Cape Town - The government says it is, for now, impossible to establish what happened at last week’s explosion at a munitions plant in Somerset West that killed eight people, and it could take authorities weeks, if not months, to come to a conclusion.
Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan visited the company site at Macassar where he and the Rheinmetall Denel Munitions (RDM) chief executive Norbert Schulze addressed the media on what could have happened at the N16 propellant room.
According to the company, five types of explosive propellant were being mixed “disintegrated” in the blast.
The men who died were busy unloading the explosive propellants.
Schulze explained the process: from raw materials different explosive materials are mixed together as a dough in the first building; the dough is extruded through a machine and cut into grains; the grains are dried; the grains are mixed according to clients’ specifications. It was at this stage where the explosion occurred; and the final building is a magazine where the charges are stored before being exported.
Gordhan said: “It is impossible to say how and what happened at the site. We don’t know what triggered the fire or explosion because there is very little evidence. The building was destroyed, but the police, Department of Labour and an independent investigator is on site.”
Schulze said the workers in all likelihood would have been mixing about a ton of the propellant. It would have ignited in milliseconds, he said.
“Usually we talk about ignition like burning but this was a detonation. We have no idea what caused this detonation. There was ‘hardly any evidence left’ to help with the investigation which would be a complicated process” he said.
The building is about 50m² in size and a maximum of 11 people can be in the factory at a time.
“There are normally three supervisors in the factory. Everyone gets a name badge and no one can go in there alone or without authorisation. It is always a team that goes in there,” Schultz said.
The 400 buildings at the Macassar factory were all contained by blast walls to prevent an explosion from causing a chain reaction, he said.
The company said the Macassar site was safe. “This is because RDM defines and calculates ‘explosive circles’ which means that buildings are spaced, so that if an incident does occur it cannot affect other people or another building.
“The size of the circle is determined by the operations within the building and RDM adheres to the national and international standards which make provision for the circle to include a maximum possible affected area.
“All circles are within RDM’s premises, so any possible effect is limited to the perimeter of the site. The surrounding communities could therefore not be affected by any such incidents,” the company said.