Johnston Atoll is a grouping of four coral islands, two of which are man-made, that lie about
750 nautical miles west of Hawaii. Johnston Island is the largest of the islands in the atoll and is shaped like a caricature of an aircraft carrier. It is about a mile long and, at the widest point, has a one half of a mile girth. Splitting the island lengthwise was an 11,000-foot runway. When I lived and worked on Johnston Island in the late 1980’s, about 1,400 other souls called it home. In 2004, after about seven decades of military use, most signs of human habitation, including the runway, were obliterated. Johnston Atoll is currently occupied by the occasional sunning Hawaiian Monk Seal, fourteen species of sea birds and five species of wintering shorebirds.
Before its closure, Johnston Island was the stuff of environmentalists’ nightmares and environmental remediation scientists’ dreams. The atoll was contaminated with plutonium from nuclear warheads, it was also a RCRA Part B facility courtesy of Agent Orange from Vietnam, and it was the site of the Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System (JACADS) facility, which disposed of mustard gas, GB and VX nerve agents out of Europe from WWI and WWII. Additionally, there was the standard stuff of modern human habitation like weathered diesel, underground storage tanks filled with mystery fluids, and a broken sewer line that carried raw sewage directly into the ocean.
By the time I arrived on Johnston Atoll, the military was fully on board with environmental regulation. They had seen or heard of many fellow commanders losing rank and even sent
facilities named Leavenworth for failures to pay attention to environmental law. The military command staff of Johnston Atoll saluted smartly and made environmental concerns their very own. In fact, one of the construction projects was a brand new sewer plant. Once it was operational, however, a small problem was discovered; the rare Green Sea Turtle population markedly diminished. It seems the human waste encouraged the growth of algae that provided food for our turtles. Ah well, you can’t win them all. While I was challenged by all of the environmental hurdles, I was particularly intrigued by the plutonium contamination.
Little Johnston Atoll has a huge launch window and was used in the 1960s as the site of Operation Fishbowl, a series of high altitude atmospheric nuclear tests. In 1961, the former Soviet Union unleashed fifty atmospheric tests. The Soviets dramatically broke the moratorium on atmospheric nuclear testing because they were upset, or so they said, with France’s Pacific testing. The U.S. woke up, fumbled about, and finally put together its official response, Operation Dominic, a series of thirty-six atmospheric nuclear tests. Operation Fishbowl, which ended up being nine attempts, was a subset of Operation Dominic.The balance of Operation Dominic was conducted at Christmas Island.
Each nuclear test within a series has a name; it’s a budget and project convention. The original Operation Fishbowl series included Bluegill, Starfish, Checkmate, Kingfish and Tightrope. If a shot failed it was reattempted with ‘Prime’ added. The final tally for Operation Fishbowl on Johnston Atoll included Bluegill Prime, Bluegill Double Prime, Bluegill Triple Prime, and Starfish Prime. The test team had a spot of trouble with the Thor missiles. Operationally all tests were conducted at night and down range from Hawaii to minimize the risk of retinal damage. The poor bunnies in their cages didn’t fare so well. An old-timer on Johnston Atoll told me they tried to keep the sea birds from flying by dousing them with sea water and ended up with a large number of boiled birds in addition to blind bunnies.
Bluegill started the party when it went hot on June 2, 1962. Unfortunately, the launch team
couldn’t track it and the commander ordered the Thor missile and its warhead destroyed. Starfish came next on June 19th but was destroyed after about a minute when the Thor’s engine quit and the missile began to disintegrate. Some of the pieces fell on Johnston Island and in the lagoon. The debris was a bit contaminated with plutonium. On July 9th, Starfish Prime exceeded expectations and lit up Honolulu with it aurora 900 miles away. The electromagnetic pulse (EMP) also damaged a microwave link, set off alarms, and darkened 300 streetlights.
The major contamination of Johnston Atoll came from Bluegill Prime on the night on July 25th
when the Thor missile malfunctioned and had to be destroyed along with its warhead on the launch pad. According to the 1983 DNA 6040F Technical Report, the destruction of the warhead caused extensive radioactive contamination and the missile’s fuel explosion caused chemical contamination of the instrumentation cable vaults. While the launch pad was also seriously damaged, the program team got everything back together for the October 15th Bluegill Double Prime shot. Within a minute and a half the Thor missile was tumbling out of control and was ordered destroyed. The Checkmate shot made use of Sandia’s Strypi rocket and it went off without a hitch on October 19th. Bluegill Triple Prime lifted smartly on its Thor rocket, which finally worked. The Kingfish shot on November 1st was also successful but, of course, most everything about it is still classified. Tightrope, launched on a Nike-Hercules missile, was executed on November 3rd, 1962 and completed the Johnston Atoll Atmospheric test series. According to the same DNA Technical Report cited earlier: “At Johnston Island, there was an intense white flash. Even with high-density goggles, the burst was too bright to view, even for a few seconds. A distinct thermal pulse was also felt on the bare skin. A yellow-orange disc was formed, which transformed itself into a purple doughnut. A glowing purple cloud was faintly visible for a few minutes.”
Twenty–five years later, the final effort to clean the debris and contamination from Operation Fishbowl was about to start. According to the scientists plutonium oxide is not
soluble in the Johnston Atoll environment and it seemed to be contained. The first contractor I observed working in the Plutonium contaminated area was using commercial mining equipment. Plutonium oxide is very, very heavy compared to coral sands so the contractor brought in and built a concentrating table or shaking table that was designed for high capacity, efficient, and continuous separation of two or more materials of different specific gravities. The plutonium was then loaded into barrels for future disposal. I had expected to see a delicate, intricate scientific process and was delighted to learn that ‘simple’ worked very well.
In 1999, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) Environmental Technology Section conducted an independent verification survey of the clean storage pile at the Johnston Atoll Plutonium Contaminated Soil Remediation Project and most of the island was found to be within acceptable EPA radiation limits.
In 2002, Cindy McGovern, public affairs specialist for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which is oversaw the cleanup told a science writer for the Honolulu Advertiser that “The contaminated metal and concrete debris, and coral that did not meet the cleanup standard, were buried in the Radiological Control Area under a cap of clean coral soil that is a minimum of 2 feet thick”. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) is DNA’s successor agency and also promised to monitor the site for five years.
Let’s see, the half-life of plutonium is what? Ah, yes, 24,000 years. I guess five years ought to do it and DTRA will be long gone before the sea wall crumbles. Someday, I’ll tell the story of Runit Dome, another DNA contaminated soils project, on Eniwetok Atoll.
 Johnston Atoll National Wildlife Refuge http://www.fws.gov/refuges/profiles/index.cfm?id=12515
 Feds want to bury Johnston Island’s radioactive matter; Honolulu Advertiser; March 3, 2002