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.

Several of the contaminated ships were sunk in the Pacific. Others were sent to Navy facilities at Pearl Harbor and Puget Sound. In late 1946, the first of 14 contaminated Crossroads ships and submarines arrived in San Francisco for decontamination experimentation. Raymond Richetti spent 30 years at the Hunters Point Shipyard, beginning in 1943, and remembers the ships coming from Bikini. Especially, he remembers that no one knew what to do with them. "We worked on the ships," he says. "There were some dead human bodies in there. No one knew much about radiation at that time. They wouldn't allow anybody in there who might be of childbearing age."

After experimenting with everything from corncobs to coffee grounds and salt water to laundry detergent, scientists at the NRDL finally came to believe that the most promising method of removing radioactive contamination from ships would involve sandblasting them, and then rinsing them with hydrochloric and citric acid. Some of the waste from sandblasting the radioactive ships was scooped into containers and dumped in the Pacific Ocean near the Farallon Islands. But fine particles blanketed the shipyard. And a significant amount of both the sandblast and acid waste went into the bay near Hunters Point. (The bay water surrounding the shipyard is considered one of the parcels being transferred to city control.)

A November 1946 report outlines the debate that led to the Navy's decision to dump the waste into the bay. And there was internal debate on the safety of the dumping, even at the dawn of the Cold War. Dr. Joseph Hamilton, a pioneer in radioactive research and head of the Crocker Nuclear Laboratory at UC Berkeley, argued that the materials were perfectly safe because any fission products they contained would sink into bay-bottom mud and stay there. Hamilton, who was also a proponent of radiological warfare and conducted numerous experiments that involved injecting humans with plutonium without their knowledge, continually downplayed any potential danger associated with radioactive waste. Meanwhile, Warren, the UCLA doctor who had been put in charge of safety at Bikini, clearly disagreed. Even in these early years, Warren was concerned about the potential long-term effects of radioactivity. In the end, however, Hamilton won over the military leaders, and it was his not particularly conservative advice that was most consistently followed in regard to the disposal of radioactive materials at Hunters Point. (Warren and Hamilton are both dead.)

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.
At one point, the scientists at the NRDL kept prisoners and civilians in a bomb shelter to simulate a nuclear attack.
Courtesy of TimePix
At one point, the scientists at the NRDL kept prisoners and civilians in a bomb shelter to simulate a nuclear attack.

Hamilton's advice was often given in the privacy of classified military meetings. Today, that advice can seem cavalier with respect to the dangers of radiation, and dismissive of the public's ability to understand those dangers. For example, the report from a November 1946 meeting states: "Dr. Hamilton advised that consideration be given to the public relations angle in not permitting the information to leak out regarding the local disposal of acid and sand containing some fission products in spite of the fact that the quantities involved entail absolutely no health or security hazard."

Based on Hamilton's recommendation, Navy brass determined that no special disposal of sandblast waste from the Bikini ships was necessary. They also decided that the acid solutions used to wash the sandblasted ships were also safe to dump into the bay, where any radioactivity picked up by the acid would be greatly diluted. (Each ship was estimated to require 5,000 to 10,000 gallons of acid for the washing procedure.) Warren, the UCLA doctor, disagreed with Hamilton's assessment, cautioning that no more than five ships should be cleaned in any one harbor. But the shipyard eventually worked on at least 14 vessels from the Bikini blast. The following year, some 125 tons of sandblast waste from the USS Rockridge, another contaminated ship brought back to San Francisco following the Bikini tests, was sold to a local contractor as fill material. Where that fill was used remains a mystery.

NRDL records show that at least two of the Operation Crossroads ships that came to San Francisco were eventually sold to the Lerner Co. in Alameda for scrap. The company no longer exists, and it's unknown what happened to the scrap metal from those ships.

In June 1947, the USS Independence arrived at Hunters Point. The 10,000-ton aircraft carrier was close enough to the blasts at Bikini to be severely mangled. The highly contaminated ship would be used for nuclear decontamination experiments at Hunters Point for more than three years. It sat in Dry Dock 4, where it was sandblasted for at least a year. Later, the ship was anchored off the southeast end of the shipyard. The carrier's huge anchor chain, one of the most radioactive parts of the ship, also was sandblasted; the sandblast material washed into the bay. NRDL documents indicate that equipment and furniture were removed from the ship and "sent to salvage," but it's unclear where. The shipyard landfill, which was in operation at the time, is a possible repository.Air Force Col. Nicholas Kane attended radiation safety school at the NRDL, which included work on the USS Independence. Kane died of cancer in 1978. Thirty years before, in a letter written to his wife, Rose, while he was at Hunters Point, Kane described removing the contents from the ship:

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