If Area 51 is for the US, it is Porton Down for the United Kingdom. This secret site in Britain has been shrouded in mystery for more than 100 years. But this week, the secretive base became the centre of one of the biggest diplomatic crises which the United Kingdom has faced in the recent years. Experts in Porton Down helped to identify the nerve agent which resulted in the murder of a former Russian spy.
The Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with VX nerve agents last week, and now they are fighting for life in a hospital. Researchers in Porton Down soon identified the nerve agent which was used for the attack, and also allegedly found the Russian hand behind the crime.
Porton Down: Britain's Area 51
Touted to be one of the most secretive military sites, Porton Down is one of the oldest chemical warfare research installations in the world. The research facility was opened in 1916 to test chemical weapons during the first World War.
Initially, the researchers in Porton Down developed chemical weapons like chlorine, mustard gas and phosgene which Britain used in the world war. After the end of World War I, the British government decided to continue works at the site, and by 1930, it emerged as chemical defence experimental station.
By the time of World War II, researchers at Porton Down developed chemical weapons like nitrogen mustard, and they also formulated a nerve agent named Sarin. In 1952, Porton Down developed a deadly VX nerve agent, the first of its kind which will result in painful deaths.
Now, Britain says that the main purpose of Porton Down is to support the military and to combat terrorist activities. It was researchers from Porton Down who created world's first chemical and biological weapons.
"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," says the government website.
Humans used as guinea pigs
Porton Down has been facing controversies since its establishment in 1916, as it conducted its experiments on humans. According to reports, more than 20,000 people have taken part in various nerve agent experiments.Some of the common tests included going into gas chambers, repeated exposure to nerve agents, psychological tests and tests on bare skin.
Many skeptics have blamed that humans are being treated as guinea pigs in Porton Down. Adding heat to their claims, in 1953, Ronald Maddison, a leading aircraftman lost his life after taking part in a sarin nerve agent toxicity test.
However, the British Government says that experiments on humans are necessary to better the standard of the country's military.
"Without their involvement, we could not have developed the highly effective protective clothing and medical countermeasures that our armed forces rely on. We still carry out trials with human volunteers to make protective equipment easier to wear and to develop better training procedures. These trials comply with all nationally and internationally accepted ethical standards," says the government website.
Apart from chemical weapons, it is also believed that viruses of deadly diseases like SARS, plague, anthrax, and Ebola are stored in this secretive base.
A group of conspiracy theorists even claim that alien bodies are hidden in Porton Down. However, the British government has denied that there are any living or dead alien bodies in the base.