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Porton Down, Near Salisbury in Wiltshire, UK

Porton Down is a huge scientific research establishment based close to the city of Salisbury.

Here we try and answer some of the most frequently asked questions... 

Fresh Interest about Porton Down, and what happens there, began after the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei & Yulia Skripal in Salisbury on 4 March 2018. That led to increased tensions between the UK and Russia. Relations between the two hit an all time low.

The toxic substance used on 66-year-old Sergei and his 33-year-old daughter needed to be identified. That's where the laboratories at Porton Down came in.

Tests to identify that deadly 'nerve agent' were done at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory [Dstl] at Porton Down.

A world of secrecy lies behind the entrance sign which stands on the grass verge outside Porton Down Science Campus
A world of secrecy lies behind the entrance to Porton Down


Where is Porton Down?

Located near the village of Porton, approximately 8 miles N/E of Salisbury in Wiltshire, Porton Down is where you will find two British Government facilities.

They are Dstl and Public Health England.

Porton Down is an important facility for Great Britain with its headquarters employing some of the best and most highly qualified scientists.

Here is where much of the UK's top-secret military research is done.

A scientist is holding and studying fragments of a bomb in the Forensic Explosives Laboratory at Porton Down
A scientist studies fragments of a bomb in the Forensic Explosives Lab at Porton Down
(image: Crown Copyright)

Why is Porton Down important?

Porton Down was set-up in 1916 after the German's carried out deadly gas attacks during World War One.

Terrible poisons such as 'chlorine' and 'mustard gas' killed thousands of our soldiers. At the time scientists at Porton Down began ground breaking work on developing gas masks and making similar weapons to use against the Germans.

Porton Down has been home to research laboratories for more than 100 years and is now regarded as one of the most secretive military research facilities in the whole of the United Kingdom.

A map of Porton Down viewed from a satellite clearly shows the sheer scale of the site which has laboratories and buildings spread over an area of about seven thousand acres
Porton Down viewed by satellite - the site covers an incredible 7,000 acres

(image: Google Maps)

The laboratories are spread over an area of about 7,000 acres - equivalent to 3,500 football pitches!

It is one of the main government organisations dedicated to science and technology, especially when it comes to defence and security.

Porton Down's work also focuses on research into some of the world's deadliest diseases.

A female technician at Porton Down is working in the laboratory carrying out tests on dangerous substances but looking through the safety screen of a special laboratory glove box
A Porton Down technician works with dangerous substances from the safety of laboratory 'glove box'

(image: Crown Copyright)

What does Porton Down do?

Much of what goes on at Porton Down is 'top secret'.

Their work is 'highly classified'. That's so other countries can't steal, reproduce, or use the research against the UK.

One of Porton Down's jobs is to make sure our military and the UK public are kept safe with the latest scientific developments.

That could be anything from protective clothing, improving GPS location technology, or protecting the public from outbreaks of infections like E.coli.

A lot of the work done at Porton Down is for the Ministry of Defence (MOD). Porton Down scientists also work with over 40 other other government departments.

If you look at a map of the land around the site it will almost certainly be marked as 'Danger Area' which adds to the mystery and secrecy.

A Danger Area sign hanging on metal five bar gate adds to the secrecy and mystery as you look across an open field towards Porton Down
'Danger Area' sign adds to the element of secrecy and mystery in the view across Porton Down

(image: Peter Facey)

Do Scientists at Porton Down use animals?

There have been plenty of scandals over the years surrounding the labs at Porton Down.

The main ones are about experimenting on animals and human testing. Over the past 100 years more than 20,000 human volunteers have taken part in tests at Porton Down. Human trials of various sorts continue to this day.

In 2004 researchers were accused of unlawfully killing a man with the deadly toxin 'sarin'. That case was about leading Aircraftman Ronald Maddison who died in 1953. Maddison is the only UK Armed Forces member to have died as a direct result of human experimental tests at Porton Down.

