Fallout

How nuclear researchers handled -- and grossly mishandled -- the Cold War's most dangerous radioactive substances at a top-secret lab inside the Hunters Point Shipyard. The same shipyard the city wants to remake as San Francisco's newest neighborhood.

In the context of the times, the scientists of the NRDL served their country well. In the context of the times, it is understandable that the research conducted by these scientists was sealed away from public view. But that was then, not now. Public security, now, may depend more on disclosure than secrecy, and, today, heroism might be measured in the ability to acknowledge, and faithfully rectify, mistakes made in decades past.

The U.S. Navy has not fully disclosed the history of either the Hunters Point Shipyard or the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory, or the true nature of the environmental hazards that were left behind at the naval base. Navy officials have claimed not to know -- at least, not to have documentation of -- precisely what toxins are in, on, and around the shipyard. Clearly, some of this ignorance is willful. The NRDL documents declassified at the request of SF Weekly have long been available to the Navy. And there is a trove of thousands more research documents sitting on the shelves of the National Archives and Records Administration in San Bruno, among other records repositories. The Navy and other authorized government agencies could review these documents, which are not available to the public, at any time.

Despite millions of dollars the Navy has spent on fits and spurts of cleanup, its own contractors are continuously surprised by the toxins that they find. The surprises continue, yet the Navy refuses to undertake the sort of total-shipyard sampling that might identify just what is where.

Similarly, the Navy position on the Hunters Point landfill -- that it has no way to know what is in the landfill, but the landfill would be safe if capped -- is not only logically inconsistent; it may also be simply wrong, given the still-classified records that seem to have been left untouched.

The most dangerous radioactive poisons used at the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory have not vanished. They remain somewhere -- the former naval yard, the Farallon Island Nuclear Waste Site, or somewhere else -- and they will not be gone for thousands, or even tens of thousands, of years. Somewhere, we are living with them. The question is whether we will make reasonable efforts to find them, so we can monitor the dangers they pose, or if we will continue to pretend, in ignorance of the facts, that all is well.

San Francisco's political leaders have made clear their desire -- even lust -- to gain title to the Hunters Point Shipyard, despite a pattern of inadequate cleanup on the 500 acres where thousands of San Franciscans are expected to live, work, and play. The risks of such a transfer are real, and lasting.

"I personally would be very concerned about any transfer of that property to the city until the consequences of that transfer were really, thoroughly understood, and that means careful examination of exactly what's in that landfill site," says Dr. Davis. "My gosh, to cap a Superfund site and give it to the city and say everything is fine: That's policy nonsense.

"It does not serve the people of San Francisco."

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