The Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) in Palau, which works alongside the Palau National Safety Office to dispose of World War II-era unexploded ordnance (UXO), has suspended bomb-disposal operations this week in order to conduct refresher training for its staff.
This occurs in the wake of the UXO detonation in the Solomon Islands two weeks ago, which resulted in the death of Stephen “Luke” Atkinson, a former NPA employee in Palau.
The training involves classroom and field study on safe UXO-removal protocol, conducted by an Operations Manager. NPA management has said that it is common practice in the Humanitarian Mine Action (HMA) sector to suspend operations following an accident.
Luke Atkinson, a British national, was killed on September 20 by a mortar blast in his residence in the Solomons, along with his colleague Trent Lee, an Australian national. Investigations suggest that the pair may have been attempting to cut open the UXO in their home when it went off, something which NPA has said is against regulations.
Mr. Atkinson had worked for close to four years as the Program Manager for NPA Palau, a job that included overseeing bomb disposal and cooperation between the NPA staff and the Palau National Safety Office. He transferred to the NPA Solomon Islands Program in 2019.
Mr. Per Breivik, the NPA Director of Humanitarian Mine Action and Disarmament, said that the suspension of bomb-removal operations and the refresher training in Palau is being done as a “safeguarding measure”, to offer emotional support to former colleagues of Luke, as well as to review proper bomb-removal regulations.
“NPA wants to ensure that our national Palau staff are given some time off to mourn their manager, and for many of them their friend, who just died in a terrible accident,” said Mr. Breivik. “We also want to give everyone a refresher training covering the rules and regulations we have to follow in this line of work, due to the fatal consequences it can have to not follow them.”
Mr. Breivik says that the protocol normally practiced by the NPA involves transporting UXOs which have been identified and x-rayed to designated safe areas, and then cutting through the unexploded bombs with a hydraulic saw. The saw, he said, is specially designed to allow operators to be at a safe distance when the blade touches the bomb. The process is monitored using remote cameras. After the bomb is cut, the fuse is removed, and the remnants are taken to a fire-pit for disposal. Mr. Breivik noted that the explosive contents, when separated, burn like regular fuel, with no risk of explosion.
“This approach has been safely applied in many other countries,” said Mr. Breivik. “It effectively bypasses any need to use low-order or high-order detonations,” he added, referring to controlled explosions.
He emphasized that the tasks and areas where NPA conducts operations are selected by the Palau National Safety Office, which is in charge of all UXO-related work in Palau.
The employee training, he said, also covers a mapping project being conducted between the NPA and the Palau National Security Office. The project involves gathering information from different sources to identify UXO-contaminated areas in Palau, focusing on priority areas, and then using metal-detectors to pinpoint the exact locations of the unexploded bombs in these areas. After the UXOs are uncovered, the staff checks the area to make sure nothing is left behind, and then the UXO is taken to a designated safe zone.
Although the NPA has made no conclusive statements as to what Luke Atkinson and Trent Lee were attempting to do when the explosion occurred in the Solomons, NPA representatives have stressed that taking UXOs to residential areas is not in line with NPA protocol.
Despite this, Mr. Breivik has said that Luke has “worked for NPA and other HMA organizations for [over] 25 years in the same line of work, and was an extremely experienced and dedicated Explosive Ordnance Disposal expert”.