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.

For a long time now, San Francisco's leaders have dreamed of a new development along the city's waterfront, a 500-acre community where citizens promenade along San Francisco Bay, artists display their talents in a variety of new cultural institutions, and children frolic in new green spaces. In the dream, the community has offices and stores and more than 1,800 brand-new homes overlooking a bayside scene that includes one especially inviting aspect, a half-moon beach that curves in from a quiet arm of the bay. The beach has a gentle hillside immediately behind it, and, if everything goes according to plan, that hillside will become a park where the dogs and children of this dreamy future will be able to play and enjoy panoramic bay views -- on top of a toxic waste dump and just yards from a former nuclear research laboratory that handled, and significantly mishandled, large amounts of the most dangerous and long-lived radioactive poisons produced during the Cold War.

An SF Weekly investigation of the environmental history of the San Francisco Naval Shipyard at Hunters Point -- land the city hopes to acquire and transform into a master-planned community -- has found troubling evidence that the Navy conducted nuclear research and mishandled radioactive waste on a vastly greater scale than has yet been revealed.For 23 years following World War II, the Hunters Point Shipyard was the site of the military's largest facility for applied nuclear research -- the top-secret Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory. Over the course of its life, according to government documents declassified at the request of SF Weekly, the NRDL handled nearly every kind of radioactive material known to man -- including, at one point, enough plutonium to kill 15 million people. The shipyard is also well known as a site where Navy ships were decontaminated after being irradiated in atomic weapons tests.

Yet in the early days of the Atomic Age, procedures for handling radioactive materials were shockingly lax by today's standards. The NRDL often experimented with and disposed of nuclear material with little apparent concern that it was operating in the middle of a major metropolitan area. Among other things, historical documents show, scientists at the NRDL:

An aerial view of the shipyard: click here for an enlarged version
Courtesy of TimePix
An aerial view of the shipyard: click here for an enlarged version
During its heyday, the Hunters Point Shipyard could handle the Navy's largest ships in its dry docks.
Paul Trapani
During its heyday, the Hunters Point Shipyard could handle the Navy's largest ships in its dry docks.
During its heyday, the Hunters Point Shipyard could handle the Navy's largest ships in its dry docks.
Paul Trapani
During its heyday, the Hunters Point Shipyard could handle the Navy's largest ships in its dry docks.
NRDL scientists routinely contaminated and decontaminated all manner of things to study the effects of radiation.
Courtesy of TimePix
NRDL scientists routinely contaminated and decontaminated all manner of things to study the effects of radiation.
Courtesy of TimePix
During its heyday, the Hunters Point Shipyard could handle the Navy's largest ships in its dry docks.
Courtesy of TimePix
During its heyday, the Hunters Point Shipyard could handle the Navy's largest ships in its dry docks.
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.
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.
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.
Courtesy of TimePix
Sailors were told to cover their eyes during nuclear bomb blasts in Bikini. The second test turned out to be 100 times larger than originally planned.
Courtesy of TimePix
Sailors were told to cover their eyes during nuclear bomb blasts in Bikini. The second test turned out to be 100 times larger than originally planned.

- Oversaw the dumping of huge amounts of contaminated sand and acid into San Francisco Bay after they were used in attempts to clean irradiated ships.

- Spread radioactive material on- and off-base, as if it were fertilizer, to practice decontamination. - Burned radioactive fuel oil in a boiler, discharging the smoke into the atmosphere.

- Sold radioactive ships as scrap metal to a private company in Alameda.

- Hung a source of cobalt-60, a nuclear isotope that emits high-energy electromagnetic radiation similar to X-rays, in San Francisco Bay for two weeks, apparently just to see what would happen.

- Conducted human experiments that included requiring people to drink radioactive elements.

- Experimented with significant amounts of a wide variety of long-lived radiological poisons, including plutonium, cesium, uranium, thorium and radium.

- Studied and disposed of thousands of irradiated mice, rats, dogs, goats, mules, and pigs, among other animals. At one point, the lab owned a ranch in Contra Costa County used specifically to raise animals for radiation testing.

- Sought permission to dump 1,000 gallons of liquid waste containing "small amounts of fission products" into San Francisco Bay, as an experiment to study how tidal action would dilute the radioactivity. The experiment was meant as a precursor to the disposal of 1,000 gallons of liquid radioactive waste in the bay every day. (The documents do not say whether the experiment or the daily dumping occurred.)

