An Accident Waiting to Happen: The Challenge of Securing Arms and Munitions Stockpiles

Imagine this -- you are walking in a bustling and populous city when suddenly the ground starts to shake, glass shatters from the windows of nearby buildings, and people begin to panic. Did you guess that you were experiencing an earthquake? The scene you have imagined is actually the result of an accidental explosion at a munitions site, and has been the unfortunate reality for many people around the world. 

Since the 1990s, there have been an increasing number of catastrophic explosions at “dangerous depots.” According to the Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based research organization, more than 500 accidental detonation incidents have occurred in the past 35 years. The Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement in the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs (PM/WRA) is partnering with dozens of countries to promote safe storage and disposal of surplus and aging weapons and munitions.

It is not the kind of work that makes headlines, but there is a growing demand for this kind of assistance in order to save lives and promote regional security. When a conflict ends and for many years later, munition sites contain surplus weapons and ammunition left over from the fighting or in preparation of future combat. While the retention of some weapons and munitions is necessary for a country’s national security, excess, obsolete, loosely-secured or mishandled stockpiles become a liability. The potential for explosions or weapons and munitions falling into the hands of dangerous individuals and groups makes proper management and security of such stockpiles a top policy priority for governments.

Depot explosions can have both immediate and long-term effects, and have caused significant casualties and damage to property. On March 4, 2012, a munitions depot located in Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo was the source of a series of violent explosions that resulted in more than 250 deaths, more than 2,000 people injured, and thousands displaced from their homes. The threat of subsequent explosions remained as ordnance scattered by the blast littered the surrounding area. Long-term consequences are unpredictable and vary based on the situation and location of the accident. On July 11, 2011, 98 shipping containers improperly storing gunpowder at the Evangelos Florakis Naval Station in Cyprus detonated, damaging a nearby power plant and causing widespread power outages throughout the country. 

Proper maintenance and security of stockpilesrequires expertise and resources not always readily available in a society recovering from years of conflict and instability. Even for countries that have not recently experienced conflict, properly taking care of munitions requires constant and dedicated maintenance. Large facilities are required to store ammunition and explosives safe distances from one another and to protect them from the elements. ​Simple tasks such as cutting the grass around a facility can improve protection from fires, while basic earthen berms can limit the damage from a single explosion.

Encroachment of growing residential and commercial areas near storage depots means stockpile managers need to constantly assess whether current practices are enough to keep people and infrastructure safe in the case of an accident. One way to mitigate the risk of “dangerous depots” is for governments to safely dispose of surplus arms and ammunition no longer necessary for national security.  Programs to safely destroy these excess weapons and munitions can be expensive and require professionals trained to dispose of explosives in a safe and controlled process -- but they are vital to preventing future accidents or illicit proliferation.

Through its implementing partners, PM/WRA-funded programs reduce the risk of accidental explosions and increase the capacity of countries to safely and securely store needed munitions through activities such as training and stockpile reduction. In addition, PM/WRA supports the Quick Reaction Force through the Golden West Foundation, a team trained to respond to a full range of conventional weapons destruction emergencies, including disposal operations. To eliminate the threat of dangerous stockpiles the Quick Reaction Force can deploy to assess the immediate situation, destroy hazardous ordnance as necessary, and train local forces to better manage their stockpiles in the future. The Quick Reaction Force has deployed to Cyprus, Libya, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere around the world.

Since 1993, the United States has contributed more than $2.4 billion to more than 90 countries to reduce the harmful worldwide effects of at-risk, illicitly proliferated, and indiscriminately used conventional weapons of war.  For more information on U.S. Conventional Weapons Destruction programs, check out the latest edition of our annual report, To Walk the Earth in Safety.

About the author: Brenna Feigleson is a Program Fellow in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement (PM/WRA).

Comments

Comments

Lisa A.
|
Virginia, USA
April 1, 2015
Very informative and well written article.
Patrick O.
|
New York, USA
April 1, 2015
2.4 Billion dollars that could have been used to help the citizens of the United States.
Before And After Aerial View Photos Of The Chelopechene Munitions Depot In Bulgaria Illustrating The Damage Caused By A Series Of Accidental Explosions. [U.S. Department of Defense Photo]
Posted by Brenna Feigleson
March 31, 2015

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