On March 15th, 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 are about 100,000 tons
of old ammunition in Albania, and the destroyed facility dismantled 500-600
tons of the stuff each month.
communist period, as per the Soviet custom, old ammunition was not destroyed,
but kept around. Albania was, and is, a poor country. It made sense to keep
those old mortar and artillery shells (plus bombs and military explosives). But
the chemical reactions taking place in propellants and explosives, once these
items are manufactured, eventually cause dangerous side effects. Over time, the
compounds, that make the propellants and explosives work, break down. This
renders the propellants and explosives useless or, in some cases, unstable and
very dangerous. 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.
disaster was part of a trend. Last year, there was a large explosion in an ammo
depot in the African nation of Mozambique (killing nearly a hundred). Six years
ago, an even greater disaster occurred in Nigeria, when a munitions depot near
the capital cooked off, killing over 200 people.
also 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.