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UK's Undersea 'Ticking Time Bombs'

Guest Lottie

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Munitions dumped off the British coast nearly a century ago are dangerously unstable now, a salvage expert says.

Michael Fellows, a former Royal Navy diver, says the weapons, jettisoned in the Irish Sea, are "liable to go bang".

He also believes a World War II wreck in the Thames estuary is "a ticking timebomb", which cannot be ignored.

Mr Fellows says the freighter, which was carrying munitions from the US, may threaten a liquid gas terminal due to be constructed on the coast of Kent.

Mr Fellows was speaking to BBC Radio 4's programme Costing The Earth, which has examined the risks posed by discarded weapons, wrecks and nuclear reactors in the waters round the British Isles.

Underwater grave

One of the main concerns is Beaufort's Dyke, a deep submarine trench in the Irish Sea between Scotland and Northern Ireland, used as a munitions dump since early last century.

The Ministry of Defence says more than one million tonnes of weapons were jettisoned there, though some are known to have been dumped short of the Dyke in shallow coastal waters.

Mr Fellows, who has worked for 40 years in bomb and mine clearance and was decorated for his work during the Falklands War, now heads his own munitions clearance company, Fellows International.

He told the programme: "Most of the weapons dumped in the Beaufort's Dyke... weren't designed to go under water.

"There are sporadic explosions two or three times a month, I should think, in the Irish Sea, popping off all the time."

Asked whether the oldest munitions in the Dyke were losing their ability to withstand corrosion, Mr Fellows said: "Yes. They are getting old and they're liable to go bang."

Beach hazard

A local councillor in Northern Ireland, Oliver McMullan, told Costing The Earth the Dyke contained sarin and tabun (both nerve gases), phosgene, mustard gas and explosives.

Incendiary bombs containing phosphate used to drift onto the shore each winter, said Mr McMullan.

"We had hundreds upon hundreds of these things getting washed up in a matter of days," he added.

"Out of the water, body heat will ignite them, or the heat of the sun, and then they just explode into flame.

"There was a couple of young boys here locally who got burns off them, and another in Scotland was burnt."

He fears the problem will worsen, telling the programme: "There's too much stuff down there that's only breaking up now."

Survey 'needed'

Michael Fellows is also worried about the wreck of the US freighter Richard Montgomery, which sank with its cargo of high explosives in August 1944 off Sheerness in the Thames estuary.

He said: "It's a ticking timebomb. It's likely to go pop at some stage. Areas of Sheerness within about 3km (1.9 miles) will feel the effects.

"And they really ought to be worried about the new liquid gas terminal they're going to build 2.5km (1.5 miles) from the wreck."

He rejected the opinion of the government's Receiver of Wrecks, who was advised that munitions would not explode spontaneously but needed a trigger.

Mr Fellows said: "We can't afford to just leave it as it is. One option is to do a survey, or to de-ammunition it.

"Something needs to be done. We can't just afford to leave it for another 50 years."

The Department of Transport said the wreck of the USS Richard Montgomery was checked by divers once a year and that no ships were allowed to pass over the wreck.

A spokeswoman said this summer that the last examination, in 2003, showed the site to be no more dangerous than in the past.

The Costing The Earth programme also explores the possible risk from obsolete Royal Navy nuclear submarines moored at Devonport, and from the reactors of similar Soviet vessels lost at sea.

Source: BBC News

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As a child I spent a lot of time in Lancing Sussex(1960's) on the south coast of England. One sunny summers day my cousins and myself were playing on the beach when we came accrues a large metal sphere with what looked like plungers attached to it, as normal curious children we tried to turn it over. Along comes a policeman on his bike, suddenly recognized what we had found and fell of his bike trying to get at us.

Turns out it was an old sea mine washed up on the beach. Its a good thing we didn't play with it to long.

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MAN those things are dangerous, you're very lucky it didn't go off...... thumbsup.gif

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Damn, this situation is very deadly, we create so many weapons taht even though we continually use them we cant use them all so we just dump them, where one day they could be discovered by inncoent people and killed!

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  • 2 years later...

The Liberty ship ss richard montgomery is a time-bomb waiting for a terrorist to give Britain its first real tsunami and, maybe, worse. This film shows what can happen when a government conceals something very dangerous from its own people.

Fact: The US explosives carrier Richard Montgomery sank in the Thames Estuary in August 1944. It was loaded with 1500 tons of explosive munitions. The Admiralty decided to leave the wreck and its dangerous cargo undisturbed. The wreck lies just a few hundred yards offshore between an oil refinery and the several towns. Southend on Sea is just a couple of miles away on the other side of the Thames estuary. Rumours about the ship and its cargo have circulated in these towns ever since. Denials have been issued by ministers in the House of Commons in response to MPs questions about the presence on board of biological, chemical and gas warheads. Nevertheless, rumours persist that the real reason the wreck was not made safe was because of the existence of ‘dirty weapons’ on board.


(copy and paste into your browser for more info and links)


program COAST BBC2 (repeat) 19:00-20:00 weds 20 dec 2006 has interesting piece about ss richard montgomery (in last 10 mins of program)

for those of you that missed the program, or not it uk. link to small (5MB)

4m 14secs clip from program below just part about the ship.


Edited by ronangel
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its amazing how the scar's of world war 2 still plage us even after almost 60 years

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the scars of ww2 will never cease aslong as Ak-47's alone are in combat use.

Inwhich they are used and have been used in every major conflict since there main-stream availabilty.

ak47's are based on the german mp44 design.

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