Where could you get a nerve agent in Salisbury?

Conspiracy theorists, especially those in the mainstream media and political spheres, seem to have no real imagination these days. Just look at how they have responded to news of the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, his daughter Yulia and police Sergeant Nick Bailey in Salisbury, UK, last week.

Isn’t it just too easy to claim “Putin did it” these days? Yes, Skripal is a Russian and former spy for the UK MI6 who ended up in the UK as part of a spy exchange. And yes, there is a compulsion for western media and politicians to demonise the Russian Federation and their president every chance they get. But isn’t that particular conspiracy theory rather thoughtless – the conspiracy theory you automatically go with when you haven’t the energy or skills to actually look for something in the way of evidence.

As we would say in New Zealand – a “Clayton’s conspiracy theory.” The conspiracy theory you use when you don’t have a conspiracy theory! (For the uninformed, this comes from an old advertisement for alcohol-free drinks).

Why can’t the news media, seeing they are only speculating at this stage anyway, look at little closer to home for the source of the nerve agent used in the poisonings?

Only a short distance from Salisbury (8.1 km if you are a crow or an 18 min drive is Porton Down. This is the site of the UK Ministry of Defence’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory – known for over 100 years as one of the UK’s most secretive and controversial military research facilities. And well-known for their secretive work on chemical and biological weapons.

The map above shows how quickly one would get to Porton Down from Salisbury and back

Even closer (only a 15 min drive, or 6 km for crows) is the Defence Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Centre (the Defence CBRN Centre or DCBRNC for short) at Winterbourne Gunner in Wiltshire. It is a tri-service site, with the Royal Air Force being the lead service. The centre is responsible for all training issues relating to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) defence and warfare for the UK’s armed forces.

The map below shows how short the trip is to this facility from Salisbury.

Porton Down has barely been mentioned in the media reports of this poisoning – except more recently because experts from Porton Down are participating in the inquiry. But it seems to me rather fanciful that Russophobe conspiracy theorist Luke Harding should rave on about a weapons lab in Moscow that might not even exist as a possible source of the nerve agent and ignore this other source much, much, closer to Salisbury (see Russia’s Lab X: poison factory that helped silence Soviets’ critics).

Hopefully, the current inquiry will be open and come to a satisfactory conclusion (unlike the Litvinenko inquiry) and, given the murky world of spies and ex-spies, nothing would surprise me.

However, I do wish our mainstream media could surprise me once in a while by refusing to follow the obligatory narratives and perhaps do some speculating using real evidence.

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19 responses to “Where could you get a nerve agent in Salisbury?

  1. So many of the newspaper articles state firmly and ominously, a rare nerve agent like this can only come from a state sponsored laboratory.
    Well yeah, and Porton Down is just up the road.
    It seems Skripal was still working for M16 and met with his old recruiter Pablo Miller regularly at a restaurant in Salisbury.
    Pablo also lives in Salisbury.
    Conveniently close to Porton Down?
    All the fuss about washing clothes and bringing in the army to remove contaminated objects when the first to have anything to do with the couple, a doctor cleared Yulia’s airways, put her in the recovery position , and stayed with her for 30 minutes…. with no medical consequences whatsoever.
    Another Russian exile said Skripal had taken to visiting the Russian Embassy regularly
    Was he in danger of spilling M16 secrets?
    Was he perhaps doing a little job for M16 (to keep his pension coming) transferring a nerve toxin via his daughter, maybe ending up in Syria?
    I can think of many scenarios, but you can bet your boots this will be milked for every gain you can think of
    Getting the EU on board to stop Nordstream
    Putting more sanctions on Russia
    Getting more funding for the intelligence agencies
    “Sending a message” to Putin over Syria
    Getting a more muscular Magnitsky Act passed
    Interfering in the Russian elections… next week
    Boycotting of the World Cup in Russia

    Anyone who smells something a bit familiar and a bit putrid about all of this, here’s a few links

    read the comments which provide more links


  2. David Fierstien

    Just out of curiosity, can you also get polonium 210 just up the road?


