Clearing work begins at damaged munitions site

The munitions depot in Vrbětice, photo: ČTK

After a nine-day moratorium expired since the last uncontrolled explosion at a damaged munitions depot in Vrbětice, Moravia, pyrotechnics were able to move in on Monday morning to begin clearing up - checking for dangerous munitions thrown far and wide. If all goes well, experts should be able to clear the area within the depot by the end of the month, paving the way for the eventual removal of surviving munitions stores to a new site.

The munitions depot in Vrbětice, photo: ČTK
Nine days of quiet at the damaged depot in Vrbětice means that work to clear the area was able to start on Monday. A team of 11 military and six police pyrotechnics experts set out early to begin the painstaking task, a police spokeswoman confirmed.

“They began at the perimeter and are working their way inwards. They began by checking and clearing areas of the forests and meadows to lessen any threat to the municipalities and residents nearby.”

The aim, obviously, is to secure any loose munitions thrown wide by explosions which destroyed parts of the depot. When found, they will be checked for damage and – if necessary – be destroyed through controlled explosions on site. Such steps, will need to be relayed to nearby municipalities in advance. Karel Koubík is an expert witness and specialist on explosives; he told Czech TV this: “They have to find the different munition types as well as all kinds of components which can be strewn far and wide. The key decision then will be whether items have to be destroyed or can be transferred elsewhere.”

How fast clearing teams will be able to proceed will depend on several factors: not least how many loose munitions are found. The weather could also hamper the operation: a fresh sheet of snow, for example, could markedly complicate matters. If all goes well, crews could get the green light to begin moving undamaged munitions stores at Vrbětice in January, to a recently re-opened site in the region of Pardubice.

The munitions depot in Květná, photo: ČTK
The local governor there has said the region is ready to accept the munitions, so long as the transfer and storage goes by the book. No one wants a repeat of anything like the situation in Vrbětice, unstable for weeks and months since an initial blast in mid-October killed two employees and cratered part of the area. Spontaneous blasts at the site which followed saw the government bring in the army to secure the perimeter. Pardubice governor Martin Netolický:

“I can say that we are ready to accept the munitions at Kvetná but let me make clear that colleagues will be watching all steps very closely.”

The actual transfer of undamaged munitions would end weeks of doubt and agony in Vrbětice but the story doesn’t end there: later on Monday the security situation at munitions sites will be discussed by the National Security Council, where Interior Minister Milan Chovanec is to present proposals on improving the safety of such sites and with it changes to existing legislation.