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.

By 1949, the Atomic Energy Commission had allocated more than $15,000 a year (in those days, a significant sum) to the NRDL to purchase artificial radioactive isotopes that emit alpha radiation, high-energy particles that are easily absorbed by air and cannot penetrate skin, but can be deadly if inhaled or ingested. Three years later, the NRDL received a 67-pound container of synthetic radioisotopes (that is, artificially produced radioactive elements). The radioisotopes would have been stored inside a shield that documents available to SF Weekly do not describe, obscuring exactly how much radioactive material the package actually contained.

In the mid-1950s, NRDL scientists devoted a lot of time to figuring out how to protect Air Force planes delivering "special weapons" from contamination by the weapons' explosions. Thus, researchers fooled around with different paints and other coatings, trying to create a sleeve for the planes. Equally important was the predicament of how to remove fallout contamination from planes -- including unmanned aircraft -- that might be involved in nuclear tests or attacks. At one point, the NRDL made arrangements to receive contaminated airplane engines at the shipyard.

In another experiment, scientists at the NRDL seemed to be trying to create some sort of device to decontaminate cars. Test cars would be placed underneath a tarp with a hose connected to either end. Various chemicals, including ethylene oxide, a toxic, highly flammable gas used as a liquid under pressure, would be sprayed on the cars through the hoses.

In 1950, engineers at the NRDL proposed a tracer study to test how tidal currents flowing past the shipyard might dilute liquid waste containing low concentrations of radioactivity. According to a memo from the time, the lab was planning "large scale experimentation" at the NRDL, which would produce as much as 1,000 gallons a day of the waste. It remains unclear what happened after the study.

In all, NRDL records show that the laboratory used and stored a multitude of radioactive elements, including cobalt, plutonium, tritium, uranium, radium, and thorium.

The scientists often used these sources of radiation to contaminate animals, including thousands of mice, rats, pigs, and dogs that were kept at the shipyard. The NRDL also operated a ranch in Contra Costa County where it raised larger animals -- cows, goats, etc. -- for research. "We had quite a collection of mules, horses, rabbits, and even firefly tails purchased by the gram ," remembers Wellard Guffy, who was a supply officer for the NRDL in the late 1950s. "When I had to buy a dozen jackasses, I had to go talk to the shipyard supply officer to explain why . No two days were alike."

After the biomedical branch of the lab was in full swing, the animals were used for all kinds of NRDL experiments. In one case, scientists bred radioactive chickens to see if they would lay radioactive eggs. (They did -- the radiation was mainly in the shell.)

The Navy has maintained that all NRDL research materials, including the thousands of animals sacrificed in radiation experiments, were placed in 55-gallon metal barrels and dumped at sea, and land animal carcasses have been identified at the Farallones undersea dump site. Still, the Navy has offered little documentation in regard to animal disposal, and the question remains: Were large animals such as pigs and jackasses consistently chopped into pieces that would fit in the barrels -- or were some of them deposited in a landfill just yards from the NRDL headquarters?

The EPA's Dean says he believes all animals were dumped in the Farallones undersea waste site, but he raised yet another question about radioactivity at Hunters Point while responding to SF Weekly's inquiries about animal experimentation at the NRDL. "We also found a leach field out there where they may have been flushing animal waste into the drain," he said, adding that the matter still needs investigation. "There is some possibility that there is a leach field in the immediate area around Building 707."

The NRDL's biomedical branch also did human research. One scientist kept a fully functioning human liver alive in the laboratory to study the effects of various doses of radiation on it. In later years, NRDL scientists, along with Hamilton from UC Berkeley, participated in controversial human radiation experiments that were eventually condemned by the government. In one instance, scientists had an NRDL employee drink tritium, a radioactive hydrogen isotope, so that they could study the effects in a human. (Small amounts of tritium were later commonly used in cancer research.)

On another occasion, one of the NRDL scientists worked with a group of young enlisted men who were weight lifters. The scientist gave them regular doses of potassium-42, a radioactive isotope, in order to study how the substance was metabolized. Ultimately, the experiment stopped because of a bureaucratic snafu. The weight lifters needed to go to another laboratory to complete some of the tests; the weight lifters, stationed at the shipyard, would have to be paid extra for work elsewhere, and the Navy was unable to secure the money.

As the laboratory began doing more work for the Office of Civilian Defense, NRDL scientists devoted more time to studying nuclear fallout. In 1959, for example, they detonated nonnuclear underwater blasts in San Francisco Bay to simulate the blast effects of a nuclear bomb. Later, they borrowed prisoners from the California penal system and kept them, along with a few civilian volunteers, in a bomb shelter for several days while simulating a nuclear attack. The idea was to study the interaction among people locked in a closed environment. "All of these people were criminals," remembers Adm. John McQuilken, who was commander of the NRDL from October 1957 until July 1960. "It was interesting to see the interplay between people. Cigarettes became the means of exchange. It was really damned interesting from a personnel standpoint."

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