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.

I agree entirely that the greatest hazard is the insidious long-time exposure to long-lived isotopes and low concentration in bombed cities where the under-water detonation has been used. I believe they would be uninhabitable for several generations.

The Navy was left with a huge mess and little understanding of how to deal with the effects of this new weapon. A team of scientists, doctors, and enlisted men was hastily assembled to study radiation decontamination; though not officially named for another year or so, the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory had been born.

From a military viewpoint, Hunters Point seemed a logical location to set up a radiation laboratory. The shipyard was among the largest in the country, able to handle any ship in the Navy's fleet, and had been a staging area for actions in the Pacific. Also, it was across the bay from the University of California at Berkeley and up the peninsula from Stanford University, both leaders in early nuclear research. That Hunters Point sat in the middle of a major urban area was apparently inconsequential in the military calculus.

During its heyday, the Hunters Point Shipyard could handle the Navy's largest ships in its dry docks.
Courtesy of TimePix
During its heyday, the Hunters Point Shipyard could handle the Navy's largest ships in its dry docks.
In all, 14 contaminated ships were sent back to the Hunters Point Shipyard after the Operation Crossroads nuclear bomb tests. Several of those ships were sandblasted extensively in an effort to decontaminate them.
Courtesy of TimePix
In all, 14 contaminated ships were sent back to the Hunters Point Shipyard after the Operation Crossroads nuclear bomb tests. Several of those ships were sandblasted extensively in an effort to decontaminate them.

Things happened furiously at the beginning of the NRDL. Laboratory operations moved from one borrowed space at the shipyard to another. Navy historical documents describe the situation with deadpan understatement: "The problems of the pioneers at NRDL were legion." Among other things, the NRDL had difficulty berthing the 14 ships that were contaminated in Operations Crossroads and then taken to Hunters Point, finding trained personnel, and acquiring adequate equipment. The lab's original contingent of Geiger counters, for example, totaled six machines, four of which didn't work.

But the NRDL grew apace, its expansion stoked by fears, both legitimate and exaggerated, of a Soviet military that had itself acquired the atomic bomb in 1949. At its peak, reached in the late 1950s, the NRDL employed some 600 military and civilian scientists who operated under supervision from both the Defense Department and the former Atomic Energy Commission.

The United States carried out more than 175 atmospheric nuclear tests between 1945 and 1962; the NRDL was involved in most of them, whether they were conducted in the South Pacific or on desert testing grounds in Nevada. (The Soviet Union exploded more than 140 nuclear devices in that time.) The laboratory, also home to a cross-services radiation training school, was generously funded by all branches of the military; a significant part of that funding came through the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project, an agency dedicated to early nuclear weapons research.

By the late 1950s, the NRDL had branched out into biomedical radiation research, studying the effects of radiation on specific organs of the body. The biomedical research grew to more intricate study of the long-term effects of radiation in animals and, to a much lesser extent, humans. The NRDL also took on an increasing role with the federal Office of Civil Defense, researching the effects of nuclear detonations on a variety of bomb shelters and studying how people responded under different nuclear war scenarios.

Along the way, the NRDL received numerous patents and scientific awards, as well it should have. Some of the country's leading scientists worked on experiments that set the stage for discoveries valuable for the future health and safety of Americans. Other experiments from the era seem, now, almost reckless, mixing pure ignorance and scientific curiosity in a way that led to gross mishandling of radiological material. NRDL scientists published many, many research papers, but much of that research was never shared with the rest of the world. In fact, the military still considers boxes and boxes of NRDL research papers to be classified material.

By the late 1960s, the United States no longer engaged in above-ground nuclear testing, and most of the work at the lab was being done for civilian, not military, purposes. Meanwhile, the Vietnam conflict was in full swing, and the political climate in San Francisco had become less than welcoming to any sort of military operation, let alone nuclear experimentation. In 1967, the Summer of Love brought hundreds of young, war-protesting hippies to San Francisco, solidifying the city's image as the liberal headquarters of America.

In November 1969, the NRDL closed up shop with little warning. Five years later, the shipyard itself closed to military operations, without much resistance from the city. Even though the base's closure meant the loss of thousands of jobs, San Francisco clearly did not mourn it.

Over the next 2 1/2 decades, some of the buildings and dry docks were leased to private businesses. But for the most part, the shipyard became, and remains, a strange, empty wasteland. Overgrown weeds crowd pavement, obscuring where streets end and begin. Empty military buildings with broken windows sit like ghosts facing the bay. Sea gulls have taken over docks where mighty ships awaited refurbishing for the next battle. It would take little, now, to transform parts of the once-dynamic shipyard into a post-apocalypse movie set.

The chapter of NRDL history that has received by far the most press attention involves the lab's research into decontaminating ships used in Operation Crossroads. Indeed, whenever Navy environmental documents mention radiation at the Hunters Point Shipyard, it's generally a note about decontaminating those ships more than half a century ago. Many important aspects of those decontamination activities, however, have not been publicly examined.The moment the Baker bomb exploded in the water near Bikini, the Navy's target ships were contaminated with high-level radiation; they grew even more contaminated as they sat for weeks in radioactive lagoon water while Navy and civilian scientists attempted to figure out if and how they might be saved. By the time all was said and done, the radioactivity of algae on the bottoms of some of the ships was strong enough to be detected through their steel hulls.

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