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 years since the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory shut down in 1969, the Navy has discussed certain specific NRDL activities, including the lab's role in attempting to decontaminate ships irradiated in nuclear weapons tests in the South Pacific. But the Navy has glossed over much NRDL history, particularly as it pertains to the environmental assessment and cleanup of the Hunters Point Shipyard, and particularly regarding radioactive elements with life spans in the tens of thousands of years. The shipyard's radiation history has garnered little more than a few paragraphs in the environmental documents guiding cleanup of Hunters Point. In those and associated documents, the Navy mostly maintains that there are few, if any, records of what took place at the shipyard during the early years of the nuclear age. Environmental contractors hired to assess the shipyard repeatedly caution about "data gaps" in the historical record that would otherwise guide them in determining what sort of cleanup is appropriate.

Actually, though, there are records: boxes and boxes -- 650 cubic feet of boxes, to be exact -- containing correspondence and other documentation of experiments that took place at the NRDL. These documents are sitting on government shelves in the National Archives; more are in the Department of Energy's records repository. Large portions of the National Archives collection of Hunters Point documents remain classified on national security grounds. But the documents that are available offer a sobering sketch of at least part of what went on at the nuclear lab at Hunters Point.

Despite the history of nuclear experiments and carelessness those documents reveal, federal regulators have not called for the Navy to complete a comprehensive radiation survey of the entire base. "Under current technology, it's not practical, and it wouldn't even be necessary," says Steve Dean, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scientist who is working on the radiation cleanup at Hunters Point. "The Navy in that era that were handling radioactive materials knew that the stuff just couldn't be handled in a cavalier fashion, so they did a pretty good job of keeping it contained."

Leaving aside questions about the quality of that containment, the limited assessment that has been done on possible radiation dangers at Hunters Point appears to be flawed and incomplete. Much of that assessment is based on a report that, although often cited in environmental documents, apparently doesn't exist. Eight current or former buildings used by the NRDL are absent from environmental documents related to the shipyard cleanup, meaning those sites could not have been investigated for possible radiation. Also, the Navy failed to notify state health regulators that some of the buildings had nuclear histories, in apparent violation of state law. And a landfill directly adjacent to the NRDL has not been fully explored for nuclear or other toxic waste -- even though the environmental assessment commissioned by the Navy itself speculates several times that sand contaminated with nuclear fission products may have been dumped there.

Four days after he was initially interviewed for this story, Richard Mach, base realignment and closure environmental coordinator for the Navy, contacted SF Weekly to say that an assessment of the shipyard's radiological history is under way at the shipyard. "RASO the Navy's Radiological Affairs Support Office in Washington, D.C. is in the process right now of doing a Historical Radiological Assessment," Mach said. "They are going through all of their documents and records and making sure that everything has been accounted for."

Typically, Mach acknowledged, a historical assessment is one of the first tasks the Navy would complete before beginning the cleanup of a site with a radiological past. The Navy has spent more than $150 million during the past decade in the process of cleaning and removing environmental hazards; that process included a four-phase radiation cleanup project undertaken, apparently, without a basic road map. "An HRA Historical Radiological Assessment was never done," Mach said. "We are going back to do that now."

The various federal laws pertaining to base closures and environmental cleanup establish a structure in which the Navy is essentially in charge of cleaning up Hunters Point, with the EPA playing a secondary role (unless there is a dispute between the two agencies, which brings a complex form of negotiation into play). For the most part, then, the Navy, which was responsible for most of the pollution of the shipyard, is cleaning up only the problems it acknowledges it knows about. In such a situation, many incentives tend against finding the full panoply of poisons that lie in the soil and water of this former naval yard.

Researchers hired by SF Weekly and working under the direction of Dr. W. Jackson Davis, head of the environmental policy department at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and an international environmental policy consultant, reviewed the radiological portion of the environmental cleanup process at the Hunters Point Shipyard, and found that " t he scope of the Environmental Impact Statement , particularly in regards to the radiological investigations, was inadequate." The researchers' report, prepared at the Weekly's request, criticizes the breadth of the Navy's radiological testing at Hunters Point, the standards used to evaluate the tests that have been done, the reasoning that underlies a plan for limited radiological cleanup on the base, and the lack of plans for cleaning up contaminated bay sediment on Navy-controlled property just offshore of the shipyard.

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