• jeffreybraithwaite

On risks, mermaids, exploding bombs, holiday tours and hidden consequences

“The Government’s policy appears to be to bury their head in the Sheerness sands, presumably in the hope that the problem will simply go away.” [7:22pm, July 3]

- Lord Harris of Haringey (1953- ), Labour, Debate, The House of Lords, 2019

“… the excellent wartime tag, Keep Calm and Carry On, is a pretty good one provided that one is not complacent … no one, to the best of my knowledge, has died because of this wreck … we have had reassurances in the past from Mr Boris Johnson … so I am reassured by that, as I am sure the whole House is.” [7:33pm, July 3]

- Lord Patten (1944- ), Conservative, Debate, The House of Lords, 2019

It is hard to forget the deeply distressing 2020 Beirut explosion, causing 204 deaths, at least 7,500 injuries, and billions of dollars in property damages. The devastation was the result of tonnes of explosives stored in a warehouse near the city’s port. The cargo had unloaded in 2014 from an unseaworthy and later abandoned ship, the MV Rhosus.

Responses to this catastrophe ranged from incredulity to indignation to white-hot anger to complete astonishment that the Lebanon authorities would have been so lax as to have left huge quantities of NH4NO3 – what we know commonly as ammonium nitrate – housed for so long without adequate safety measures.

Surely the risks to people, property and the economy had been predicted and should have been ameliorated? After all, literally thousands of people have died worldwide as a result of accidental ammonium nitrate explosions over the last century. And to have left this tragedy-in-waiting for six years without mitigation is patently unforgiveable.

It might be imagined that this was a one-off event and that there is nowhere else where unattended explosives have been left alone for years – let alone decades – that could be accidentally detonated, thereby posing extreme risk to life, limb and property. And if there were, the experience of Beirut would hasten Governments everywhere else to solve the problem. Right?

Go visit the seaside town of Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey off the coast of the United Kingdom’s charming and scenic county of Kent and you’ll come across two things of note. One is a very large billboard picturing a mermaid with her hand on a plunger, just about to press a detonation device marked “TNT”. “Welcome to Sheerness” says the wording next to her hand, with smaller lettering below saying: “You’ll have a blast”.

Most days, except when the weather really closes in, you can observe something else intriguing, this time one and a half miles (a little over two kilometres) from land, just beyond the town’s sea walls. It’s the masts of a semi-submerged ship, the SS Richard Montgomery, with another sign, this time strategically placed adjacent to this ship. This one shouts capitals at its readers: DANGER PROHIBITED AREA.

The ship is known locally, and semi-affectionately, as the “Monty”. It was a US cargo ship from World War II of the Liberty class, built in Jacksonville, Florida, measuring 441 feet (134 metres) in length. During the haste of the US war effort there were 2,710 Liberty vessels built, in record time – at an incredible rate of two every three days on average. This one was completed in just 137 days, constructed from low-grade steel, and it was welded, not riveted, to save time. This made it brittle, especially in cold north Atlantic waters, and prone to cracking.

The Monty was not just hauling any old cargo. It was carrying bombs. Lots of bombs. While it was waiting for the meteorological conditions to break on August 20th, 1944 so it could join a convoy to cross the English Channel to France, the authorities asked the captain to anchor off the coast of Sheerness, in 10 metres of water. The draft of the Monty was nine and a half metres, so this was an unwise instruction. That factor, and the gale-force weather, caused the ship to founder on a sand bank. Luckily, the captain and crew abandoned ship as it sank. It’s been there ever since.

Very soon after running aground one of the holds cracked open, and within two weeks, the craft broke in two. A salvage operation was mounted, with the Admiralty employing 52 tried-and-tested stevedores through the Port of London Authority to clear the holds. They diligently unloaded the rear half, but work was stopped and has never restarted. It was judged too costly by the Admiralty. The stevedores were being paid danger money. And the bombs were not likely to pose a danger, the top brass thought, because the devices lacked fuses. This was later found to be mistaken, but it was wartime. British Governments over the years have commissioned reports on the wreck, only to put them in an in tray which Yes Prime Minister’s Sir Humphrey Appleby would have marked “Too hard”.

