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Deadly weapons finally disappear from Pacific Atoll

5 Dec 20000

By Michael Field

Formerly one of the deadliest places on the planet, lonely Johnston Atoll has become a lot safer with the destruction of the last of the 400,000 nerve and chemical weapons stored there.

Against strong objections from Pacific nations the United States for the past decade used Johnston Atoll, halfway between Hawaii and the Marshall Islands, to destroy mortar shells, artillery shells, rockets and bombs containing mustard gas and sarin nerve agents -- six percent of the USs chemical weapons supply.

Last week the Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System (JACADS) completed the destruction of 13,302 40-year-old M23 land mines, each holding 4.7 kilograms (10.5 pounds) of lethal VX nerve agent.

The Honolulu Advertiser newspaper said JACADS had begin a 33-month clean-up of the atoll.

Guam Congressman Robert Underwood hailed the end of the weapons disposal.

"It'll take a few more months to officially close it down, but this is very, very positive news for those who are concerned about the environment and those who are concerned about using the Pacific as a dumping ground," he said in a statement.

Johnston is home to terns and noddies, shearwaters and petrels, frigate birds and boobies while the lagoon is a breeding ground for green turtles.

The atoll's total land area of just 2.6 square kilometres (one square mile) consists of a 14 kilometre (nine mile) reef, two highly modified natural islands and two man-made islands.

The main island is only a little larger than the runway down its middle with a large factory-like building on one side and on the other seedy tenement-style buildings where the 1,200 personnel live.

Access is strictly prohibited and while airline services between Honolulu and Majuro touch down, armed soldiers ensure nobody gets off.

Johnston, first sighted by a Boston brig in 1796, was annexed by Washington in 1858 under its Guano Act which claimed ownership of uninhabited Pacific islands containing guano, which is used as fertilizer.

In 1926 the atoll was established as a bird refuge and in 1934 was transferred to the US Navy for a seaplane base. After serving as a submarine supply base during World War II, the US Air Force took it over in 1948 to conduct atmospheric nuclear tests.

During tests a nuclear missile failed to lift-off and exploded, scattering radioactive plutonium and americium over a 10 hectare (25 acre) area which the US Army is now attempting to clean up.

The first chemical weapons were transported to Johnson from Okinawa in 1971. More came from Germany in 1990 and from the Solomon Islands in 1991.

When the US first proposed using Johnston to destroy weapons the 1990 Pacific Forum summit meeting in Vanuatu ended in uproar. Then Australian prime minister Bob Hawke defended the facility but other leaders condemned it and the US compromised by allowing Pacific countries to monitor its programme.

The system involved three separate incineration systems for chemical agents, contaminated metal munition parts and other contaminated material. The chemical agents are destroyed by high temperature incineration.

The US Army which controls the destruction programme, claims the disposal process generally went well with no incidents that threatened the safety of the people who work on the island.

The army has not announced how it plans to deal with the atoll after the shutdown is complete.

"The future disposition of the island is being discussed within the Department of Defense and with other agencies within the federal government," army Pacific public affairs officer Joe Bonfiglio told the Advertiser.

Forwarded by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines

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