A Christmas Island Tale

Dedicated to the Memory of Jack Livingston (1921-2007) and all the other ‘Rocket-Men’ of the Pacific

Jack Livingston told me about Christmas Island.  He’d been there in the 1960s with Holmes &

Christmas Island is the largest coral atoll in the world, measuring 248 square miles (642 square kilometers) including a large infilled lagoon. (Image courtesy NASA Earth Observatory.)

Christmas Island is the largest coral atoll in the world, measuring 248 square miles (642 square kilometers) including a large infilled lagoon. (Image courtesy NASA Earth Observatory.)

Narver preparing the abandoned island for the scientists, engineers and technicians who would run the atmospheric nuclear tests that were part of Operation Dominic.  It was the late 1980s when Jack told me his tale.  He was sitting in his office on Johnston Island and I had wandered in from down the hall to see him.  Before we venture to Christmas Island, there are some things you ought to know about Jack.

Jack managed ‘real property’ on Johnston Atoll and did so in accordance with the Air Force regulations on such things.  Holmes & Narver, the company we both worked for, was a Department of Energy, DOE, Management and Operating Contractor, but on Johnston Island, we worked for the Air Force.  Of course, an on-island DOE Contracting Officer Technical Representative made certain the contract

Mike Boat

Mike Boat

boundaries were maintained.  I was in Jack’s office because a rule change that expanded the definition of real property was being met with some resistance.  Jack was not happy.  He kept track of all real property on 3X5 ruled index cards and his space looked like a rogue library card catalogue.  If, however, you needed a 40-year old propeller for a Mike Boat, Jack could produce one in no time from one of the many places he squirreled away inventory.

Jack had his back to me as I walked into his office.  He was in uniform; an Aloha shirt-out-and a pair of Bermuda shorts, brown shoes, white socks.  Our offices were inside an old, windowless, steel building.  The mish mash of ages and types of fluorescent lights coupled with the smell of ancient paper in a humid environment provided a unique ambience.  Jack growled at me about having to keep track of chairs on an island.  He was old then, mid to late 60s, wizened and bent with curly gray hair and a yellowed complexion from too many bouts with his liver.  His face bore deep furrows born of 40 years of curing in the tropical sun.  I suggested we procure an automated property management system like the government wanted us to do.  He turned then, and I braced for the onslaught.  The old curmudgeon was smiling but there was an edge in his voice as he commanded me, “sit”.  I sat, struggling to remember I was supposed to be the boss and in charge.  Jack advised me that he and a small team had prepared, inventoried and cataloged Christmas Island for nuclear testing in a very short time period without so much as a telephone and certainly no damn computers. Continue reading

Cleaning the Fishbowl

Johnston Atoll is a grouping of four coral islands, two of which are man-made, that lie about

Johnston Atoll. The reef  was in the dark blue ocean in the foreground.

Johnston Atoll. The reef was in the dark blue ocean in the foreground.

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[1].

Agent Orange Barrels at Johnston Atoll circa 1976

Agent Orange Barrels at Johnston Atoll circa 1976

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

Boobies watching people (photo courtesy Lindsey Hayes USFW)

Boobies watching people (photo courtesy Lindsey Hayes USFW)

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

The THOR rocket launched tests on Johnston Island

The THOR rocket launched tests on Johnston Island

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

Bluegill Prime Thor Burns Before RSO Explosion.

Bluegill Prime Thor Burns Before RSO Explosion.

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

Plutonium Natural plutonium-containing mineral-doesn’t look very dangerous, does it?

Plutonium Natural plutonium-containing mineral-doesn’t look very dangerous, does it?

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”.[2] 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] Johnston Atoll National Wildlife Refuge http://www.fws.gov/refuges/profiles/index.cfm?id=12515

[2] Feds want to bury Johnston Island’s radioactive matter; Honolulu Advertiser; March 3, 2002

Smart Rocks, Brilliant Pebbles and All That Political Jazz

Most people think President Reagan’s administration hatched the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) idea, which is lovingly referred to as Star Wars defense. In a nutshell, the Reagan administration figured that well over 100,000 nuclear weapons in the U.S. and Russian

X-ray laser bakes solid plasma from aluminum foil

X-ray laser bakes solid plasma from aluminum foil

inventories were adequate and we ought to spend some time and money figuring out how to protect the country from them. The effort to develop a mostly non-nuclear global, or at least the whole of the continental U.S., shield was the SDI toolbox. Some of the tools included ground based interceptors, which were basic missile interceptors, Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) like railguns, X-Ray and Chemical LASERS, and kinetic energy weapons like Brilliant Pebbles, which came from the earlier Smart Rocks.

