 2007 Malhuzine explosion in Mozambique, which killed over a hundred (Photo: HALO Trust)

An example of the consequences of a UEMS blast has been provided by UK-based NGO MAG, the Mines Advisory Group, following the explosion at an arms storage depot in Brazzaville, Congo, on 4 March 2012. This caused more than 250 deaths, 1,500 injuries and made around 14,000 homeless.

Congolese Government officials said the first blast at the Mpila military barracks in the east of Brazzaville was caused by a fire started by a short-circuit. This triggered a series of huge explosions, some of which blew out windows across the Congo River in Kinshasa, the capital of the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, eight kilometres away.

Since the incident, four MAG Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) teams have been carrying out Battle Area Clearance in the area of the blast's epicentre, while eight Community Liaison teams deliver safety briefings and risk education sessions to vulnerable people in the 5km damage radius of the explosion.

MAG EOD teams removed 259,767 dangerous items during April alone, clearing 63,810 sq.m. of contaminated land. 

MAG’s community liaison and risk education teams carried out safety briefings and distributed more than 2,000 leaflets and 300-plus posters. Children, naturally inquisitive and attracted to new 'toys' they find, need special attention, so ten billboards with a comic strip design were set up in schools in the affected neighbourhoods.

Sessions and training on risk education delivery were carried out for 39 staff members of aid organisations and 175 members of local authorities affected by the explosion.

In addition, data gathering on contamination levels in areas adjacent to the epicentre of the blast has been carried out. The current phase of the emergency response operation will run until mid-September 2012, and MAG estimates the subsequent clear-up and education programmes will need to continue for years.

The United Nations Mine Action Service. (UNMAS) is also involved in the clear-up work in Brazzaville.

Table 1: Number of Reported UEMS by region and UN member state, January 1998—October 2011
Table 1: Number of Reported UEMS by region and UN member state, January 1998—October 2011

MAG’s Chris Loughran made an appeal for preventative action on UEMS to delegates at the Convention of Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) conference in Geneva in late April.

“The tragedy is the latest of a growing number of explosions around the world. The suffering and damage caused by these incidents underlines the importance of storing munitions safely and also the importance of providing states with the appropriate technical support that can enable them to do so, he said.”

The following section by the Small Arms Survey gives an overview of the extent and causes of incidents at ammunition storage facilities in recent years.

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Munitions storage safety: Unplanned Explosions at Munitions Sites

A report by the Small Arms Survey, Geneva

Considerable attention has been paid to the threats posed by small arms and light weapons proliferation and misuse, but far less is known about the dangers inherent in poorly stored or mishandled munitions.

A single unplanned explosion at a munitions site can claim dozens of lives, injure hundreds, and displace thousands of people.

Figure 1: Number of reported UEMS in UN member state, 1998 to 2011 and first 3 months 2012
Figure 1: Number of reported UEMS in UN member state, 1998 to 2011 and first 3 months 2012

The death toll has at times been much higher. In January 2002, for example, a series of explosions at a military depot on the outskirts of Lagos, Nigeria—sub-Saharan Africa’s most populous city—resulted in more than 1,000 deaths, with many people drowning in nearby canals when fleeing the fires and explosions

In February 2004, ammunition and explosives reportedly detonated accidentally in Seonggang, North Korea, resulting in similar levels of casualties.

Moreover, the casualties are likely to increase when civilians subsequently come into contact with unexploded ordnance (UXO) dispersed by the explosion.

It can also result in the displacement of thousands. In September 2005, a series of explosions at a navy yard in Yuzhanaya Koriakaya in the Russian Federation resulted in the evacuation of some 7,000 residents, by one account.

Five times as many people were displaced in and around Khandroo, India, in August 2007 following a major fire destroyed an ammunition storage facility.

The damage to infrastructure can be extensive. While some depots are isolated from neighbouring settlements, many are located in heavily populated areas.

In Riobamba, Ecuador in November 2002, a depot explosion affected an area covering a 2 km radius from the blast site. By one account, more than 15,000 dwellings were damaged and some residents likened the event to an earthquake or a volcanic eruption.

More than 300 buildings were reportedly destroyed in six villages from an explosion that occurred in Melitopol, Ukraine in May 2004. The March 2008 munitions explosion in Gerdec, Albania, resulted in hundreds of homes being destroyed and hundreds more severely damaged. Some reports put the numbers in the thousands.

