'Doomsday' shipwreck exposed by New Scientist finally being made safe

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Technology | Analysis 14 January 2022

By Mick Hamer

SS Richard Montgomery

The masts of the shipwrecked SS Richard Montgomery

James Bell/Alamy

Three masts sticking up supra the waves adjacent the coastal municipality of Sheerness successful the UK people the spot wherever a deadly wreck has been rusting for astir 80 years. They beryllium to the SS Richard Montgomery, a US 2nd satellite war-era vessel that ran aground successful August 1944 with a cargo of bombs. The half-submerged wreck, conscionable 2 kilometres from land, inactive has 1400 tonnes of TNT successful its holds.

Almost 20 years aft I mounted an probe for New Scientist into the dangers posed by this doomsday wreck, the UK authorities has present announced plans to chopped backmost the heavy alloy masts this twelvemonth to trim their weight. This is to forestall them collapsing into the holds, wherever they would autumn onto the bombs and acceptable disconnected an explosion.

A spokesperson for the Department for Transport says the wreck “is successful a comparatively unchangeable condition” and added that “expert wreck assessors are present undertaking elaborate surveys” to find however overmuch to shave disconnected the masts.

When I began our probe successful 2004, I wanted to find retired the dangers posed by this wreck. What were the chances of an explosion? And however superior would it be? The answers were acold from reassuring.

A ample portion of the cargo was removed successful 1944. But enactment stopped aft the Admiralty – the UK authorities section liable astatine the clip – refused to wage workers information wealth for unloading the bombs. This was the champion accidental the authorities would ever person to marque the vessel safe. Sixty years later, the wreck was disintegrating and the explosives were unstable.

Our probe revealed that the government’s Explosives Research and Development Establishment (ERDE) had calculated successful 1972 that the blast from an detonation astatine the wreck would shatter virtually each model successful Sheerness and nonstop a 300-metre-wide file of mud, metallic and munitions shooting up astir 3 kilometres into the air. As portion of the investigation, New Scientist asked researchers astatine Defence Research and Development Canada to cheque these alarming calculations and they confirmed the results.

A blast connected this standard would beryllium 1 of the world’s biggest non-nuclear explosions, causing wide demolition and death. The proximity of a elephantine liquefied earthy state terminal astatine the Isle of Grain is an further worry. Supertankers connected their mode to the terminal walk arsenic adjacent arsenic 200 metres to the wreck.

So however apt is an explosion? Unexploded bombs are ever unsafe and unpredictable, which is wherefore they are usually made harmless arsenic soon arsenic they are found. A peculiar occupation with the SS Richard Montgomery is that galore of the smaller fragmentation bombs were fused, acceptable for use; bombs would usually beryllium transported without fuses for safety.

“Some of these fused bombs may, successful each probability, spell done a play of enhanced sensitivity,” said the ERDE successful 1972. In 1999, the UK authorities asked consultants to transportation retired a hazard assessment. They concluded that “some [bombs] whitethorn not person passed their astir delicate phase, and person a higher hazard of premature detonation”. The consultants said the wreck would commencement to illness successful 10 to 20 years and the detonation of 1 weaponry could commencement a concatenation reaction. Doing thing was nary longer an option, they said. In 2001, elder officials met to sermon this study and agreed the clip for procrastination was over. That was 21 years ago.

This week I spoke to David Alexander astatine the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction astatine University College London, who has taken a keen involvement successful the SS Richard Montgomery. He says the bombs request to beryllium removed. “Sooner oregon aboriginal they person to bash something,” says Alexander. “The question is volition they bash it excessively late.”

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