Palmyra pushed into Nuclear Age

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Palmyra pushed into Nuclear Age


First of a four part series on the state of Palmyra in 1979, when attention was drawn to it as a potential storage site for nuclear waste. Part one gives a general description of life on the island now, and the dangers of using it for storing nuclear waste.


Bob Krauss


Hawaii State Library


The Honolulu Advertiser




© The Honolulu Advertiser, used here by permission



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Palmyra: Pushed into Nuclear Age

Photo Caption (page 1): Lagoon In foreground is the proposed dump site for international nuclear wastes.
Photo Caption (page 2): Concrete machine gun nests are "washed" into the ocean as the atoll's shoreline is constantly changed by the effects of the ocean's waves.

Remote Palmyra Atoll has been in the news since being named_a possible site for storage of nuclear wastes. So little is known about the island that The Advertiser sent columnist Bob Krauss on a chartered flight to Palmyra. Here is his first eye-witness report.

PALMYRA ATOLL — There is no island in the Pacific more beautiful than this tiny atoll which has been named a possible storage dump for international nuclear wastes. Palmyra is a Hollywood movie set of the South Seas. From the sea, the island is a shaggy coconut grove floating on the ocean. From the air, Palmyra is a limpid lagoon with a dainty necklace of green. The atoll teems with life; on the land, in the air, under the water.

One reason is the unusual amount of rain which falls on the island —160 inches a year. All this fresh water encourages lush, tropical vegetation that smothers the land. Coconut palms here sprout like weeds. The naupaka (scaevola) along the beach towers 15 feet into the air. Beach heliotrope grows even higher. There are ironwood, kamani, a few hala (pandanu)l trees but no banana or flowering trees. John Bryden, manager of Palmyra's copra plantation, explained that this growth was killed in 1957 when giant waves washed over much of the atoll. The waves uprooted cement machine gun nests and concrete bunkers and tossed them about like tinker toys.

Since then, waves have eaten away portions of the island and are filling in others. Today, cement gun emplacements which were built high and dry on the land are out in the ocean. The same thing could probably happen to stored nuclear wastes. I would say the atoll is constantly in motion." said Bryden. This is because the island is as much in the ocean as on it. No part of it rises naturally more than a few feet above sea level, although bunkers have been built up to about 20 feet. Dig down three or four feet and you strike water. A major problem here has always been corrosion. During World War II equipment rusted so rapidly that mechanics sprayed the underside of engines with a film of oil every day to keep them operating.

A map of ocean currents shows that Palmyra is in the northern equatorial current and on the fringe of the counter-equatorial current. This means that any leakage of radioactive nuclear waste would be swept by the equatorial current toward the west, then north past Japan. east again along the Alaskan coastline. then down past Canada and California before swinging west across the Pacific once more. The counter-equatorial current goes the other way. and could spew radioactive waste from Palmyra into the South Pacific ocean current system. which flows north along South America in the east and south along Australia and the fringe of Southeast Asia in the west.

This is the paradox of Palmyra. Nine hundred miles south of Hawaii, the atoll is remote from population centers but very much part of our space-age world. It took us five hours to fly here from Honolulu in a vintage World War II Lockheed Lodestar, which has the range to fly this far and the capability of landing on a 3.500-feet-long landing air strip. We brought a tractor tire, some baby chicks, cigarettes and the first mail which has been delivered on Palmyra in two months.

No airlines fly to Palmyra. The island is on no shipping line. Yet, we found graffiti on the walls of old buildings which provide a picturesque record of frequent visits by pleasure yachts on their way up from or sailing down to Tahiti from Honolulu. One crew left a reminder of the July 4, 1977 hermit crab races. The Camille from New Zealand arrived on July 19, 1978. The Ishmael was here from August to October 1978.

I was walking down the airstrip on my way to the beach when an airplane motor sounded in the lonely, boundless sky. A little twin-engined Cessna, up from Fiji to scout a sunken ship at nearby Washington Atoll for salvage, banked and landed as casually as if the pilot were going to the bathroom. All this means that Palmyra would be about as secure a storage depot for nuclear wastes as a barge anchored in the ocean. Ainsley Fullard-Leo, one of three brothers from Hawaii who own the atoll, showed us where, he was told by a government official, a shallow lagoon would be filled in and built up to house a concrete-lined dump where the waste would be stored in steel containers encased in concrete. Fullard-Leo said he understood the dump would be open at the top.

Canadian oil man N. P. Urichuk, who arrived on the twin-engine Cessna. said he's afraid the dump would be an open invitation to any revolutionary, with a small ship or plane, to lob a conventional bomb and turn the whole Pacific into a nuclear sewer. So Palmyra is where the centuries-old lifestyle of the Pacific Islander is in direct confrontation with the nuclear age. There is no telephone on the atoll. Yet, the manager of the plantation is in daily radio contact with the University of Hawaii in Honolulu.

The Gilbertese plantation workers here have never heard of nuclear waste. And they had never watched television until they saw themselves night before last via videotape shot by developer Mike Shay who took movies of the island to show potential investors the potential of a fishing resort on Palmyra. He brought along a portable, battery-powered TV set to entertain the inhabitants. The plan was to show them "Jaws" as their introduction to the wonderful world of television. But something went wrong and the fearsome footage of a man-eating shark ended up as meaningless blips and a soundtrack that sounded like Donald Duck.

"This is about the last Pacific paradise that's left," said Bob Nielson. one of the lessees for the copra and fishing rights on the island. "It would be terrible to use it as a nuclear dump." His partner, Bryden, said he feels there must be a safer way to store nuclear waste than on a vulnerable Pacific atoll. Fullard-Leo said he and his brothers have received letters and phone calls from concerned people around the world who have read that the U.S. government may attempt to store nuclear wastes on Palmyra. "We have no intention for selling the island for that purpose," he said. He said that since World War II they have received offers from people who wanted to use the island for a nudist colony, a religious retreat, a Swiss watch assembly plant and a gambling center.

TOMORROW in The Advertiser: A day in the life of a copra plantation.

Original Format

Newspaper Article


Bob Krauss, “Palmyra pushed into Nuclear Age,” Palmyra Archive, accessed October 25, 2020,


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