A Blast at the Ammunition Storage Site in Bulgaria Underlines the Need to Properly Manage Ammunition Stockpiles

On 05 June 2012, a series of explosions occurred in the ammunition site near Sliven, south eastern Bulgaria. The explosions started in the early afternoon and continued until early morning hours the next day. The cause of the blasts was an earthquake; however the official reports vary on the strength of the earthquake (from 1.5 to 4.5 magnitude on the Richter Scale). The ammunition facility is a Bulgarian privately-owned depot, used for munitions dismantling. At least 10 people have been hospitalized and 630 people of the nearby village of Gorno Alexandrovo have been evacuated. This is the sixth blast which has occurred in Bulgaria since 2000, with the most recent one taking place in November 2011.

The frequency of such disasters all around the world is alarming.  As reported by the Small Arms Survey, there are several reasons why such incidents occur. Primarily, the lack of technical knowledge, appropriate management and disregard for safety standards allow for a deterioration of systems at the ammunition storage sites. Additionally, more than half of all expositions and incidents are caused by the poor infrastructure of storage sites. 

According to the UN International Ammunition Technical Guidelines, Eastern Europe is an area of particular concern due to the significant existing surpluses, many of which are well past their safe storage life. SEESAC supports national governments in South Eastern Europe to strengthen management capacities as well as improve infrastructure of SALW storage facilities.

SEESAC has developed several training modules on planning and managing stockpile locations, inventory management and accounting control measures and transport security for officials responsible for material resources. Over 40 operation level officials from the security ministries of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia benefited from the training.

Additionally, in order to tackle the threat posed by the lack of security of stockpile locations, SEESAC supported improvement of the storage sites in Montenegro (Taras) and Croatia (MURAT). Other projects of this kind are currently ongoing in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia where 5 storage sites are earmarked for renovation. 

The destruction of surplus stocks is also an effective way to increase security and reduce the risks of unexpected explosion. SEESAC has provided technical advice and assistance for the development and implementation of safe, efficient and effective destruction initiatives across the South Eastern and Eastern Europe region. Most recently, SEESAC supported government of Serbia and government of Croatia in their destruction activities during which 55,000 and 22,000 SALW were destroyed, respectively.

These activities are supported by the Council of the European Union which passed EU Council Decision 2010/179/CFSP of 11 March 2010 in Support of SEESAC arms control activities in the Western Balkans within the framework of the EU Strategy to combat the illicit accumulation and trafficking of SALW and their ammunition.

Through its activities, SEESAC has supported regional effort to address the threats posed by excess, unstable, loosely secured or otherwise at-risk stockpiles of SALW and ammunition and in turn helped prevent accidents such as that in Congo. However, there still exists the need for further technical and infrastructural assistance to ensure the effective stockpile management and the destruction of surplus ammunition. SEESAC will continue to cooperate with countries in South-eastern Europe with that purpose in mind.