Wilson da Silva

Science journalist, feature writer and editor.

Nov 1, 1990
Published on: Reuters
1 min read

By Wilson da Silva

JOHNSTON ATOLL, Pacific Ocean – Any visitor to remote Johnston Atoll, a tiny low-lying coral island in the South Pacific, must prepare for chemical warfare.

He is fitted with a gas mask, carries a nerve gas antidote in a syringe and must be ready to jab himself within seconds of an exposure alarm sounding.

It is here, 1,200 km (720 miles) southwest of Hawaii and in an otherwise idyllic Pacific setting of palm trees and coral islets, that the United States has built the world’s largest chemical weapons destruction station.

In the first-ever media tour to the remote atoll on Tuesday, U.S. Army staff assured reporters the operation was safe.

So safe that 79 missiles with the lethal nerve agent Sarin were burnt while the group of 80 reporters visited furnaces, each wearing on his belt a gas mask and syringe pouch.

During one of the tours, a temperature fluctuation in one furnace chamber forced a plant shutdown for 44 minutes.

A tray of empty projectile casings after being decontaminated

Six times since trial burning began in June, contamination alarms have sounded throughout the facility, only to prove false readings. Some conveyor belts within the complex which carry non-lethal munitions parts have repeatedly broken down.

“When the plant operates, it operates very well, however we are seeing more problems than we had expected,” Charles Baronian, technical director of the U.S. Army’s chemical disposal programme at Johnston, said at a Monday briefing.

“Because the problems are mechanical, I would primarily characterise it as a design flaw, but not a basic flaw.”

Baronian stressed the breakdowns do not endanger safety and mostly occur in conveyor belts and other transfer points. Shutdowns occur only because site managers take no chances.

On the atoll are 54 storage bunkers, most brimming with missiles and mortars of chemical gas and liquid.

Nerve agents like Sarin, which are odourless and colourless, can seep through clothing and skin, restrict breathing, cause involuntary urination, convulsions and finally death. Mustard gas raises watery blisters hours after contact and inflames the nose and throat.

Resident Bill Knoop wrangling a snake on the island

Throughout the island, automated detectors take 29,000 readings daily from 106 monitoring stations. They scan the air in workplaces and around the island, sounding an alarm when they detect the presence of nerve agent or blister gas.

Around November 10, another 100,000 weapons arrive from Germany, taking the atoll stockpile to 6.6 per cent of U.S. chemical munitions.

Despite a feeling that the possibility of death is only a malfunction away, life is still pleasant on Johnston.

Palm trees and wire fences, softball teams and decontamination rooms, armed military police and a nine-hole golf course – they are the contrasts of the atoll.

A frigatebird perches on a reminder of the island's toxic legacy

One section of Johnston Island, the largest in the atoll, is sealed off due to a large spill of Agent Orange. In another area, the failed launch of a nuclear missile left plutonium in the water.

But this does not always bother its residents, who are mostly from the United States on contracts of six months to one year.

“We’ve got a six-lane bowling alley, movies every night, and softball is really popular,” said Curtis Rodgers, a civilian technician. “A lot of people fish out there. Scuba diving is excellent, and you can sail and water-ski.

“I’ve been living on the island two years, and if I thought there was any danger I wouldn’t be there.”