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.

McQuilken, who ran the NRDL during some of its peak years, remembers it as a time of both excitement and naiveté. "At that time, radiation wasn't something that anybody knew much about, really," McQuilken says. "At that time, everything in the nuclear business was new, and we ran quite an outfit. We were mixed up in all of the tests in the Pacific and out in Nevada.

"We were feeling our way as to what the radiation was and trying to extrapolate what this all meant. ... I can't remember what the budget was, but we were a popular place at the time."

By 1966, when the first nuclear-powered ship, the USS Enterprise, arrived at the Hunters Point Shipyard for overhaul, records indicate that the NRDL had a supply designation of "unlimited authority for nuclear material." And the amount and variety -- in both type and location -- of experiments conducted under that authority raise questions about the limited scope of radiological assessment done as part of the process for turning the shipyard over to the city of San Francisco.

Researchers from the Monterey Institute of International Studies, hired by SF Weekly to evaluate environmental documents relating to Hunters Point, found that " c onsidering the historical background and uses of the shipyard , a thorough investigation should have begun with a Geiger Counter of all buildings, parking lots, landfill areas, beach, and inter-tidal areas." No such investigation was conducted. Instead, Navy consultants looked for radiation where the Navy told them radiation might exist, and nowhere else.

Even the radiological investigation the Navy did conduct seems open to question. Environmental documents associated with the radiological cleanup at the shipyard repeatedly reference a 1988 radiation survey done by contractor Harding Lawson Associates (HLA) as the basis for cleanup plans at the shipyard. Apparently, there was no such survey.

Navy spokesman Lee Saunders explains the situation this way:

Apparently, HLA proposed a radiation sampling plan in 1988, as part of its initial assessment of the shipyard. But the full survey never was undertaken; instead, after negotiation, less comprehensive radiation sampling was done in 1989, and the results were included in a table, placed in another document, compiled by another Navy contractor in 1990. Even so, later environmental studies refer to the Harding Lawson Associates 1988 Radiation Survey as if it were the comprehensive radiation study that it clearly never was.

"I'm not aware of any other survey than what was in the later reference document," says Saunders. "Since that reading was part of the scoping document in 1988, I would assume it was the first radiation survey done there."

Monterey Institute of International Studies researchers also questioned the standards the Navy used when evaluating the limited radiation testing that was done at the shipyard. The researchers found that the Navy's Environmental Impact Statement and supporting data failed to establish a reasonable basis for the four-phase radiation cleanup plan the Navy has proposed. The researchers noted that these environmental documents do not contain background information on when, how, and where soil samples were analyzed for mixed fission products and plutonium -- if they were. Without that information, the researchers contend, it cannot be said that the proposed methods and scope of cleanup are, or are not, appropriate.

Clearly, the Navy's activities have caused some level of radiation contamination in the waters and bay sediment directly surrounding the shipyard, and the Navy has recognized that the accumulation of radiation in fish could be hazardous to human health. Fishing is already prohibited in the area immediately surrounding the shipyard, but environmental documents suggest no other attempts to address nuclear contamination of the bay and bay life. Monterey Institute researchers questioned this stance. "Even if the Navy bans fishing at Hunters Point Shipyard, fish are migratory and could be caught by fishermen in other parts of the San Francisco Bay, thereby posing a risk to human health," they wrote.

The NRDL's rapid growth caused a near-constant space problem at the Hunters Point Shipyard; parts of the lab were housed all over the base. As the government completes its final phase of radiological cleanup, it appears that some of the buildings that housed NRDL research have never been inspected for possible radiation contamination.In the mid-1950s, Congress funded construction of a $4.5 million free-standing building to house NRDL operations at Hunters Point. This fireproof bunker, which has been the subject of a radiation survey, is made of steel and reinforced concrete and has no windows. (Today, the NRDL building, located adjacent to the base landfill, is leased to Filesafe Inc., a file storage company.) Before moving into its own building, however, the NRDL used at least 25 different shipyard buildings for either laboratory work or storage, including storage of radioactive materials.

At least eight current or former buildings used by the radiation lab for storage, animal experiments, or other laboratory work are not mentioned in environmental documents attached to the cleanup at the Hunters Point Shipyard. Another five are listed as possible hazardous waste sites, but the listings do not include mention of radiological use.

For instance, Building 539 was used by the lab for storage of radioisotopes as late as 1956. But the building is not included on the Navy's list of possible contaminated sites. Neither is Building 354, which, according to lab records, was used in the early 1950s for "high level NRDL projects."

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