Table 2: Reported causes of UEMS, January 1998—October 2011
Table 2: Reported causes of UEMS, January 1998—October 2011

Unplanned explosions of munitions sites (UEMS) are thus a global problem and have occurred from Afghanistan to the former Zaire. Since 1998, acts of this nature have been reported in almost a third of United Nations (UN) Member States and on every continent except Australia and Antarctica.

Accidents have been especially prevalent in Africa, India, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and the Russian Federation, but explosions have also occurred in 11 of 28 NATO members. (see Table 1 above).

They have occurred regularly, with an average of three every two months for the ten-year period from 1998 to 2007 (see Figure 1 above). The Small Arms Survey UEMS database reveals that the rate has increased in recent years to more than one every two weeks. It is unclear whether the problem is getting worse or reporting of incidents is improving. What is clear is that the rate of explosions is not decreasing despite efforts to address their causes.

There are numerous causes for unplanned explosions at munitions sites. Most concern a lack of technical knowledge and inadequate attention to safety standards. The propellants, fuses, primers and explosive components that comprise ammunition require trained experts to conduct routine physical surveillance and testing throughout the objects’ life-cycle.

If left out in the open unattended for years in heat and humidity for instance, the ammunition’s chemical components can degrade and become highly unstable. Poor storage practices and poor infrastructure together cause more than half of the known explosions and contribute to related security challenges. Poorly managed state stockpiles also facilitate corruption due to deficient record-keeping and theft by criminals and non-state armed groups.

Other frequent causes include negligence during handling and during transport of ordnance. That said, for almost one-third of reported explosions, no cause is yet recorded (see Table 2 above).

States that exhibit strong political will to tackle UEMS—often with international assistance—can prevent unplanned explosions or mitigate their ramifications. Several regional organisations have developed best practice guidelines regarding physical security and stockpile management (PSSM).

Ad hoc coalitions of the willing—such as the nine countries in South-east Europe that comprise the Regional Approach to Stockpile Reduction (RASR) Initiative—underscore the importance states attribute to PSSM. RASR members are Albania, Bosnia Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, and Slovenia.

RASR card decks are a simple way to remind local munitions storage and disposal staff of best practice
RASR card decks are a simple way to remind local munitions storage and disposal staff of best practice

Several regional organisations have developed ‘best practice’ guidelines for PSSM. The 2010 Manual of NATO safety principles for the storage of military ammunition and explosives is one such example. The United Nations Coordination Action in International Small Arms Controls Standards (ISACS) and United Nations Office for Disarmament Affaires International Ammunition Technical Guide (IATG – see following section) are other ongoing noteworthy initiatives.

International donors working bilaterally and through regional organisations have assisted dozens of governments in the safe destruction of surplus stocks of munitions and in securing remaining materiel in safe conditions.

Since 2001, for example, the NATO Maintenance and Supply Agency (NAMSA) has been coordinating Partnership for Peace (PfP) Trust Fund projects to destroy significant quantities of surplus ordnance and improve PSSM practices in Eastern Europe, South-East Europe and the Middle East. Recipients include Afghanistan, Albania, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Jordan, Moldova, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.

Some solutions are expensive to implement and may require external assistance, but many can be undertaken unilaterally and with modest investment. Some sites may need to be closed, and their ordnance moved to another location at great cost.

New sites, incorporating quantity-distance principles and security features, may need to be constructed from scratch. Nevertheless, without necessarily striving to achieve state-of-the-art storage standards, a number of pragmatic measures can address the immediate risk of unplanned explosions.

As depicted in the RASR PSSM Best Practice cards  (see above left), states can achieve positive results on their own through some inexpensive and effective first steps. 

These include installing proper doors and locks, using adequate fences and barriers, posting signs to warn and inform, organising the stockpile into stacks, and ensuring that aisles are free of obstruction

Given the high costs in human and economic terms of unplanned explosions, policy-makers should find such modest investments very attractive.

The 2008 ammunition store explosion at Gerdec in Albania killed 36 and injured more than 300 (Photo: Kenn Underwoord, EOD Solutions Limited)
The 2008 ammunition store explosion at Gerdec in Albania killed 36 and injured more than 300 (Photo: Kenn Underwoord, EOD Solutions Limited)

The Small Arms Survey serves as the principal international source of public information on all aspects of small arms and armed violence, and as a resource centre for governments, policy-makers, researchers, and activists. 

