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Unplanned Explosions at Munitions Sites

Updated 1 September 2013

Unplanned explosions at munitions sites (UEMS) are a global problem. A single UEMS incident often results in dozens of casualties and millions of dollars in damages to nearby buildings, infrastructure and homes. Recent research reveals that these incidents are quite common.

The Small Arms Survey has produced an historical overview of every known UEMS event dating back to 1987.  To date, 466 incidents of this nature have been recorded in 90 countries (plus the Palestinian Territories), affecting almost half of UN member states, and covering every continent except Antarctica and Australia  (see Table 1).

The frequency of UEMS incidents has risen dramatically over the course of the last 26-plus years (see Figure 1). The first ten years of the UEMS records (1987-1996) saw an average of seven incidents per year. That average rose to over 20 per year during the next ten years (1997-2006) and then up to 29 incidents during each of the last six years (2007-2012). (For a detailed breakdown of events by year, see the tables on the UEMS Incidents by Year page.) Certainly some of this increase in frequency is explained by an increase in global reporting and media coverage. However, the increase in incidents over the past 26-plus years does signal that the number of explosions is not decreasing, despite efforts to address their causes (see Publications below).

Thirteen UEMS incidents have been recorded thus far in 2013 (as of 1 September). The concentration of the incident locations is the most notable feature. Seven of the thirteen UEMS occurred in the Middle East. Four of these events were in Syria, and at least three of them would appear to be consequences of the civil war.

Other updates  include new reports of UEMS incidents in Bulgaria (2012), Kazakhstan (2010), and South Sudan (then still part of Sudan, in 2003). This update also excludes three incidents previously listed: in Kazakhstan, 2006 (the incident was duplicated in database), in North Korea, 2004 (the event occurred during transportation), and in South Korea, 1996 (the depot was destroyed by flooding, not an explosion as originally reported).

The UEMS database remains an on-going Small Arms Survey project. New incidents are continuously added as they occur. Data is also retroactively added or amended as new, credible information is uncovered. Revisions to the database therefore can occur in between the periodic updating of the website. For more information on UEMS and the UEMS project please see the following links:

The Survey is also currently working on a 35 year global review of UEMS incidents. The study will provide a comprehensive analysis of UEMS incidents occurring from 1979 to 2013. In addition to incident analysis, the publication is designed to assist policy makers, practitioners and researchers working on the topic by detailing the activities of the key actors working on PSSM programs, providing an annotated bibliography of the major publications, and introducing a reporting template to help establish systematic reporting criteria for UEMS incidents. The findings will be published as a Survey Handbook in spring 2014.

Table 1

 *Small Arms Survey (Forthcoming).

Figure Number of Recorded UEMS by Year, January 1987—August 2013

Table 2



Unplanned Explosions at Munitions Sites (UEMS) include accidents1 resulting in the explosion2 of abandoned3, damaged4, improperly stored5, or properly stored stockpiles of munitions6 and explosives. For our purposes, munitions sites comprise storage areas7 (including those temporarily maintained during demilitarization or explosive ordnance disposal) and processing sites,8 whether temporary or permanent. Ammunition manufacturing facilities (ordnance factories) are not included, but accidents during ammunition processing operations within munitions sites have been included where known.

1. An accident is defined as: ‘an undesired event, which results in harm’ (UNODA, 2011, para. 3.5, p.2). ‘Harm’ is defined as: ‘physical injury or damage to the health of people, or damage to property or the environment’ (UNODA, 2011, para. 3.120, p. 14).

2. An explosion is defined as: ‘a sudden release of energy producing a blast effect with the possible projection of fragments. The term explosion encompasses fast combustion, deflagration and detonation’ (UNODA, 2011, para. 3.95, p.11).

3. Abandoned Explosive Ordnance (AXO) is defined as: ‘explosive ordnance that has not been used during an armed conflict, that has been left behind or dumped by a party to an armed conflict, and which is no longer under control of the party that left it behind or dumped it. Abandoned explosive ordnance may or may not have been primed, fuzed, armed or otherwise prepared for use’ (UNODA, 2011, para. 3.1, p.1).

4. Damaged munitions refer to the physical or chemical deterioration of ammunition and explosives.

5. Munitions are considered improperly stored when storage does not generally follow accepted multilateral norms or guidelines, or existing national legislation and controls.

6. Munitions is used in this definition—and in common usage—to refer to weapons, ammunition, explosives and components. A number of armed forces and ammunition specialists, however, use the term munitions to refer solely to complete rounds of ammunition (cf. Ammunition) (Bevan and Wilkinson, 2008, p. xxvi). Ammunition: A complete device (e.g. missile, shell, mine, demolition store, etc.) charged with explosives; propellants; pyrotechnics; initiating composition; or nuclear, biological, or chemical material for use in connection with offence, or defence, or training, or non-operational purposes, including those parts of weapons systems containing explosives (cf. Munition) (Bevan and Wilkinson, 2008, p. xix).

