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.

It is a pity that so many things were left on board, whose abandonment brought very little data to the problem of radioactive contamination. There were a good many armchairs and straight back chairs in aluminum and leather that I would love to have, but, of course, are considered contaminated, as are so many other articles of equipment and property. ... We monitored the carrier with our instruments, to determine the amount of nuclear contamination of various types still existing -- all clad in protective clothing, of course, and wearing special masks when in the tower and possibly higher contaminated sections.

In 1948, with the approval of officials at the Atomic Energy Commission, NRDL personnel burned contaminated fuel oil from the USS Independence and the USS Gasconade, another Crossroads target ship, in the boilers at Hunters Point. A report on the Gasconade notes that the ship was so contaminated it could only be boarded by workers wearing respiratory apparatus.

At some point, NRDL scientists determined that there was no hope of ever cleaning up the Independence, and began to use the mighty ship as a floating laboratory. The theory behind this plan was elegantly simple: Because the ship was already contaminated and scheduled for disposal, it was the perfect place for high-level radiation experiments and storage. "Large quantities of fresh fission products were introduced on board and drained into empty tanks for stowage," one memo from the time says. Correspondence between shipyard personnel also shows that samples (including sea life and plants) from Operation Crossroads were moved on board the Independence. Finally, in January 1951, the mighty Independence -- apparently full of nuclear waste -- was towed underneath the Golden Gate Bridge and sunk at sea, apparently near the Farallon Islands.

Adm. John McQuilken was commander of the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory at the Hunters Point Shipyard in the late 1950s.
Adm. John McQuilken was commander of the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory at the Hunters Point Shipyard in the late 1950s.
Many of the ships involved in Operation Crossroads were so badly damaged that they had to be scuttled.
Courtesy of TimePix
Many of the ships involved in Operation Crossroads were so badly damaged that they had to be scuttled.

Concerns about the hazards the Crossroads ships might pose to Hunters Point and the San Francisco area were expressed early on. In 1947, Warren, the UCLA doctor, wrote to Navy Adm. W.S. Parsons about the Crossroads hazards, saying, among other things: "The residual of even what are considered safe amounts of long-life fission products will be the cause of uncertainty in the development of illness in so called susceptible individuals. Therefore, difficult and expensive medico-legal problems will probably occur if previously contaminated target ships are cleared for constant occupancy or disposal as scrap." And while the NRDL's early attempts to decontaminate the ships from Operation Crossroads have received a fair amount of publicity over the years, the questions the decontamination effort raises about civilian occupancy of the base remain largely unasked and unanswered.

For example, the Independence was cleaned out after it arrived in San Francisco. The Navy has claimed it disposed of radioactive waste produced by NRDL research in 55-gallon drums dumped at sea. But it is hard to imagine that all of the internal fixtures and furniture from an aircraft carrier would fit neatly into 55-gallon drums. The EPA's Steve Dean believes that radium dials and instruments from the Independence likely were disposed of in the landfill. But were the carrier's larger nuclear furniture and fixtures smashed, in a heroic feat of destruction, into small pieces that would fit in the drums? Were they sold for salvage or scrap? Were they put in the landfill at Hunters Point?

Even more questions surround the sandblasting operation.

Although early decontamination work occurred all over the shipyard, the Navy's environmental contractors have checked for radiation only where the Navy directed them to check -- mostly in former laboratory buildings. It appears that there has been no systematic sampling of the shipyard for radiation, other than on the surface of the landfill. The area from the landfill to the water, on the southeast side of the shipyard, was created originally by filling in a portion of the bay; it is known to have been used for disposal of all manner of shipyard refuse, including oil and chemicals. And yet that area has not been fully investigated in regard to radiation, even though the Navy's own environmental contractors have repeatedly brought up the possibility of contamination.

A 1988 report on the southeast end of the shipyard, which includes the landfill area, by Navy contractor Harding Lawson Associates notes: "Waste disposal in the bay fill area may also include sandblast waste from ships exposed to nuclear detonations in the Bikini Atolls." (Attempts to contact officials for Harding Lawson Associates, which is no longer in business, were unsuccessful.) In a similar report completed in 1992, another Navy contractor mentioned "unsubstantiated claims" that "sandblast wastes from the maintenance of ships that were involved in the testing of nuclear weaponry may have been disposed on-site." The report doesn't reveal if the claims were investigated, or whether the supposed "on-site" location is known.

Three years later, in yet another report, contractor PRC Inc. says, "It has been postulated that fallout particles, including cesium-137 and plutonium-239, may have been mixed with sandblast waste s that were generated during Operation Crossroads decontamination activities."

The danger posed by the Crossroads decontamination effort at Hunters Point is neither theoretical nor negligible. The ships cleaned at the shipyard had been grossly contaminated by a plutonium fission bomb. Plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years, meaning that half of whatever plutonium and other fission products were sandblasted from the ships at Hunters Point will still exist, somewhere, for thousands of years. The risk of plutonium remains long after it has settled into the ground; any disturbance of the soil -- including construction or wind -- can kick up dustlike plutonium particles. Even one of those particles, if inhaled and lodged in the lungs, can cause cancer. Clearly, historical evidence suggests that sandblast grit contaminated with fallout particles was disposed of at or near the landfill, and in the bay itself. Yet the matter has never been fully investigated by the Navy or its contractors.

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