Two weeks after the unexploded ordnance (UXO) detonation in the Solomon Islands which killed two bomb-disposal experts, the Palau National Safety Office is reviewing its bomb-disposal protocols, which involve GPS mapping and dismantling in safe zones.
Ms. Eunice Akiwo of the Bureau of Domestic Affairs (BDA), which heads the bomb-removal task force in Palau, says that people are becoming “more conscious now” of the threats posed by UXOs.
The Palau National Safety Office is currently coordinating with the Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) to create a mapping system of Palau, which charts areas most contaminated by UXOs.
The Safety Office does this by incorporating records of unexploded bombs into the Palau Automated Land and Resource Information System (PALARIS) to generate a GPS map which visualizes these contaminated areas, and allows the operators to target priority sites.
While Ms. Akiwo stressed that no accidental detonations have occurred since the NPA started work in Palau, the recent Solomons explosion serves as a sobering reminder that many of the World War II-era UXOs remain active, and could go off if not treated with caution.
“Even though they’re old and rotten, the explosives are still there,” said Ms. Akiwo. “If they reach a certain temperature or are handled the wrong way, they could detonate.”
Following the death of Stephen “Luke” Atkinson in the Solomons, who worked as the NPS Program Manager in Palau for close to four years, the NPS has temporarily suspended bomb-removal efforts to review safety techniques for its own personnel and for employees at the National Safety Office. This refresher training includes classroom and field study of safe disposal and mapping techniques.
UXO disposal involves cooperation between the Ministry of State, the National Safety Office, the NPA, and the Japan Mine Action Service (JMAS). The NPA is in charge of building bomb-disposal capacity for local workers at the Safety Office and for removing UXOs on land, while JMAS, which uses the same mapping system, collects UXOs found underwater. The Minister of State chairs a UXO advisory committee that works with the Safety Office to determine how affected areas should be prioritized, using the PALARIS charts.
Ms. Akiwo says that this involves looking at how close sites are to residential areas, as well as conservation and tourist areas. She says they also have to consider development which may be underway.
“Of course, human safety is always a priority,” she said. “I also remember that when we had a sewage project underway, we had to reprioritize some areas in order to prioritize the sewer and water.”
Normally, the NPA and Safety Office document and collect any UXOs uncovered on land, or any JMAS uncovers underwater, and dispose of them with a bandsaw in a safe zone. Once the fuse is removed, the ordnance is “safe”, with no risk of explosion.
NPA representatives have said that the bandsaw technique, which involves cutting open the UXO at a safe distance, removing the fuse, and burning the contents, is by far the safest method.
However, Ms. Akiwo said that in some cases, the bombs have deteriorated to such an extent that they are more volatile to move, so they are secured where they are found and disposed of using either a controlled burning or controlled explosion method.
“Whenever UXOs are found, our specialists do a close inspection to see how deteriorated it has become,” she said. “If it has passed a certain point, even moving it could trigger an explosion, so it is safer to dispose of it right there.”
Ms. Akiwo also said that this form of inspection is sometimes performed in residential areas as well, where bombs are sometimes used for ornamental purposes.
Records taken during NPA’s first survey in Palau show that some residential areas, as well as colleges and schools, were using still-active bombs as decorations. NPA personnel removed these bombs and deactivated them by removing the fuses, or in some cases disposed of them when they were too far deteriorated.
Records show that some explosives were even discovered at Palau Community College, where active mortars were being used as bookends, while one house had a foundation entirely made of bombs.
“Our specialists had to go through them and change the foundation of the house,” said Ms. Akiwo. “Those which were not safe were taken away.”
However, Ms. Akiwo thinks that residents are becoming more conscious now of the risks posed by unexploded bombs.
“Now more than ever, we’re finding that people who discover UXOs on their property will call the Safety Office and ask about them, before using them for ornamental reasons,” she said.