Beginning with Eisenhower, every administration has dabbled in the development of Star

Shown in this 1958 photograph are four of the twelve missiles of D Battery, 9th AAA Missile Battalion, Angel Island. The missiles were stored underground, and were raised only for maintenance or firing. the site was razed when the missiles were removed from the island in 1962.

Shown in this 1958 photograph are four of the twelve missiles of D Battery, 9th AAA Missile Battalion, Angel Island. The missiles were stored underground, and were raised only for maintenance or firing. the site was razed when the missiles were removed from the island in 1962.

Wars defense technology. And the opposing side, whoever they are at the time, screams bloody murder about the programs.  The scientists, engineers, and technicians who support the various categories of Star Wars technology just kept on working as the program names and proportionate funding changed. Eisenhower, for example, was spending about $30 billion a year on missile technology like the Nike, which was designed to take down airplanes delivering nuclear bombs.

Although the Soviets certainly could use airplanes, they were never huge ‘deliver-the-bomb-by-airplane’ proponents and, in 1957, the Soviet Union demonstrated its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) prowess. Oops! Time for plan B.

Project Defender was born to beat the ICBM threat. Billions of dollars were redirected and thousands of scientists and technical staff were on the hunt for advanced anti-ICBM technology. I am a beneficiary of that effort. My dad worked for years making a living for our family constructing Minuteman missile sites in Montana. The nation had turned on a dime.

President Kennedy’s administration experienced similar shock therapy in 1961 when the old

Semipalatinsk Polygon — the Soviet nuclear testing site in the northeast of Kazakhstan

Semipalatinsk Polygon — the Soviet nuclear testing site in the northeast of Kazakhstan

Soviet Union broke a moratorium on atmospheric nuclear testing by detonating fifty nuclear weapons in the atmosphere between January and April. Oops!

Rewinding to 1958, we find a world increasingly aware of the dangers of nuclear fallout and great pressure was applied to end atmospheric testing. In the George Washington University’s National Security Archives, The Making of the Limited Test Ban Treaty, 1958-1963 edited by William Burr and Hector L. Montford;  “The Soviets, who had been calling for a test ban since the mid-1950s, took a major initiative in early 1958 when they called for an American-British-Soviet test moratorium.”[1] This push put the ball firmly in the Kennedy administration’s court. President Kennedy worked tirelessly across the aisles of congress to achieve the 1958 atmospheric nuclear testing moratorium that the Soviets had proposed. Kennedy was attacked by everyone from the scientific and military right to the progressive left, he suffered great political pain and suffering but, to his great credit, he made the moratorium work.

During the moratorium, U.S.nuclear capability declined. The infrastructure fell into disrepair

RB-57D flying toward an Operation Dominic mushroom cloud. (Response to Soviet tests)

RB-57D flying toward an Operation Dominic mushroom cloud. (Response to Soviet tests)

and scientific and technical staff took their skill sets and left for other jobs on the ‘outside’. When the soviets let loose with their ‘in-your-face’ fifty test series in 1961, President Kennedy looked to the nuclear science guys left at the Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia National laboratories and directed that we show ‘em OUR nuclear stuff. Well….we couldn’t do it. In the four months it took the Soviet Union to successfully unleash fifty atmospheric nukes, the U.S. could barely figure out what was needed to restart the program. In fact, it would be about two years before we could respond and by then we were off to other nuclear treaty negotiations. Negotiations notwithstanding the U.S. responded with Operation Dominic a series of 36 Nuclear Tests.

Project Defender, the 1958 response to President Eisenhower’s ‘oops’, included one of my personal favorites, the Ballistic Missile Boost Intercepts (BaMBI or Bambi) project. It was one of the first kinetic energy designs and has a lovely timeline that illustrates the continuity of programs funded under different administrations on both sides of the aisle. Remember, when the politicians howl like a pack of coyotes, the scientists and technicians keep on trucking. Missile interceptors are akin to someone shooting a gun then another marksman shoots the bullet out of the air; they are land based. Kinetic energy designs, on the other hand, take advantage of the energy stored in a system due to acceleration and use it to destroy a missile on the rise; they are space based.