One of these surveys was carried out between 1999 and 2000 by the UK’s Receiver of Wreck, a government-appointed official. (The Receiver, and I note in passing that you couldn’t dream this stuff up, also administers the law about the royal fish, which are actually whales and sturgeon which, once caught, become the personal property of the Queen). The Receiver estimated that in the Montgomery’s hold are over 9,000 explosives, although some estimates disagree, instead providing an unnervingly higher and uncannily precise number, saying that 13,961 devices remain. Of the total there is a bunch of 2,000lb “blockbuster” bombs (286 in number), an awful lot more 1,000lb bombs (4,439 of these) and very worrisome cluster bombs (2,500 of them). It appears that the cluster bombs do still have their fuses attached in situ, contrary to the Admiralty’s wartime view, making them much more likely to detonate.

Some experts think that the wreck is safe and the likelihood of there being an explosion is low. This opinion is of course predicated on the assumption that heat, deterioration or something bumping into the stranded vessel’s hull will not trigger even one detonation of any one of these devices. If it does go off, this could have a cascading effect. A New Scientist report in 2004 worried that sea water seeping into the bombs would be a sufficient trigger for a cataclysmic event.

Other experts are much more deeply troubled about collisions. The Monty is in navigable waters not far from a shipping channel, and many other craft pass by relatively closely: by some counts, over 5,000 a year. There have been multiple close calls over the years. No one knows how many. In 1974 alone there were 24 near misses recorded, but figures are not now reported.

In May, 1980 the Mare Altum, a 1,600 tonne Danish chemical tanker (obviously a craft not without risk all on its own) went off course in poor visibility. It only evaded the SS Richard Montgomery at the last minute. And obviously, eight decades after its sinking, things really are deteriorating on board. Upon regular annual or biennial inspection, a growing crack has been detected in hold number 2, right where most bombs are located.

“Ticking time bomb” is a clichéd, over-hyped phrase, but there is a strong case it applies here. The sobering potential consequences, having Beirut and its calamity in mind, would be catastrophic. The resultant Montgomery eruption would be, according to some reputable estimates, 700 times the Oklahoma City bomb of 1995.

A Royal Military College of Science report gauged the scale of the cataclysm: a 3,000-meter-high column of water, debris and materials would result, and a tsunami wave of five meters would form and surge, smashing into nearby coastlines. One expert, the UK’s Colin Harvey, indicated that the blast and energy from the tsunami wave would decimate Sheerness and its citizens as well as the entire Isle of Sheppey, with its population of 40,000 people. The tsunami would radiate along the River Medway wreaking havoc on people and property as it went.

Graphic shows estimated blast impact.

As if that wasn’t enough, as the BBC reported in a Future article in 2015, the wave train would surge into four liquified natural gas containers on the nearby Isle of Grain, which sit alongside 18 oil storage tanks. The Grain gas terminal caters to 20% of the UK’s needs, with a capacity for handling 15 million tonnes of gas a year, with up to a million cubic metres processed at any one time. During a 2019 debate on the SS Richard Montgomery in the UK’s House of Lords, Lord Harris of Haringey, a Labour peer, colorfully estimated each of the four gas tanks at the size of the Royal Albert Hall, London’s famous concert venue.

The wreck is legally listed as a major accident hazard under British regulations. There’s a siren in the nearest village, also called Grain, although it’s preposterous to think for a moment that would help anyone in sufficient time. Worse still, a shock wave from the SS Richard Montgomery explosion would barrel up the River Thames and reach the centre of London, affecting millions of people along the way. The Thames Barrier takes 90 minutes to complete its operations and close, so it would not so much be the proverbial barn door shutting after the horse had bolted, but there’s no door. And there’d not be much barn left.

