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Ben Robinson

Demolishing the Kremlin’s absurd theories about Novichok and Porton Down

Author(s):
Dan Kaszeta

Ever since a Russian defector and his daughter turned up ill in Salisbury in March of this year, the UK’s chemical defence laboratory at nearby Porton Down has figured in various conspiracy theories and “alternative narratives”. The story immediately became more complex when the poison involved was identified as the “Novichok” type. So-called Novichoks are a family of nerve agents designed by the former Soviet Union for chemical warfare. The later incident involving two persons in Amesbury, one of whom subsequently died, also near Porton Down, increased the frequency of Porton Down theories. All of these stories and conspiracy theories have served to cause confusion and divert attention away from the primary hypothesis – that the Russian state made the nerve agent and used it to kill and injure people in England. Both Porton Down’s existence and its proximity to the events have been used to imply that this government establishment is involved in nefarious activities.

First, let’s examine what really does happen at Porton Down. It is the headquarters of Defence Science and Technology Laboratories (DSTL), a key defence research component of the UK Ministry of Defence. DSTL has activities in other places, but its facilities at Porton Down are the UK’s research labs for defence against chemical and biological weapons. Public Health England also has facilities there, including the Rare and Imported Pathogens Laboratory. A number of spin-off businesses are at Porton Down as well, including Ploughshare Innovations and Porton BioPharma. Porton Down is an important node in the UK’s biomedical sector. Thousands of people work in and around the area. Which is an important fact. Nefarious activities in this day and age generate whistleblowers.

Porton Down is allowed to make and store small quantities of chemical warfare agents for defensive research purposes such as testing of detection methods, testing of decontamination techniques, and development of medical treatments. All of this is specified in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and heavily regulated both in UK law and regulation and by rigorous audit and inspection by the Organisation for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The fact that Porton Down may have, at any particular time, a vial of some particular chemical agent is often distorted or oversimplified into “Porton Down stores chemical agents” – implying some sort of stockpile which simply is not the case.

It is important to note that Porton Down has played a very important role in the response to the Novichok assassination attempt. It has analysed many thousands of environmental and biomedical samples as part of the investigation and has provided essential technical advice and assistance needed to treat the victims. It is the UK’s declared facility under the CWC and the one place where serious analysis of nerve agents can legally be undertaken. The OPCW uses Porton Down as part of its international network of accredited labs, and samples of potential interest in chemical warfare attacks elsewhere in the world can be tested there on behalf of the OPCW. Theories that attack the credibility of Porton Down with innuendo and rumour could serve to undermine such investigations. Russia seems to have a clear motive for undermining such investigations.

Does the UK have a Chemical Warfare Programme?

Second, let’s examine an underlying assumption. The idea that Porton Down is part of the problem and not part of the solution relies somewhat on the unspoken assumption that the UK somehow still has an offensive chemical warfare programme and that stockpiles of chemical weapons are kept at Porton Down. Does the UK have an offensive chemical warfare programmes? It is no secret that the UK developed and stockpiled such weapons at one time, but for decades now the answer has been, and is, no. The UK has acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention and enacted its provisions into domestic law. The UK joined the Organisation for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and provided detailed certifications about their chemical weapons. The OPCW frequently inspects the UK to ensure that its declarations are accurate. It is an illegal act to possess or develop chemical weapons in the UK, except in the very narrowly defined circumstances defined in the CWC treaty and subject to audit and inspection by the OPCW.

The UK was one of the first countries to have an offensive chemical warfare programme, which lasted from 1918 to the mid 1950s, with some residual mothball capabilities lingering into the 1970s. The UK had production facilities for chemical warfare agents at Sutton Oak (Merseyside) and Nancekuke (Cornwall), but these ceased active production in the 1950s. The UK halted production of chemical agents by decision of the cabinet in 1956, after effectively agreeing a division of labour with the USA and offering to focus on defensive technologies such as medical treatments and detection.

Debunking the theories

Finally, let’s examine two of the threads of the actual conspiracy theories that have been implied by Russian media outlets and social media accounts. Few have laid out an actual hypothesis in detail, but the themes and memes basically distil down to “leak” stories and “proximity” innuendo, both of which I shall dissect.

A recurring idea is that, somehow, a leak occurred at Porton Down. The leak narratives seem to rely on an idea that a toxic substance leaked out of some kind of storage and spread, as if like a gas leaking from a cylinder or some such. Like the Bhopal disaster. The Novichok in question, however, is a thick liquid, not a gas. If it leaks from a jar, it will end up on the table, and then maybe on the floor. For the leak narrative to be true, a liquid breached a container and likely a second container, for what OPCW-certified reference laboratory is going to keep such a substance sitting in a single container on a table somewhere? This liquid then escapes a room. It escapes a building, in a secure compound. It then travels miles across country to land exactly on a door handle. Without being seen or affecting anyone at all along the way, least of all the various people whose job it is to keep things in the laboratory safe. They didn’t notice liquid flying through the air and nobody else did either. And it lands on not just a random door handle. One that happens to be on the front door of a house. A house that just, by random dumb luck happens to be the residence of a defector from the Russian intelligence services. Another bit of this liquid somehow flies out of the container and out of the lab and works its way into a perfume bottle, only to be found by two unfortunate people in nearby Amesbury. Yet nobody saw this liquid flying through the air. Perhaps an explosion big enough to send globules of liquid flying through the air was somehow not noticed by anyone and did not hurt anyone? The “leak” stories are rendered so highly improbable by statistical probability and basic physics as to make them patently absurd.

The “proximity” narrative implies that the fact that Porton Down is near to Salisbury somehow means that Porton Down was responsible. The Amesbury poisonings added to this narrative. The proximity stories either are an amplification of the “leak” narrative already described above, or hint that whoever did the attack must have brought the chemical agent from Porton Down, as it is conveniently nearby. This theory, however, is based on a number of improbable assumptions. It requires the UK to have spent millions on illegal development of a nerve agent, likely requiring much trial and error. (No historical nerve agent development pathway was without serious trial and error.) Nobody leaked the existence of this illegal act.

The proximity argument would have you believe that a number of people in Porton made a quantity of this Novichok, to an exacting degree of purity, without putting contaminants in it to deliberately lead investigators astray. All of this effort was undertaken, but nobody could travel farther than a few miles out the front gate. Even though the substance is eminently stable for years in storage and weeks or months in the open environment. All of this effort could be expended only for some act literally within bicycle radius of the front gate of Porton Down? This seems an unlikely circumstance. Or, some other UK government agency independent of Porton would execute an attack literally on the doorstep of the one facility that could do the forensic work? That seems an unlikely combination of competence and incompetence.

And how far would one take a proximity argument? How about a 100 mile radius? Perhaps American and Russian commentators are unfamiliar with the compact geography of the United Kingdom. If one were to draw a 100 mile radius around Porton Down, it would include a wide swathe of the country. Such a radius would include Bath, Bristol, Cardiff, Oxford, Gloucester, the entire south coast from Torquay to Hastings, and...all of greater London. The proximity argument is absurd.

The simple fact is that a nation like the UK needs a place like Porton Down to do valuable work to protect not just the nation’s armed forces but also to protect all of us who live here. Alleging leaks and plots does not do any good for anyone. In the absence of any evidence, these stories and theories are absurd.

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