bpi_conoThis paragraph provides a brief refresher on kinetic energy. One cannot see kinetic energy (or any other type of energy) but one can see the effects of energy so any example given will always illustrate the effects of the energy rather than looking directly at the energy. Kinetic energy derives from motion; orbital motion as in galaxies, stars, planets, satellites, or space stations; linear motion planes, trains, and automobiles; random linear motion illustrated by molecular vibrations, parabolic motion throwing a basketball or shooting a bullet, rotational motion as in wheels in motion, gyroscopes, or rolling balls. It is from measuring the effects of energy that we know that kinetic energy is one half of the mass times the square of velocity. Theoretically, if a relatively small rock can be lifted into space and get itself in front of a missile just going into space, the kinetic energy of that little rock will blow the missile into bits. The computer simulations performed during Project Defender indicated that “…a nose cone traveling at ICBM velocities in collision with one pound of material releases the energy equivalent of 6 pounds of TNT. In a word, the kinetic energy at that velocity exceeds the chemical energy available at that mass.” [2] Okay, now all we needed were smart rocks that would get in front of missiles lifting off the planet.

The Bambi project is straight out of the best of Greek mythology. There would be hundreds of battle stations orbiting the earth, each with special sensors to read the plasma plumes emitted by enemy missiles. It is heady stuff for a Star Trek fan. The weapons from the battle stations would simply smash into the rising enemy missile. Just in case it missed, the weapon would simultaneously release a 60-foot rotating wire net with deadly steel rocklets woven into it.  The Atlas and Titan missiles provided a test bed for parts of this plan. As a 16-year old kid, I worked a veritype machine making wire identification tags for the Atlas Booster rockets being tested on stands at Edwards Air force Base out of Lancaster, CA. As we would wait for the X-15 to land on the dry lake bed at Edwards, I dreamed of all the wonderful things I would do as a space cadet.

Through successive administrations, wire nets led to smart rocks led to smaller and even

Brilliant Pebbles as originally envisioned

Brilliant Pebbles as originally envisioned

smarter brilliant pebbles. I worked at the Nevada Test Site (NTS) when Brilliant Pebbles was brought back there for further indoctrination and rehabilitation. Local gossip had it that when they tested the little guys in space Brilliant Pebbles performed magnificently. Once deployed, those brilliant chips off the old smart rock took note of the speed and other attributes of the deploying space vehicle and tried really, really hard to kill it. Oops, those were the ‘good’ guys.

It was most fortunate that they were able to scoop them all back up and bring them back to earth, and to the NTS. A brilliant pebble was tethered to a tower and its fuzzy logic was reprogrammed to make it socially more acceptable so that it only got in front of and destroyed the bad guys’ rockets. Rumor was that it next developed a mind of its own and refused to sacrifice itself. Not good when committing suicide is its primary function. The will of the brilliant pebbles’ creator won, however, and Brilliant Pebbles was ready for duty, once again. By then President Clinton’s administration denied funding to the project, preferring instead to focus on land based interceptors and regional, rather than global protection The Brilliant Pebbles effort either finally died or went very deep.

Interceptor test in Kwajalein Atoll

Interceptor test in Kwajalein Atoll

Ground based interceptors have enjoyed some excellent successes in tests in the Pacific Missile Range. The technology has advanced smartly and it is clear that ‘our’ bullets can shoot ‘their’ bullets out of the air. Given the reload time for missile launches, I hope we have a lot of them and they can hit their targets the first time, every time.

The political jazz and its patter continue. In the peculiar subject area of defense weapons development, each president and administration in turn has been raked over the coals by the party out of office. Senator Obama was a fierce critic of defense program spending.  Back in Reagan’s day, Senator John Kerry was adamant that Star Wars was a ‘cancer’.  President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry are singing a different tune at the moment. Perhaps they are even grateful to the H.W

All that political jazz

All that political jazz

Bush and Clinton administrations for the regional missile defenses they’ve suddenly discovered and deployed. They are playing that Cold War (1947-1991) favorite Fear Rumble by the Brinksmanship Jazz quartet-US. et. al. versus N. Korea, China and Russia. It is a game and it is played by all administrations. The game is dangerous and somewhere, somehow, now or in the future, some idiot is going to make a misstep and we’ll all be fighting for survival.

Through and over everything, I still like smart rocks, brilliant pebbles and all that jazz.



[1] The Making of the Limited Test Ban Treaty, 1958-1963; William Burr and Hector L. Montford, editors; http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB94/

[2]Harold N. Beveridge, “Defender Introduction,” in Ballistic Missile Defense Program of the Advanced Research Projects Agency, A Review of Project Defender for the Director of Defense Research and Engineering, 25-29 July 1960, Volume I, p. 17 (hereafter Project Defender, 1960, Vol. I).