Lest it be thought that this is scaremongering and the experts who don’t think the risk is high are right, in 1967 the UK attempted to take bombs off the Polish ship the SS Kielce, a much smaller vessel than the Monty. The resulting detonation caused a blast that measured 4.5 on the Richter scale.

If cost was the original 1944 reason for doing nothing, and the bureaucrat’s thoughts in that era were along the lines that in any case, the wreck’s contents were stable, later views were that the explosives are now too unstable and costly to move. Either explanation – too stable, too unstable – has led to inaction: a bureaucrat’s dream come true.

It’s a classic rock-and-a-hard-place problem. Leave well alone and nothing may happen with the SS Richard Montgomery for another 80 years – or longer. Or set up a successful operation to de-fuse the bombs or clear the wreck and all would, obviously, be well. Those best-case scenarios need to be tempered with the increasing threat of corrosion of the cluster bomb fuses or deterioration of the rest of the armaments, an accident or terrorist event, or the palpable risk of disturbance if dismantling was attempted.

And thinking it unlikely that the Monty could be a terrorist target is head-in-the-sand stuff. As part of the security for the 2012 London Olympics, the UK Government posted conspicuous armed patrols at the site. The rest of the time? Nothing. Anyone can sail right up to the Monty at any time, ignoring the warning signs.

These are all potential risks. But it has been reported that phosphorus constantly leaks from the munitions, rises to the surface, and then catches fire when it meets the atmosphere – exactly what phosphorus does, according to its chemical constitution. In one study, 40 instances of phosphorus release were reported in just one 12-month period.

Scary stuff, but what to do about this? Among the mitigation strategies, simply getting a new bunch of stevedores back on the job would be excessively risky, according to the UK Government. Thinking more laterally, the wreck could be buried in sand or concrete. Or a ditch could be dug around it, surrounded by a sand bank, thereby muffling any blast. Or the cargo could be removed by crane. But each of these alternatives carries its own risk profile. And it’s imagined that to do any of these things would necessitate evacuation of the residents of Sheerness – and who knows for how long?

Meanwhile, that the townspeople of Sheerness can be sufficiently relaxed to have created the playful mermaid-terrorist billboard may well be an evocative example of the famed British irony, ever-willing to point out, tongue firmly in cheek, life’s incongruities. Yet it is arguably an unwarrantedly flippant commentary on the potential seriousness of this situation. And, in an even more far-reaching example of British stiff-upper lip attitudes in the light of danger, Jetstream Tours in the UK bewilderingly host scenic boat tours around the wreck – with the special offer, that under 3 year-olds are free. Jetstream provides the cheery advice to passengers on their website that they “are fairly confident that we will not disturb the wreck.”

If you lived there would you be as comfortable (or complacent) as the 12,000 ordinary people of Sheerness, the 40,000 inhabitants of the Isle of Sheppey, the 2,000 or so living on the Isle of Grain, the hundreds who staff the oil and gas terminal, the many people of Kent, or the millions of Londoners who live on the banks of the Thames all the way up to the centre of London, all appear to be? The people in Beirut were just going on with their everyday lives, too, taking for granted that things were under control, and thinking that the Government had their backs. And that it couldn’t happen here. Until it did.

What better in this era of disinformation, alternative facts and outright lies, to conclude with a genuine expert. Dave Welch, another informant to the BBC’s Future article, and a consultant in bomb disposal, said that “somebody in the next five to 10 years is going to have a very difficult decision to make and I would say the sooner it’s made, the easier and cheaper it will be.”

That was October, 2015. Tick, tock.

Further reading:

Excell, Jon (2015). The bombs that lurk off the UK coast. BBC Future. October 29.

Hamer, Mick (2004). The doomsday wreck. New Scientist. August 21.

Jetstream Tours (2020). S.S. Richard Montgomery.

The House of Lords (2019). SS “Richard Montgomery” – Question for Short Debate. UK Parliament: House of Lords. July 3.

Doward, Jamie and Bradford, Chris (2019). Fears grow that WW2 wreck could explode on Kent coast. The Guardian. August 18.

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