Explosion Due To Hydrogen Gas Release from Cargo Aboard



On 13 January 2017, the Antigua & Barbuda registered dry cargo vessel Nortrader suffered two explosions in quick succession while anchored in Plymouth Sound, England. The vessel was loaded with a cargo of 2333 tonnes of unprocessed incinerator bottom ash.

On 10 January 2017, the master of Nortrader received instructions by email to load a full cargo of unprocessed incinerator bottom ash (U-IBA) at Plymouth, England for Beverwijk in the Netherlands.

Nortrader at Victoria Wharf, Plymouth

The email was sent from Hudig & Veder Chartering BV (H&V), a company based in the Netherlands.

It specified that the cargo was non dangerous and stated: “cargo also include some foreign materials which is no problem. Cargo can be loaded/discharged in rain.”

Nortrader berthed at Victoria Wharf, Plymouth, on 12 January. The loading procedure the same day and 2333t of U-IBA had been loaded in heavy and persistent rain.

Forecastle deck and entrance to forecastle store

After the final draught survey was completed, the master checked the weather forecast and decided to anchor of Plymouth and wait for the imminent bad weather to pass. In the afternoon, the vessel left the berth and anchored 30 minutes later in Plymouth Sound.

The next day, the bosun used the emergency fire pump from the bridge to clean the deck, as he was instructed, but he reported to the chief engineer that it was not delivering any water.

The chief engineer went to the forecastle store where the emergency fire pump main starter panel was located. After realising that the pump was running dry, he stopped the pump and then two loud explosions in quick succession occurred.

The chief engineer’s burnt parka coat

The chief engineer, who was inside the forecastle store at the time, suffered second degree burns and was airlifted to a nearby hospital. He was repatriated to Ukraine after 12 days and was declared fit for duty 4 months later.

The vessel suffered extensive damage and was out of service until 20 April.

Probable Cause

The MAIB investigation found that the explosions were caused by the ignition of hydrogen gas released from the cargo.

U-IBA from Nortrader after the explosion

Prior to this accident there had been 34 similar shipments of incinerator bottom ash from Plymouth to the Netherlands and, despite it not being listed in the International Maritime Solid Bulk Cargoes Code, no steps had been taken to seek approval from the competent authorities for its carriage.

The investigation also established that the testing protocols in place for assessing if the waste was capable of producing flammable gases were inappropriate and inadequate.

Safety lessons

  • Sea transportation of a cargo that was not included in the schedule of authorised cargoes of the International Maritime Solid Bulk Cargoes (IMSBC) Code.
  • Not conducting appropriate tests that could have identified the propensity of the cargo, U-IBA, to release hydrogen when wet.
  • The inadequacy and the inappropriateness of United Nations Test N.5 for the detection of flammable gases from non-homogeneous material.


MAIB has made safety recommendations to:

  • The Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the Environment Agency (2017/153) to work collaboratively to identify reliable methods and protocols for testing non-homogenous solid bulk cargoes for the property of evolving flammable gases when wet.
  • The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (2017/154) to update The Merchant Shipping (Carriage of Cargoes) Regulations 1999 with appropriate references to the IMSBC Code.
  • Hudig & Veder BV (2017/155) to review its operating procedures to ensure that the requirement to apply the provisions of IMSBC Code to all cargoes is clear.
  • NTO Shipping GmbH & Co.KG (2017/156) to review its safety management system to ensure that the requirement to apply the provisions of the IMSBC Code to all cargoes is clear.

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Source: MAIB


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