Since the 1950's Porton Down has worked on medicines that can be used to prevent or stop the effects of chemical weapons on people. This work began when the UK's Chemical & Biological weapons programme was shut down.

Porton Down makes a very small quantity of chemical and biological agents which are securely stored and disposed of safely when no longer needed.

A number of very old gas masks are displayed on a table at Porton Down which began developing gas masks and chemical weapons during World War One
Porton Down first developed gas masks and chemical weapons during World War One


Who works at Porton Down?

In October 2017, one of Porton Down's oldest surviving retired scientists, Gilbert Lewis, made a return visit to the laboratories to mark is 100th birthday.

Gilbert was one of the many specialists whose job included working on cutting edge equipment for use in chemical warfare, and developing respirators to protect troops and civilians.

Retired Porton Down scientist Gilbert Lewis tries on a modern style respirator. Gilbert worked on developing respirators during World War Two and the Cold War
Ex-Porton Down scientist Gilbert Lewis worked on developing respirators during WWII and the Cold War

(image: Crown Copyright)

Staff at Porton Down rarely, if ever, talk about their work. These chemical and biological experts are sworn to secrecy.

In June 2016 the BBC were allowed into the 'secret' facility to make a special documentary.

It allowed viewers to see behind the scenes at things like how scientists at Porton Down test biological and chemical weapons, or how they protect people from serious illnesses like Ebola, and work to ensure the technology given to our soldiers is up to the job.

Dr. Jonathan Lyle, who was Chief Executive of Porton Down at the time of the making of the programme, said cameras were filming over the course of many, many weeks,

Doctor Jonathan Lyle Chief Executive of DSTL Porton Down sits at a desk. Doctor Lyle became CEO on March 5th 2012
In charge of the secrets, Dr. Jonathan Lyle, Chief Executive DSTL Porton Down

(image: Crown Copyright) 

Scandals & Aliens at Porton Down

Dr. Lyle ran the 'top secret' Porton Down labs from March 2012 until September 2017, and had to make sure the scientific work there remained under wraps.

In January 2018 Gary Aitkenhead became the new CEO of Dstl Porton Down.

Porton Down shares something in common with places like Area 51 and Roswell. They are all associated with Flying Saucers, UFOs and stories about aliens.

The true conspiracy theorists believe that bodies of aliens are taken to Porton Down when the extra-terrestrial visitors arrive on Earth.

Dstl's answer to that is: "No aliens, either alive or dead have ever been taken to Porton Down or any other Dstl site."

An alien life-form from outer space stands among a backdrop of the stars and the Universe
The official answer: "No aliens, either alive or dead have ever been taken to Porton Down or any other Dstl site."


What about their work with chemical weapons, like the one used on Sergei & Yulia Skripal?

On Thursday 15 March 2018, 11 days after the 'nerve agent' attack on ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, the UK Defence secretary Gavin Williamson pledged an extra £48 million Porton Down.

The laboratories managed to identify the poison used in the Skripal incident as 'novichok'. It is a weapons grade 'nerve agent'.

Translated  from Russian 'novichok' means 'newcomer' and is a series of nerve agents developed by the Soviet Union and Russia. The scientists there claim these agents are the deadliest ever made.

The experts at Porton Down now face dealing with possible future chemical attacks from Russia.

Two people in protective Hazmat chemical suits work at the site of the contaminated park bench in Salisbury where Sergei and Yulia were found
Hazmat team at the 'contaminated' bench in Salisbury where Sergei & Yulia were found


Scientists at Dstl not only tested and identified the deadly poison used on the Skripals, they also took charge of the huge clean-up underway in Salisbury to make the affected areas safe again.

News from Dstl Porton Down

'Trial date' set for Salisbury man charged with attempted murder

Wednesday 8th July, 2020

26 year old Kyle Christopher Thomas is accused of attacking his father at his home in Porton last month.

More news...

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