The Salisbury nerve gas attack: how most roads lead back to Cornwall

Posted By on 20th March 2018

20th March 2018

By Graham Smith

The international inquiry investigating the nerve agent used to attack a former Soviet spy in Salisbury will find that the chemical history of the weapon traces back to a small military base on the north coast of Cornwall.

The former Chemical Weapons Establishment at Nancekuke, dismantled more than 30 years ago, was once the world leader in the development of deadly toxins.  The nerve agent Novichok, said by Theresa May to have been used in the attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal, is a relatively modern derivative of the weapons pioneered in Cornwall.

Novichok nerve agents – also known as the “N-series” – were secretly developed by the former Soviet Union in the 1970s.  They followed the “G-series” of nerve agents made by Germany in the 1930s and the “V-series” made in Cornwall in the 1950s, which included VX gas.

The finger of suspicion points at Russia because the only known location for the large-scale manufacture of N-series nerve agents is the Russian military research base at Shikhany.

But both the N-series and the V-series are binary agents, made from two precursor chemicals that are mixed together just before use.  Chemical weapons experts say these precursors could be made at pesticide or fertiliser manufacturers almost anywhere without arousing suspicion.  The crucial component is the chemical expertise.

For decades the world leader in that chemical expertise was Nancekuke, a small outpost of the much larger Porton Down site – only eight miles from Salisbury.  Nancekuke had developed a wide range of deadly toxins, including sarin gas, as well as its lucrative contracts for manufacturing CS gas, once used routinely in Northern Ireland.

Nancekuke finally closed in the 1970s.  The British government was so keen to show the world that it had disposed of its “offensive” chemical weapons capability that in 1979 it invited more than 20 scientists and diplomats from around the world to tour the site, to ask any questions they wished, and to take photographs and drawings.

Among those to tour Nancekuke was a widely respected academic, professor Vladimir Vojvodic, who was a World Health Organisation consultant on toxicology.  Professor Vojvodic was also a Lt General in the Yugolsav army, at a time when Yugolsavia was firmly under Soviet Union control.  He died in 2008, but not before agreeing to be interviewed


Above: the 2001 ITV documentary about the Nancekuke chemical weapons factory in Cornwall.  Below: Lt General Vladimir Vojvodic, of the former Yugoslav army, who found his 1970s tour of Nancekuke "very useful."

for an ITV documentary in which he spoke of how “useful” had been his tour of Nancekuke.

Despite the briefings of Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who has explicitly accused Russia of trying to murder the Skripals, the Prime Minister has actually been more measured – saying only that the nerve agent was “of a type” developed by Russia.