Explosives primed for test on homes built to blast

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 September, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 September, 2002, 12:00am

A specially built collection of houses, complete with crockery, refrigerators and double glazing, will be reduced to rubble tomorrow as part of an international trial to test the safe storage of high explosives.

Military researchers will detonate about 30 tonnes of high explosives in the South Australian desert, 27km north of Woomera - better known for its contentious refugee detention centre.

The tests are being carried out on behalf of military planners from Britain, Singapore, Norway and the Netherlands and are designed to assess how close ammunition and explosives can be stored to populated areas.

One of the houses is built in traditional Norwegian style, with a high roof and painted red walls. It is equipped with a fridge, wine glasses and a Baltic pine staircase - a bizarre sight in the middle of the desert. There are also Singaporean-style apartments, six commercial buildings, command and control structures, part of a field hospital, observation towers, vehicles and shipping containers.

'They don't have floor coverings, but basically they're houses you could move into tomorrow,' Bob McKenzie, the administrator of the Woomera prohibited area, said.

The explosives - about 1,600 20cm howitzer shells, supplied by the Dutch - will be buried in a concrete bunker covered by 5,000 tonnes of soil.

Among the observers will be Australia's Defence Minister Robert Hill, representatives from the participating countries and military officers from Malaysia, Germany and the United Arab Emirates. They will watch the explosion from a distance of 6km. Experts will then move into 'ground zero' and assess the damage to the structures, measuring the pressure generated by the blast and the distribution of debris. They will determine whether existing buffer zones around ammunition dumps should be increased.

In total, 10km of fibre-optic cable and 35km of data cable have been laid around the test area to transmit information on the blast.

'After World War II, there were a range of similar trials in the United States, where they arrived at a Nato standard for buffer zones for explosives,' said Steve Butler, of the Defence Science and Technology Organisation, part of Australia's Defence Department. 'With changes to the technology of explosives, it was decided to reassess the buffer zones and this is part of that assessment.'

A similar test, involving 40 tonnes of explosives, was carried out in 1999.

Mr Butler said while there would be 'a good-sized bang' it was unlikely that refugees held in the Woomera detention centre would be startled by the explosion. 'At most they will hear something like a crack of lightning on the horizon,' he said.

Since the 1950s, the 127,000 sq km prohibited area has been used for military experiments. Britain detonated nuclear warheads around Maralinga from the late 1950s to the early 1960s.