The Swiss-based Small Arms Survey (SAS) think tank says there’s been 245 unplanned explosions at munitions sites (UEMS) around the world in the period January 1998 and March this year. This includes 35 blasts in Africa, 25 in Russia and eight in the United States.
In its May Research Notes the SAS noted considerable attention has been paid to the threats of small arms and light weapons proliferation and misuse, “but the danger that these weapons’ munitions pose when poorly stored or mishandled are less well known” to the broader public.
“UEMS are a global problem. Since 1998, incidents of this nature have been reported in almost a third of UN Member States and on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. They have occurred regularly, with an average of less than three every two months for the ten year period 1998–2007.” According to a forthcoming Small Arms Survey UEMS database, 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 number of explosions is not noticeably decreasing despite efforts to address their causes.
“There are numerous causes for unplanned explosions at munitions sites. Most derive from a lack of technical knowledge and uneven attention to safety standards. Poor storage practices and poor infrastructure together cause more than half of the known explosions,” the research note adds. “Other frequent causes include negligence during handling and during transport of ordnance. That said, for almost one-third of reported explosions no cause is recorded.”
States exhibiting strong political will — 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), the SAS adds. Ad hoc coalitions of the willing, such as nine countries in south-east Europe that comprise the Regional Approach to Stockpile Reduction (RASR) Initiative, underscore the importance states attribute to PSSM, the SAS adds. International donors working bilaterally and through regional organisations have assisted dozens of governments to safely destroy surplus stocks of munitions and to secure remaining material in safe conditions.
“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.
“… 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, and organizing the stockpile into stacks and aisles free of obstruction.
Pic: A fire at a military amuniton facility in Caracas, Venezuela, January 2011.