  3. Well actually yes David, much closer to home
    Polonium is present in tobacco smoke, so a little trip to the local dairy will see you right


  4. This morning RNZ reported Theresa May as saying it is “highly likely” that Moscow was behind the attack; also that the nerve agent used, novichok, was of a family developed and produced by Russia.

    Similar reports are provided by the BBC and the Guardian.

    For a conspiracy that the UK did the deed to have any veracity, I would have to question the UK location of the chemical factory required for production of usable quantities of the nerve agent.

    The UK has been open about its production of chemical weapons. Records show the only chemical factory for nerve agents built in the UK (Nancekuke) was for sarin and VK. It produced a small amount before 1956 then was mothballed, well before novichok was developed by Russia, until it was demolished in 1980.

    So, given that the UK does not have the ability to manufacture novichok, for the conspiracy to exist, the UK would necessarily have been allowed to acquire novichok from those highly monitored and defended locations where it is produced and kept in Russia. I hardly think so.

    Ockham’s razor applies here just as much as it does in science.


  5. David, I will take a leaf out of Prime Minister May’s book and say it is “highly likely” you can get Po-210 just up the road. Now, on the basis of that, we should go to war with each other. 🙂


  6. Stuart, “highly likely” was also the phrase used in the report from the secret investigation of Litvinenko’s murder. It’s a political code for “we don’t know but we want to blame someone.”
    I expect (and it will be thoroughly disappointing) that any investigation into these poisonings will also be secret

    No state is open about its secret weapons production, storage and research – especially its chemical and biological weapons – or do you take as factual the Russian assurances that it has followed international obligations and destroyed its chemical weapons stockpile?

    But, of course, this is politics, not science. And we are in the midst of a very intense geopolitical struggle involving an information war. Unfortunately people “take sides” (or confirm biases) on the basis of minimal or manufactured evidence. And a lot of straw clutching is involved in this.

    The situation parallels that of the investigation into the tragic destruction of Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine where the joint investigation team (which included one of the possible guilty parties) ignored all the Buk missile systems under control of the Ukranian army (many situated in the eastern region) so had to go with a rather mythical and tedious transport of a system from another country – and its return after “doing the deed” – suggested by a social media activist!

    But anything goes in the geopolitical struggle. I fully expect to see a further round of sanctions and even withdrawal from the World Cup (a target British politicians have often mentioned – or let slip in unguarded moments). And I fully expect that these actions will not be based on an open or public investigation. But I would be pleased to be proved wrong for once.


  7. Reenmac, your comment brings back memories.

    I met the famous NZ Nobel winning scientist Ernie Marsden (who worked with Rutherford and Geiger), in the early 60s. Between his retirement and death he did a bit of personal research on the possible role of polonium in cigarettes as an explanation of their ability to cause cancer.

    I met Marsden as he laboured over a cigarette smoking machine in a room next to the laboratory I was working in. I have the memory of a rather pleasant and chatty elderly gentleman patiently knocking the ash off a row of smoking cigarettes as he explained his hypothesis to me.


  8. Nerve agents are still produced at Porton Down
    Novichok agents have never been used before, their properties are hard to verify
    Interesting that Porton Down , in very short order managed to identify it, despite the fact that it has never been used previously
    If they are producing small quantities of other nerve agents, to help research antidotes,why not Novichok?
    The laboratory at Porton Down is perfectly capable of producing the Novichok class of nerve agents
    Porton Down has always been highly secretive and not averse to testing its products on human guinea pigs

    Secondly, The USSR has unravelled in to many other entities
    Uzbekistan for instance, where , supposedly novichok type nerve agents were produced, and where the US assisted in dismantling the laboratory, and decontamination
    So in answer to you

    Porton Down admits to producing small amounts of nerve agents
    Uzbekistan produced Novichok
    What proof is there that Russia is producing Novichoks
    Russia has recently , and ahead of time destroyed all its stocks of chemical weapons
    US lagging behind

    Lastly, I think you’ll find it’s Occam’s razor
    Ockham sponsors fiction in NZ


  9. Ken, wonderful anecdote!


  10. I think PM May is getting in over her head on the basis of no, as yet, evidence. I suspect a strong pressure is being applied and it is part of a long-term geopolitical strategy, anyway.

