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.

The landfill that sits in front of the former NRDL headquarters raises special questions. The Navy's own assessment speculates, several times, that the landfill area contains radioactive sand used in attempts to decontaminate ships employed in atomic testing. Radioactivity found at the landfill has been blamed on dials, illuminated with radium paint, taken from decommissioned ships -- even when excavation has located no such dials. Given the cavalier attitude many NRDL leaders exhibited toward radiation in many newly declassified documents, it is certainly reasonable to wonder whether at least some of the radioactive materials experimented with in the lab's early years might have been discarded in the landfill.

So far, however, the Navy has assumed and remained in a tortured position in regard to the landfill. The Navy asserts that it has essentially no records about, and so simply does not know, much of what was dumped in the landfill. At the same time, the Navy has said that the landfill is too dangerous to thoroughly investigate, and that the safest way to deal with it is to place a permanent cap on top of it. (An interim cap has already been put in place; no official decision has been made on a long-term solution.)

Dr. Davis, one of the world's leading authorities on environmental contamination, says that capping the landfill is an inappropriate and ineffective response to significant toxic contamination, and especially to potential contamination with radiation sources that have half-lives in the thousands of years. The cap, Davis says, should be removed and the landfill systematically examined for environmental hazards.

"It's clear that that was a very, very toxic industrial facility, and it was operating long before there were any sensible regulations in place to govern that kind of thing," Davis says. "So, as far as I'm concerned, that's an environmental land mine, and the cap that is put across it is mainly a cap that keeps it out of our sight.

"But as we know, just because things are out of sight doesn't mean that they're not dangerous."

During its 23-year life span, the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory at the San Francisco Naval Shipyard at Hunters Point served all branches of the U.S. military and became the military's chief research facility for studying the effects of radiation. The lab was at the heart of U.S. nuclear defense policy, yet it started by accident.The first atomic bomb, nicknamed "Fat Man," was exploded in a test in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945. The operation, code-named Trinity, was the culmination of the work of the Manhattan Project, in which American scientists were racing against German scientists for the successful production of the first atomic bomb. Within hours of the successful test, the USS Indianapolis left San Francisco for the South Pacific, carrying a similar bomb, this one called "Little Boy." On Aug. 6, Little Boy was loaded onto a U.S. B-29 bomber named the Enola Gay, which dropped it on Hiroshima, Japan. The city was instantly devastated, with more than 130,000 people killed and thousands more suffering radiation poisoning.

Three days later, the U.S. dropped a similar bomb on Nagasaki, killing or maiming at least 145,000 more people. Japan surrendered within weeks. Even though much of Europe and Asia lay in ruins, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, allies in the fight against the Axis powers, were already eyeing each other warily and would soon enter the long contest for world domination known as the Cold War. Conventional wisdom was that the next war would surely involve atomic weapons, and government leaders believed that the United States could and should develop the means of preparing for and defending itself against nuclear attack.

In July 1946, the United States Navy engaged in Operation Crossroads, two widely publicized atomic bomb tests staged near the Bikini Islands in the South Pacific. The first of the weapons tested, known as "Shot Able," was dropped on July 1, 1946, and exploded in the air, in a manner similar to the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The second device, called "Shot Baker," was an underwater bomb set off on July 25, 1946. The blast created an unexpectedly large column of water -- about 2 million tons' worth -- that reached a mile into the sky and then rained high amounts of nuclear fission products (the Baker bomb was made of plutonium) over most of the 95 ships that had been purposely anchored in the vicinity as targets. The blast also created the largest waves then known to man. Measuring devices were so damaged by the explosion that it's impossible to know exactly how tall the waves were, but photographic estimates put the first at about 94 feet in height.

Navy officials were ill-prepared for the intensity of Shot Baker and the damage it left behind. In a December 1946 letter, Dr. Stafford Warren, head of the Atomic Energy Commission's Medical Advisory Board and the UCLA Medical School, wrote:

The test turned out to be literally a hundred times larger than the original conception. We had no time to train sufficient men to do the job but had to strip the Manhattan District and call upon knowledgeable civilians. ... I never want to go through the experience of the last three weeks of August 1946 again. The air inhalation possibilities and all of the rest indicated conclusively that, just upon the basis of statistics alone, we were certain to get into trouble if we did not close the operation shortly.

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