SS “Richard Montgomery” - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:57 pm on 3rd July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Liberal Democrat 7:57 pm, 3rd July 2019

My Lords, I was attracted to this debate for the simple reason that munitions that have been lying around from previous conflicts are something virtually everybody here has grown up with to some extent. Internationally, we get off fairly lightly. The Library briefing refers to the huge amount of munitions that were simply dumped off the coasts of Germany and Denmark because that was the safest and easiest thing to do when we were disarming the Germans. In northern France and Belgium, in what was no-man’s land, they are still taking casualties because of 100 year-old munitions.

The question we have to ask here is: what is the risk involved in this huge volume of explosives being in one place? If one percentage point of the smaller figure for munitions down there went off—14 tonnes of explosive—that is still an enormous blast. Nobody is quite sure what effect it would have, because it would depend on what else it caught, but it would still be an enormous explosion—so the risk is enormous. Let us agree on that. Whether you are blown up a bit or a lot will not make much difference to you if you are blown up, to be perfectly honest. What are we doing to assess the risk of these types of munitions?

As we have already heard, phosphorus is leaking from them, so there is some degradation. Does that make them more stable or more volatile? It is a pretty basic question. Is the arming system on these munitions—the impact fuse, call it what you like—still active? If it is an impact type of detonation, even a comparatively small ship will mean hundreds of tonnes travelling and, even at a few miles an hour, there will still be an enormous impact.

A ship was mentioned that was sailed more or less by good luck and dead reckoning. My historical knowledge says that we gave that up as an official guide in the 18th century. If that is still going on, this type of impact is a possibility. Are those munitions going to be ignited by that or would enough of them be?

It was also suggested in some of the briefing we received that if a large amount of sand were to be put over the ship you would further lessen the risk. What is the possibility of doing that type of risk-reduction process?

Another way is just to tell everybody to go nowhere near it. The geography suggests that we cannot do that. Monitoring of the ship has to be more exact and there must be some form of intervention policy. I rather doubt that with a comparatively small charge you could detonate something under several metres of water, possibly silt, and inside an old decaying steel thing, but I bet somebody out there is thinking about it.

There is also the question of how we will know what to do if the threat, for some other reason, becomes intense. What are the emergency plans for the metal thing? If the plans are to evacuate thousands of people, suddenly some of the other options might become more viable. I expect to get out of this debate an idea of what the Government know and what their contingency plans are. If America is still willing to take this away, is it worth saying, “Have a go,” or is the risk too much to make it acceptable? It is merely a matter of finding out the options so we can have another think about it. If we do not know we will carrying on talking about it.

We heard about the worst-case scenario at the beginning. How real do people think that is? A tsunami would make an awfully good television programme. What are the real chances under the assessment? Who has done the work? That is something we need to know.

Last, but by no means least, what is the potential environmental damage of further degradation of the chemicals that leak out? We should take that into account. We know some has taken place. What would happen down there?

I do not think that any of us here has an answer. All the interventions come at some cost and at some risk. Can we at least know what is going on? There is lots of worldwide research into what you do with old munitions. Some of our close allies and neighbours are dealing with the same problem. What has been done? What is the process? What are we going to do about it? One thing is sure—it is not going away any time soon.