Bomb evacuation `unnecessary'

Christopher Bellamy reports on a technique that would have spared people in Portland a weekend of disruption
The mass evacuation of Portland at the weekend, estimated to have cost £2.5m, would have been unnecessary if new methods of suppressing explosions patented by an Edinburgh company and used by private bomb disposal contractors had completed trials.

The Royal Engineers who yesterday defused the 1,000lb Second World War armour-piercing bomb on the Dorset island after a 31-hour operation, were aware of the new methods but had to use procedures which have changed little since 1945.

The British developments in using water to suppress the effects of explosions have attracted much interest in the US and the company, Dell Explosives, is also talking to Japanese experts about using water, with other additives, to suppress and contain releases of chemical agents after the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo tube.

The idea of using water to suppress the force and heat of an explosion is not new. There is an old safe-cracker's trick which uses a water-bottle placed against the keyhole when blowing a safe.

"It's how you do it," said Michael Fellows, a former Navy clearance diver and authority on bomb-disposal, who now runs the company.

Mr Fellows had completed a safety audit of the Portland naval base when he was invited to examine the Portland bomb with a 170lb explosive charge inside it.

"I got down on my knees and had a look at the fuse. Major Nick Clarke asked me how I would deal with it. I told him I would use a water suppression system. He didn't know of it. I said I'd be happy to give him the system free. They'd love to use the latest research but there are standing procedures they have to follow."

Current regulations required full evacuation within 1000 metres. "I'd have evacuated 200," said Mr Fellows, "and that's going over the top. I would have put 10 tons of water on it. If I had a `full order' [bomb- disposal slang for the whole bomb going off] I wouldn't be worried because the water suppression would contain it."

Mr Fellows said future commercial bomb-disposal contractors might tender for contracts with local authorities.