After decades of wrangling over environmental concerns, the U.S. Navy and the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency finally agreed last fall on a method for transferring the naval shipyard in phases, or parcels, to city control. In what is known as a Memorandum of Agreement, the Navy pledged to clean up the main portion of the base -- that is, three of the six parcels comprising the shipyard property -- to certain environmental standards, and to a depth of 10 feet below the surface, at a cost of at least $120 million.

Federal law still controls the shipyard cleanup. That is to say, the Navy must clean up the site to standards that the state and federal environmental agencies agree upon, regardless of how much it costs or how long it takes. But the Memorandum of Agreement also gives the city the ability to sue if the Navy reneges on its commitments. "The EPA has never once assessed penalties against the Navy for being late," Deputy City Attorney Michael Cohen says. "We did not trust leaving the fate of the shipyard in the hands of the EPA. What we're saying is that you have to satisfy the regulators, and you have to satisfy us."

In deciding what would satisfy them, city leaders agreed to believe that $120 million would be enough money to clean up much of a century-old shipyard, and the toxic solvents, metals, and other contaminants that, it's long been known, were used, spilled, and dumped there by the Navy. But when they made the pact, city officials had no way of knowing anything close to the full history or extent of nuclear activity at the naval base. City officials did not know much about this nuclear history because, during negotiations over transfer of the Hunters Point Shipyard, the Navy has disclosed very little of it.

In the years since the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory shut down in 1969, the Navy has discussed certain specific NRDL activities, including the lab's role in attempting to decontaminate ships irradiated in nuclear weapons tests in the South Pacific. But the Navy has glossed over much NRDL history, particularly as it pertains to the environmental assessment and cleanup of the Hunters Point Shipyard, and particularly regarding radioactive elements with life spans in the tens of thousands of years. The shipyard's radiation history has garnered little more than a few paragraphs in the environmental documents guiding cleanup of Hunters Point. In those and associated documents, the Navy mostly maintains that there are few, if any, records of what took place at the shipyard during the early years of the nuclear age. Environmental contractors hired to assess the shipyard repeatedly caution about "data gaps" in the historical record that would otherwise guide them in determining what sort of cleanup is appropriate.

Actually, though, there are records: boxes and boxes -- 650 cubic feet of boxes, to be exact -- containing correspondence and other documentation of experiments that took place at the NRDL. These documents are sitting on government shelves in the National Archives; more are in the Department of Energy's records repository. Large portions of the National Archives collection of Hunters Point documents remain classified on national security grounds. But the documents that are available offer a sobering sketch of at least part of what went on at the nuclear lab at Hunters Point.

Despite the history of nuclear experiments and carelessness those documents reveal, federal regulators have not called for the Navy to complete a comprehensive radiation survey of the entire base. "Under current technology, it's not practical, and it wouldn't even be necessary," says Steve Dean, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scientist who is working on the radiation cleanup at Hunters Point. "The Navy in that era that were handling radioactive materials knew that the stuff just couldn't be handled in a cavalier fashion, so they did a pretty good job of keeping it contained."

Leaving aside questions about the quality of that containment, the limited assessment that has been done on possible radiation dangers at Hunters Point appears to be flawed and incomplete. Much of that assessment is based on a report that, although often cited in environmental documents, apparently doesn't exist. Eight current or former buildings used by the NRDL are absent from environmental documents related to the shipyard cleanup, meaning those sites could not have been investigated for possible radiation. Also, the Navy failed to notify state health regulators that some of the buildings had nuclear histories, in apparent violation of state law. And a landfill directly adjacent to the NRDL has not been fully explored for nuclear or other toxic waste -- even though the environmental assessment commissioned by the Navy itself speculates several times that sand contaminated with nuclear fission products may have been dumped there.

Four days after he was initially interviewed for this story, Richard Mach, base realignment and closure environmental coordinator for the Navy, contacted SF Weekly to say that an assessment of the shipyard's radiological history is under way at the shipyard. "RASO the Navy's Radiological Affairs Support Office in Washington, D.C. is in the process right now of doing a Historical Radiological Assessment," Mach said. "They are going through all of their documents and records and making sure that everything has been accounted for."

Typically, Mach acknowledged, a historical assessment is one of the first tasks the Navy would complete before beginning the cleanup of a site with a radiological past. The Navy has spent more than $150 million during the past decade in the process of cleaning and removing environmental hazards; that process included a four-phase radiation cleanup project undertaken, apparently, without a basic road map. "An HRA Historical Radiological Assessment was never done," Mach said. "We are going back to do that now."

