November 27, 2009:
For the fourth time in the last two years, a Soviet era ammunition depot has caught fire and exploded. The latest one was in the Russian city of Ulyanovsk (800 kilometers southeast of Moscow). Hours after the initial explosions on November 13th, cell phone photos showed the night sky lit up by ammo continuing to explode, and throw flaming debris into the air. At least ten people have died so far, and many more were injured (including firefighters). Eight of the fatalities came days after the fire was put out, and explosives disposal technicians were collecting the artillery shells scattered over the area.
In response to this, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev fired four senior generals, and ordered the military to come up with a plan, in 30 days, to avoid similar incidents in the future. There have been many of these spectacular explosions since the end of the Cold War. Russia has historically kept ammunition, particularly artillery shells, long after other nations would have disposed of the stuff (because it had degraded and become unreliable). These depots were also frequently poorly run, which leads to accidents. Finally, it has become known that the locations of dozens of these depots has long been a state secret (although an open secret to many locals). As details of these depot locations has spread (via the Internet), it became obvious that nearly twenty (out of over 70) of these depots were located in urban areas. Not downtown, but often in compounds surrounded by residential housing. The Ulyanovsk explosion required the evacuation of several thousand local civilians. The military has resisted shutting down many of these ammo dumps, or moving the ones surrounded by civilian housing. However, the explosion at Ulyanovsk occurred while old ammo was being destroyed. This is considered safer, in some cases, than trying to move decades old stuff. Safer, but not free of risk. Russian designed missile storage areas tend to have poor layout and management procedures. Many existing munitions storage sites still have the poor layout, and lax practices of the Soviet era.
Many of these depots are not even in Russia. A year ago, one outside the Ukrainian city of Kharkov exploded. Before 1991, that depot, and army base, were part of the Soviet Union armed forces. The Ukrainians inherited the base, and its vast quantities of ammo (stockpiled for an invasion of West Europe), after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.
Before that, (on July 10th, 2008) an old Soviet military base in Uzbekistan, near the city of Bukhara, caught fire and began exploding. Windows were shattered in Bukhara, even though it is 12 kilometers from the depot. There were hundreds of casualties, and apparently the fires burned for days.
Poor Russian ammo storage practices led to a major loss of expensive missiles in early 2008, at an airbase 250 kilometers northeast of St Petersburg, Russia. A fire in a missile storage facility there, led to the destruction of nearly 500 air-to-air missiles. For over an hour, nearby civilians could see and hear explosions, including several missiles which flew skyward and landed outside the base.
The list of known disasters is long. Four years ago, in the Kamchatka Peninsula, at the main naval base of the Pacific Fleet, a fire broke out in an ammo depot. Like many other Cold War era ammo depots, this one contained large quantities of very old ammunition. In this case, thousands of shells were stacked in the open, in preparation of destroying them. Somehow a fire broke out, and hundreds of these shells exploded. Some 4,000 local civilians were evacuated.
In 2004, an ammunition storage depot in Ukraine went up in flames, accompanied by massive explosions. Twelve years ago, a major ammunition depot in Siberia caught fire, and thousands of tons of ammo burned and exploded. But hundreds of tons of grenades, shells, and bulk explosives were blown clear of the area. For years, local civilians have been collecting this stuff, and selling it to criminals. A year later, another Siberian depot exploded, sending some shells flying for over ten kilometers. Several local civilians were killed.
The worst of these disasters occurred in 1984, before the Cold War ended, when the main ammo depot of the Soviet northern fleet went up, destroying so many missiles that the fleet was critically short of munitions, and not combat ready, for six months.
The end of the Cold War left millions of tons of military weapons, equipment and ammunition scattered all over the Soviet Union. Nearly half of the Soviet Union turned into 14 new nations, when the union dissolved in 1991. All Soviet military gear sitting in those new nations, when the split became effective, now owned that stuff. These new nations could not afford to take care of all this military material, nor dispose of it safely. Some was sold, but there was no market for much of it. So there is sits, waiting to burn and explode. Russia and some Western nations are contributing cash and expertise to get rid of the most dangerous items. But this takes times, and frequently, the local government does not cooperate (they want a bribe, or to be paid for the destroyed goods, or are simply paranoid).
President Dmitry Medvedev is apparently aware of this sorry history, and is going to make a serious effort to at least clear out the old ammo in depots still on Russian soil. But many more of the potential disasters exist in nations that were once part of the Soviet union, and many nations that once bought large quantities of ammo from the Soviet Union. But while it's a global problem, ground zero is right back in what was once the good old USSR.