7. An Explosive Storage Area (ESA) is defined as: ‘an area used for the storage of explosives and within which authorised ammunition or missile preparation, inspection and rectification operations may also be carried out’ (UNODA, 2011, para. 3.108, p.12).

8. An ammunition process [site] is defined as: ‘a building or area that contains or is intended to contain one or more of the following activities: maintenance, preparation, inspection, breakdown, renovation, test or repair of ammunition and explosives’ (UNODA, 2011, para. 3.12, p.2).


This page will be routinely updated. For additional information and to report incidents not listed, please contact Small Arms Survey Researcher Benjamin King:



Bevan, James and Adrian Wilkinson. 2008. ‘Glossary of Conventional Ammunition Terminology.’ In James Bevan, ed. Conventional Ammunition in Surplus: A Reference Guide. Geneva: Small Arms Survey, pp. xix–xxxiii.

Small Arms Survey. Forthcoming. ‘Unplanned Explosions at Munitions Sites database’. Geneva: Small Arms Survey.

UNODA (United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs). 2011. ‘International Ammunition Technical Guidelines: Glossary of terms, definitions and abbreviations.’ (ATG 01.40). First edition. New York: UNODA. October.

Wilkinson, Adrian. 2011. ‘The threat from explosive events in ammunition storage areas’. Edition No. 2, May. Kent: Explosive Capabilities Limited.

Zahaczewsky, George. 2011. ‘Major Ammunition Accidents – Compilation of events from 1917 to 2011’. Unpublished document.



Small Arms Survey Publications

  • Costs and Consequences: Unplanned Explosions and Demilitarization
    in South-east Europe
    , by Jasna Lazarević, a joint publication of the Regional Approach for Stockpile Reduction, the US Department of State's Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, and the Small Arms Survey, November 2012. Special Report No. 18.

    Download (1.82 MB)
  • Blue Skies and Dark Clouds: Kazakhstan and Small Arms, by Nicolas Florquin, Dauren Aben, and Takhmina Karimova, May 2012. Occasional Paper No. 29 (also available in Kazakh and Russian; Executive Summary available in English, Kazakh, and Russian)

    Download (1.23 MB)
  • Significant Surpluses: Weapons and Ammunition Stockpiles in South-east Europe, by Pierre Gobinet, a joint publication of the Regional Approach for Stockpile Reduction, the US Department of State’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, and the Small Arms Survey, December 2011. Special Report No. 13

    Download (2.25 MB)
  • Safer Stockpiles: Practitioners’ Experiences with Physical Security and Stockpile Management (PSSM) Assistance Programmes, edited by Benjamin King, April 2011. Occasional Paper No. 27

    Download (965.63 KB)
  • Scraping the Barrel: The Trade in Surplus Ammunition, April 2011. Issue Brief No. 2.

    Download (1.6 MB)
  • Surplus Arms in South America: A Survey, by Aaron Karp, a study by the Small Arms Survey in cooperation with the Conflict Analysis Resource Center (CERAC), August 2009. Working Paper No. 7 (also available in Spanish and Portuguese)

    Download (433.14 KB)
  • The Politics of Destroying Surplus Small Arms - Inconspicuous Disarmament, edited by Aaron Karp, published by Routledge, July 2009.

    More information
  • Conventional Ammunition in Surplus: A Reference Guide, edited by James Bevan, co-published with BICC, FAS, GRIP, and SEESAC with support from the German Federal Foreign Office, January 2008.

    More information
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Other Publications

  • Berman, Eric and Pilar Reina. 2012. 'Unplanned Explosions at Munitions Sites: Concerns and Consequences', in The Journal of ERW and Mine Action. Issue 16.2, July.

    More information
  • United States Department of State, Bureau of Political–Military Affairs. 2012. Dangerous Depots: The Growing Humanitarian Problem Posed by Aging and Poorly Maintained Munitions Storage Sites. Washington: US Department of State.

    More information
  • Berman, Eric G., Pierre Gobinet and Pilar Reina. 2011. Dangerous Stockpiles: Unplanned Explosions' High Costs, in NATO Review.

    More information
  • North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). 2010. Manual of NATO Safety Principles for the Storage of Military Ammunition and Explosives. Brussels: NATO. 

  • South Eastern and Eastern Europe Clearinghouse for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons (SEESAC). 2007. Ammunition and Explosives Storage and Safety. RMDS/G 05.40, 5th edn. Belgrade: SEESAC.

  • Regional Centre on Small Arms and Light Weapons (RECSA). 2005. Best Practice Guidelines for the Implementation of the Nairobi Declaration and the Nairobi Protocol on Small Arms and Light Weapons. Nairobi: RECSA

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Further Resources