    Her false bravado in the way she speaks to the representatives of the Russian Federation could have serious consequences, consequences not necessarily to the liking of May and her backers.

    Russian Senator and intelligence veteran Igor Morozov has pointed out:

    “The British must realize that they will face a very stiff response from Russia, and our position will be restrained and adequate, but bold. We will see what the London move will be and respond to this challenge.”

    The head of the Russian Federation’s Federal Council committee tasked with protecting Russia’s sovereignty, Senator Andrey Klimov, has said:

    “If the UK decides to expel Russian diplomats in connection with the Skripal case, Moscow’s response will be adequate and swift, this situation as a whole looks like a well thought-out anti-Russian move”

    Maybe “well thought-out” but a protagonist in their thinking often under-estimates possible responses of their opponent.

    This is a nasty situation.


  11. I notice that back on March 8th Dan Kaszeta ,writing for Bellingcat was preparing the ground for Novichoks
    The first mention of what may prove to be mythical Novichoks was on the very eve of Russia signing the Chemical weapons Convention in 1992
    Mirzayanov, a Russian chemist now living in the US blew the whistle on a new chemical weapon
    Extremely potent fourth-generation chemical weapons were developed in the Soviet Union and Russia from the 1970s until the early 1990s, according to a publication by two chemists, Lev Fedorov and Vil Mirzayanov in Moskovskiye Novosti weekly in 1992.[9][10] The publication appeared just on the eve of Russia’s signing of the Chemical Weapons Convention. According to Mirzayanov, the Russian Military Chemical Complex (MCC) was using defense conversion money received from the West for development of a chemical warfare facility.[2][3] Mirzayanov made his disclosure out of environmental concerns. He was a head of a counter-intelligence department and performed measurements outside the chemical weapons facilities to make sure that foreign spies could not detect any traces of production. To his horror, the levels of deadly substances were 80 times greater than the maximum safe concentration.[3] (A full account by Mirzayanov is available online.[11])
    Now, hot on the heels of Russia announcing, to the applause of the OPCW
    the destruction of all its chemical weapon stockpile


    up pops the golden goose , Novichok to lay another golden egg


  12. AS always, Alexander Mercouris can be relied on for a thoughtful and intelligent analysis. This article, “Skripal case: Theresa May now demands Russia prove itself innocent,” is certainly interesting and his arguments should be considered –

    Liked by 1 person

  13. reenmac,

    Did you actually read those references you supplied? Neither tells us that nerve agents have ever been made at Porton Down, merely that Porton Down is the UK centre for research into the effects of nerve agents, protection from them, treatment of their effects, and potential medications prophylactic against them.

    Porton Down has had about a week to run specimens through equipment specifically manufactured to rapidly identify nerve agents in case the UK is subjected to attack. Why are you surprised that they can identify an agent when both of your references tell us that their job is precisely that?

    The novichok family of nerve agents have been known about, in the “western” world, since at least the 1990s. Russia has acknowledged that they developed and manufactured them in the 1970s/1980s. So Porton Down has known about them for at least a quarter century. They are not new agents. My ageing (medical) textbook on NBC warfare covers their immediate and long term effects, and also covers potential treatments.

    Ockham’s razor – attributed to William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347), a Franciscan friar. Also known as Occam’s razor or Ocham’s razor. I guess the spelling is down to where you received your classical and scientific education. That part of mine was from a more recent Franciscan friar.


    I’m not taking a stand on causes or origins of the illness affecting the Skripals; I simply don’t have enough information from good enough sources.