The Survey has an international staff with expertise in security studies, political science, international public policy, law, economics, development studies, conflict resolution, sociology, and criminology, and works closely with a worldwide network of researchers and partners. It is a project of the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. 

For more information go to www.smallarmssurvey.org

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International Ammunition Technical Guidelines

Adrian Wilkinson, Technical Advisor at the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, gives an overview of the development of the UN’s official International Ammunition Technical Guidelines on ammunition stockpile management.

Ammunition stockpiles have become a growing concern of the international community because of the impact on social and economic development of the increasing number of unplanned explosions at ammunition depots, and also the cross-border consequences after the diversion of poorly managed stockpiles of ammunition.

In 2008, a United Nations group of governmental experts reported to the General Assembly on problems arising from the accumulation of conventional ammunition stockpiles in surplus. The group noted that effective stockpile management needs to endorse a 'whole life management' approach, ranging from categorisation and accounting systems – essential for ensuring safe handling and storage and for identifying surplus – to physical security systems and surveillance and testing procedures to assess the stability and reliability of ammunition.

A central recommendation made by the group was for technical guidelines for the stockpile management of ammunition to be developed within the UN. 

The work of preparing, reviewing and revising these guidelines was conducted under the United Nations SaferGuard Programme by a technical review panel consisting of experts from member states, with the support of international, governmental and non-governmental organisations. These 'technical guidelines for the stockpile management of conventional ammunition', now commonly known as the International Ammunition Technical Guidelines (IATG), were published in October 2011.

The IATG have been developed in line with the recommendations and processes contained within the ISO Quality Management systems (ISO 9001:2008) and the ISO Risk Management system (ISO Guide 51), making the IATG themselves an integrated risk and quality management system that can be directly implemented by states. There is still a requirement, however, for national authorities to develop their own specific individual risk and quality management systems. 

Within the Guidelines the various tasks and activities necessary for safe, efficient and effective stockpile management have been equated to one of three Risk Reduction Process Levels (RRPL). These are indicated within each Guideline and are dependent on the degree of complexity of each task or activity.  

RRPL 1 includes guidelines that present the most expedient ways to apply the basic principles of safe and secure ammunition management. The basic aim of a conventional ammunition stockpile management organisation should be to make sure that stockpile management processes are maintained at Risk Reduction Process Level 1 as a basic minimum to reduce risk.

The subsequent RRPL 2 and RRPL 3 detail progressive measures that can be taken to improve stockpile management in the area in question and thereby progressively reduce risk. RRPL 3 equates to NATO standards.

The IATG are supported by an accompanying software tool that assists the ammunition storage facility designer/planner to assess the distances to be attributed to the various storage areas according to the type and amount of ammunition to be safeguarded. The software facilitates and automates procedures for calculating, for example, the initial expected velocity of warhead fragments that need to be estimated using known and accepted mathematical and other calculations (e.g., Gurney equation); air blast parameters calculated (e.g., Kingery and Bulmash); or the scaling of blast (e.g., Hopkinson-Cranz). The software also includes a Quantitative Risk Assessment tool.  

Adrian Wilkinson, UN Technical Advisor and Director, Explosive Capabilities Ltd.
Adrian Wilkinson, UN Technical Advisor and Director, Explosive Capabilities Ltd.

Also under the auspices of the UN SaferGuard programme a number of training courses have been developed to support the implementation of the IATG.  These are an initial first step towards implementation support, and are designed to provide the basic information necessary for States to move towards Level 1 compliance of the IATG.  

The IATG will be regularly reviewed to reflect developing ammunition stockpile management norms and practices, and to incorporate changes due to amendments to appropriate international regulations and requirements.

The IATG and further information on the UN SaferGuard project can be found at http://www.un.org/disarmament/convarms/Ammunition/

Adrian Wilkinson MBE, MSc, MA, CEng, CSyP, FIExpE is one of the world’s leading specialists on Small Arms Control, Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) and Operational Disarmament. He served for 20 years in the British Army, established the UK Ammunition Demilitarisation Facility and has written widely on Small Arms Control and Disarmament.

He is now the Technical Advisor to UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (Conventional Arms Branch) and the Director of Explosive Capabilities Limited.


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