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.

And because the NRDL was at the core of U.S. attempts to understand nuclear warfare, the scope of experimentation with radioactive materials at Hunters Point was truly breathtaking, and the potential for nuclear contamination by no means limited to the ships irradiated in Operation Crossroads.

In fall 1952, the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory at the Hunters Point Shipyard requested and received permission from the Atomic Energy Commission to increase the amount of plutonium allowed at the lab from 1 to 15 grams. According to a letter to regulators, the NRDL needed the additional plutonium for research and development experiments that could use as much as 10 grams of plutonium at a time. It is unclear how many times that 15-gram store of plutonium was depleted by experimentation, and then restored to the allowed 15 grams. But even if "only" 15 grams of plutonium ever arrived at the NRDL, almost all that 15 grams of plutonium still exists, somewhere. It may be at Hunters Point, or in the ocean, or in another nuclear storage or dump site, but because of its long half-life, almost all of it still exists, and what exists is still extraordinarily dangerous. By standard scientific rule of thumb, 15 grams of plutonium could, if distributed efficiently, cause 15 million cases of cancer.From the very beginning of the NRDL, scientists experimented with all sorts of radiation sources. They stored and analyzed samples of plants, animals, and objects irradiated in almost every nuclear test undertaken by the U.S. They raised animals of all kinds, from laboratory mice to horses, and then contaminated them in any number of ways, seeking to study the effects of radiation. And the scientists moved their research efforts all over the shipyard.

Most of the early research at the NRDL was designed to answer the question of how to protect against, and clean up after, contamination caused by an atomic bomb blast. This was the height of the Cold War, and military leaders wanted to know how to protect both equipment and people. Atomic weapons tests offered an early opportunity to study radiation's effects on life.

In 1946 and 1947, in addition to the Operation Crossroads ships, the Hunters Point shipyard received numerous samples of plant and animal life from the Bikini test site. Some 5,000 animals had been placed on the island specifically to study the effects of radiation. Some of these died within a few weeks of the blast, but many of the rest, including rats and a dog named "Plutonia," came to the NRDL. Other samples sent to the lab included fish caught, and then frozen, after the tests, additional sea animal and plant life, and, of course, nearly everything that had been on the ships at Bikini.

Danny Amato, now retired and living in Marinwood, took care of the dogs and other animals used in experiments at the NRDL in the early 1950s. He also traveled with them to Eniwetok Atoll in the Pacific and to Camp Mercury, Nev., for several early nuclear bomb tests. The animals were used to measure response to radiation. "We had them in pens," he says of the dogs, which were mainly German shepherds. "I used to get attached to them, and then after the bomb blast they were like one big scab. It was brutal.

"We wore gloves and coveralls and had to tape around the sleeves cuffs . We'd have to shower and shower and soap and soap after we were done."

The young Navy man's job included noting the animals' condition and taking blood samples.

"Afterwards after the animals were exposed , slowly, slowly the animals would get bleeding scabs," he says. "Not right away. It took weeks or months. Sometimes they looked just fine, and then after they were brought back to Hunters Point, they got sick."

Of course, atomic bombs could not be detonated often enough to do all the types of research the NRDL's scientists and overseers were interested in. So scientists acquired radiation sources and routinely contaminated things, so they could then figure out how to decontaminate them. In 1948, for instance, NRDL scientists hung a source of cobalt-60 off the fantail of the USS Independence, in San Francisco Bay, for two weeks. The point of the experiment, apparently, was to study the level of contamination this caused. (Documents reviewed by SF Weekly don't provide the size of the radiation source or the results of the study.)

On several occasions, NRDL scientists spread radiation on asphalt near the docks, to simulate fallout, and attempted to clean it off in various ways. At least once, scientists spread radioactive material on the roofs of buildings and the lawns surrounding Navy facilities in San Bruno, again to experiment with cleaning it up.

In the mid-1950s, there seemed to be a problem with storing radium tubes -- that is, glass tubes containing radioactive materials. Specifically, so many of them were stored together, there was concern they could constitute a critical mass capable of sustained atomic reaction. The radium tubes were spread to different buildings on the shipyard, but it remains unclear exactly where the tubes went. Standard procedure would have been to dispose of used tubes with other radiation waste sent out to sea. But a 1949 directive from the shipyard commander raises the possibility that some of that waste might have been buried somewhere on the shipyard: "A plot of land can be set aside near the shore station to be used as a burial ground, however, the former method of sinking at sea is recommended. If a burial plot is used, it should be adequately posted and supervised."

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