    Theresa May has advisors in both the medical and chemical warfare fields, but their advice is being filtered through political minds and the public is receiving only part of the information available – that part which politicians consider that the public will find acceptable.

    The novichok family of nerve agents were not well know among the general public before they were mentioned by Theresa May, even though they were well known to the military establishment and to some of the medical establishment. It is therefore probable (but not certain) by their mention that Porton Down has identified a novochik agent in samples they were sent.

    My textbook tells me that Russia has admitted the development and manufacture of the fourth-generation novichok nerve agents and that the USA and UK have both denied manufacture of those same agents. The UK admits to manufacture of ~20 tons of sarin and test amounts of VK, both of them at its Nancekuke facility, before 1956. They claim that they have not manufactured any chemical warfare agents since then. Wikipedia appears to support those claims.

    I have no sources nor knowledge of whether other countries that have manufactured nerve agents, or which are suspected of having manufactured nerve agents, have ever produced the novichok family of agents. That also means, of course, that I am unable to rule out those 20 or so countries as a source of novichok agents.

    All I can say is that it is unlikely that the novichok agent (if that is indeed what it was) originated in the UK.

    Given all of that, and applying Ockham’s razor to the little information that is available, I think that the claims attributing the illness of the Skripals to a conspiracy originating within the UK are somewhat far-fetched.


  14. I don’t agree, Stuart.

    It would be completely normal and expected that a good quality lab dealing with chemical weapons should have stocks of this nerve agent. In fact, when the US assisted in the destruction and removal of this specific agent from the manufacturing plant in one of the ex-Soviet republics (can’t remember which at the moment) I would have exp[ected the USA and its allies to have kept some of the material for their own work. I expect this also happened when the Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles were removed and destroyed.

    Even if the sole purpose of maintaining such stocks is to assist in their detection it is completely normal for Porton Down to have stocks. The very (claimed) fact experts from Porton Down were able to identify this material so quickly suggests to the mind of this chemist that they would have at least had samples in their stocks.

    As for May’s reaction – commentators suggest she has unwillingly been pushed into this apparently strong stance. She is in an extremely weak political position at the moment and very likely unable to stand against the extreme pressure coming from her cabinet and political/ideological forces in the UK and USA.

    Her very use of words like “likely,” “probably,” and “possibly” indicates that the UK does not have any evidence that would stand up in a real couirt of law. In fact, may have no evidence except the chemical nature of the agent. And this is occurring within a manufactured atmosphere which is painting the Russian Federation as a rogue state and its president as evil. There is constant pressure to proclaim further sanctions, the expulsion of diplomats, boycotting contacts (eg World Cup), support sporting boycotts (the drug scandal) ban alternative media sources like RT and Sputnik, prevent MPs from being interviewed by these alternative agencies and to force UK citizen with programmes on those channels to withdraw. There are attempts to blame the Russian Federation for all the ills of countries like the UK, USA, and Europe – to pretend that any electoral result is caused by Russian meddling. That any social problem is being manufactured by Russian influence in social media.

    The current liberation of terrorist-held territory in Syria is also hurting those particular western political forces – they had hoped to use these head choppers to enforce another regime change. the fact that the Russian Federation is helping to prevent that is casuing a lot of angst at the moment. The international situation at the moment is very stressed.

    So there is plenty of scope for conspiracy theories.

    I do not let any state off the hook. Personally, I can see a scenario where the nerve agent came from a Russian or Russian-affiliated source. But equally, I can see it coming from a British or US source. And the fact that Porton Down is just up the road makes this very credible.

    After all, what would the Russian Federation or its president have to gain? I do not buy the fable that this helps Putin’s re-election of Sunday – if anything it would just encourage Navalny’s boycott movement. At the moment the only loser is the Russian Federation and Putin. But western ideologues have a lot to gain from this incident.

