Wilson da Silva

Science journalist, feature writer and editor.

Oct 31, 1990
Published on: Reuters
1 min read
A live GB sarin projectile is put on the belt to begin the process of incinerating the weapon at Johnston Atoll

By Wilson da Silva

JOHNSTON ATOLL, Pacific Ocean – The U.S. Army is incinerating a nightmare cocktail of World War Two and Cold War chemical weapons far from its own shores, angering Pacific neighbours who fear lethal pollution.

At the first-ever media tour of the remote station, 1,200 km (720 miles) southwest of Hawaii, the U.S. Army outlined a massive programme to obliterate most of its 30,000-tonne chemical weapons stockpile by the end of the century, required by a 1985 treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The first of the nine planned incinerators is in the Pacific, a region which has undergone U.S. atmospheric atomic testing, toxic waste dumping, and where France continues to explode nuclear devices underground.

Pacific leaders, meeting in July, opposed the station saying the region should not be made the world’s dumping ground.

They were incensed to find that an additional 100,000 chemical weapons were on their way to Johnston from Germany. They are due around November 10.

On the atoll are 54 storage bunkers, most brimming with missiles and mortar bombs containing 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.

All of the atoll’s 1,400 residents are issued with gas masks which they carry in pouches along with nerve gas antidote syringes which must be injected within seconds of an exposure alarm being triggered.

Army officers, speaking to a group of 80 reporters, said on Tuesday the atoll was chosen because it stores ageing chemical weapons, long past their operational life, which are increasingly leaking, creating a lethal hazard. About 5.2 per cent of U.S. chemical weapons are held at Johnston.

Another incinerator is being built in Utah, and seven others are planned for the continental United States.

Johnston Atoll’s incinerator is a jumble of tubes and boxes three storeys high and costing 340 million dollars. Already it has destroyed 12,520 kg (27,600 pounds) of chemical munitions such as bombs, shells and mines.

It began trial operations in June, but has burned test amounts since its completion in 1986. Munitions are chopped into parts, their lethal warheads drained, and the canisters and gases incinerated at 2,000 degrees Centigrade (3,632 degrees Fahrenheit).

However due to mechanical problems it has had to be shut down for 65 days of the 85 planned for operation.

Officials stress the breakdowns are not a threat. They occur mostly in conveyor belts and other transfer points, and shutdowns happen only because site managers take no chances.

On Tuesday, reporters were touring the incinerator complex when a temperature fluctuation in one of the chambers caused a 44-minute shutdown.

Alarms at the site, which give warning of chemical release, have been activated six times, all due to false readings. The sensitivity required of instruments is so high, say Army staff, that they are open to interference, which operators are working to isolate and remove.

They say the problems encountered are not unusual for such a large and complex facility.

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

On Saturday, President George Bush met 11 Pacific leaders and during a two-hour summit said the United States had no plans to use Johnston Atoll for any other chemical munitions purpose, or as a hazardous waste disposal site, after the German weapons were incinerated.

Brigadier General Walter Busbee, chief of the U.S. Army team heading chemical weapons destruction worldwide, said burning stockpiles greater than those on the island and on their way from Germany would not be possible without a massive refitting effort.