Ammonium nitrate: Fear around the world as nations consider their own huge stashes of chemical

Ammonium nitrate

THE devastating explosion of 2 750 tons of ammonium nitrate in Beirut has raised fears about similar stockpiles of the fertiliser in other nations.

In the wake of the blast that killed more than 150 in Lebanon’s capital, authorities in the southern Indian city of Chennai say they have seized 740 tons of the highly explosive chemical.

Customs officials said the consignment had arrived in the port city in 2015, purchased by a chemicals firm from another state in India, but was impounded because of an alleged breach of import rules and stored at a facility some 20 km outside the city.

Officials said that while there are no residential neighbourhoods within 2km of the freight station where the ammonium nitrate was being stored, it had been decided after the Beirut incident to move it to a safer location.

“The seized cargo is securely stored and safety of the cargo and public is ensured considering the hazardous nature of the cargo,” customs officials said in a statement late on Thursday.

Other stockpiles of the chemical, which is commonly used both as a fertiliser and in mining operations, have raised concerns in Australia.

One plant which can store as much as 12,000 tons of ammonium nitrate is located just 3 km from the central district of the New South Wales town of Newcastle.

Orica, the company which owns the facility, said that there had never been any incidents in the plant’s 51-year history and insisted safety measures including fire-resistant storage and tight government regulations meant there was no risk.

A separate fertiliser plant just 500 m from the inner harbour of Port Adelaide, in South Australia, raised concerns as long ago as 2013. Locals and the state government eventually persuaded the company which owned the plant to move it elsewhere and today the firm, Incitec Pivot, said their relocated plant did not store ammonium nitrate for the mining industry, but only fertiliser for farmers.

Experts say there is a very low risk of any similar disasters occurring in Britain.

Most ammonium nitrate in Britain also has less than 28 per cent nitrogen, which renders it much less dangerous.

A spokesperson for the Health & Safety Executive said: “’The storage of ammonium nitrate in Great Britain is subject to a robust regulatory framework, which considers the hazards posed by storage, product safety and measures to deal with emergencies.

“As with all industrial disasters around the world, we will take on board any significant findings from the investigation as and when they emerge.”