    However, as this proceeds, and if the threatened strong action is taken against the Russian Federation, I think we will all be losers. The Russian Federation is not in any mind to be pushed around anymore like this and they will retaliate against any action taken by the UK, the USA, and NATO as a result of what happened in Salisbury. Of course, they cannot directly influence the political atmosphere in the UK. But their recovery from a near complete collapse in the 90s has come a long way and they have proven capable of taking retaliatory political and economic reactions which can be very painful.


  15. Stuart
    from the link
    To help develop effective medical countermeasures and to test systems, we produce very small quantities of chemical and biological agents. They are stored securely and disposed of safely when they are no longer required.

    from Wiki
    Like other aspects of research at Porton Down, precise details of animal experiments are generally kept secret. Media reports have suggested they include exposing monkeys to anthrax, draining the blood of pigs and injecting them with E. coli bacteria, and exposing animals to a variety of lethal, toxic nerve agents.

    where the journalist witnesses a bath of VX being made up at Porton Down
    Thanks for the info on Ockham, interesting


  16. Ken,

    As a chemist you should be already aware that in order to identify a compound in a specimen it is not necessary for an investigating laboratory or agency to actually possess stocks of the compound.

    Local examples would be Hamilton Pathlab and Waikato hospital labs not requiring stocks of cholesterol in order to be able to detect cholesterol in a specimen. Supplies of the cholesterol, in precisely measured concentrations, are only needed as controls in order to accurately quantify levels of cholesterol, ie measure the concentration in serum.

    Urine drug testing, as used by commercial companies and even WINZ in Hamilton, detects the presence of meth, cannabinoids, narcotics, etc, in urine. But neither the company nor WINZ needs to stock meth, cannabinoids, narcotics, etc, in order to detect the presence of those compounds in a potential employees urine.

    Pregnancy test users do not require stocks of human choriogenic gonadotropin at home in order to detect the compound in urine.

    We have no information as to the nature of the specimen in which novichok was detected, only that it has been detected. We have no information at all whether novichok levels have been quantified.

    From the meagre information that we do have, a conclusion that Porton Down has stocks of novichok is entirely speculative and unjustified.


  17. reenmac,

    “Like other aspects of research at Porton Down, precise details of … experiments are generally kept secret.”

    There’s a reason for that.

    My textbook does provide many of the details, even though it’s not from Porton Down. Many of the first pages of the book comprise lots of legal material and warnings.

    Btw, some information that doesn’t appear to have been filtered by politicians: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/public-health-england-statement-regarding-events-in-salisbury You might want to locate Public Health England on a map.


  18. As a chemist, I would want my own standard samples – especially for a rare or unknown compound. And certainly, if I were developing methods I would absolutely need my own standard materials – either synthesised or got from elsewhere. That is why I am sure Porton Down has its own samples.

    But, yes, this is speculation on my part. I am not in the position to know for sure – few people are. All I can do is go one up on May and say my suggestion is “highly likely.” It wouldn’t stand up in court – neither would May’s current story.

    The problem is that all we have in this situation is speculation – and it appears that is all the UK government has as well. In this situation, political prejudice and confirmation bias play a huge role – as does group thinking and prevailing political pressure.

    I have more of an open mind than most on such things (I am not Russophobic) and can see possible conspiracies involving the UK and USA just as clearly as I can see possible conspiracies involving the Russian state, or Russian criminal elements.

    And if we are going to rely on speculative motives (and let’s face it the media and politicians are doing exactly that at the moment) I actually think conspiracies involving the UK state are more credible. Currently, the state and major politicians in the Russian Federation are very much losing as a result of what has happened, yet the major political forces in the US, UK and NATO (and their friends active in Russia) are winning by these actions. I think it would have been incredibly stupid of the Russian political leadership to have sanctioned this action (nothing to gain but everything to lose) – but very clever of political leadership in the US, UK or NATO to have sanctioned it.


  19. It’s pretty clear to me that the example followed for this attack was in the same spirit of that voiced by our own Minister of Defence (Gavin Williamson) last year, when he threatened enemies of the UK in the Middle East with instant death by drone.


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