The various federal laws pertaining to base closures and environmental cleanup establish a structure in which the Navy is essentially in charge of cleaning up Hunters Point, with the EPA playing a secondary role (unless there is a dispute between the two agencies, which brings a complex form of negotiation into play). For the most part, then, the Navy, which was responsible for most of the pollution of the shipyard, is cleaning up only the problems it acknowledges it knows about. In such a situation, many incentives tend against finding the full panoply of poisons that lie in the soil and water of this former naval yard.

Researchers hired by SF Weekly and working under the direction of Dr. W. Jackson Davis, head of the environmental policy department at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and an international environmental policy consultant, reviewed the radiological portion of the environmental cleanup process at the Hunters Point Shipyard, and found that " t he scope of the Environmental Impact Statement , particularly in regards to the radiological investigations, was inadequate." The researchers' report, prepared at the Weekly's request, criticizes the breadth of the Navy's radiological testing at Hunters Point, the standards used to evaluate the tests that have been done, the reasoning that underlies a plan for limited radiological cleanup on the base, and the lack of plans for cleaning up contaminated bay sediment on Navy-controlled property just offshore of the shipyard.

The landfill that sits in front of the former NRDL headquarters raises special questions. The Navy's own assessment speculates, several times, that the landfill area contains radioactive sand used in attempts to decontaminate ships employed in atomic testing. Radioactivity found at the landfill has been blamed on dials, illuminated with radium paint, taken from decommissioned ships -- even when excavation has located no such dials. Given the cavalier attitude many NRDL leaders exhibited toward radiation in many newly declassified documents, it is certainly reasonable to wonder whether at least some of the radioactive materials experimented with in the lab's early years might have been discarded in the landfill.

So far, however, the Navy has assumed and remained in a tortured position in regard to the landfill. The Navy asserts that it has essentially no records about, and so simply does not know, much of what was dumped in the landfill. At the same time, the Navy has said that the landfill is too dangerous to thoroughly investigate, and that the safest way to deal with it is to place a permanent cap on top of it. (An interim cap has already been put in place; no official decision has been made on a long-term solution.)

Dr. Davis, one of the world's leading authorities on environmental contamination, says that capping the landfill is an inappropriate and ineffective response to significant toxic contamination, and especially to potential contamination with radiation sources that have half-lives in the thousands of years. The cap, Davis says, should be removed and the landfill systematically examined for environmental hazards.

"It's clear that that was a very, very toxic industrial facility, and it was operating long before there were any sensible regulations in place to govern that kind of thing," Davis says. "So, as far as I'm concerned, that's an environmental land mine, and the cap that is put across it is mainly a cap that keeps it out of our sight.

"But as we know, just because things are out of sight doesn't mean that they're not dangerous."

During its 23-year life span, the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory at the San Francisco Naval Shipyard at Hunters Point served all branches of the U.S. military and became the military's chief research facility for studying the effects of radiation. The lab was at the heart of U.S. nuclear defense policy, yet it started by accident.The first atomic bomb, nicknamed "Fat Man," was exploded in a test in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945. The operation, code-named Trinity, was the culmination of the work of the Manhattan Project, in which American scientists were racing against German scientists for the successful production of the first atomic bomb. Within hours of the successful test, the USS Indianapolis left San Francisco for the South Pacific, carrying a similar bomb, this one called "Little Boy." On Aug. 6, Little Boy was loaded onto a U.S. B-29 bomber named the Enola Gay, which dropped it on Hiroshima, Japan. The city was instantly devastated, with more than 130,000 people killed and thousands more suffering radiation poisoning.

Three days later, the U.S. dropped a similar bomb on Nagasaki, killing or maiming at least 145,000 more people. Japan surrendered within weeks. Even though much of Europe and Asia lay in ruins, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, allies in the fight against the Axis powers, were already eyeing each other warily and would soon enter the long contest for world domination known as the Cold War. Conventional wisdom was that the next war would surely involve atomic weapons, and government leaders believed that the United States could and should develop the means of preparing for and defending itself against nuclear attack.

In July 1946, the United States Navy engaged in Operation Crossroads, two widely publicized atomic bomb tests staged near the Bikini Islands in the South Pacific. The first of the weapons tested, known as "Shot Able," was dropped on July 1, 1946, and exploded in the air, in a manner similar to the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The second device, called "Shot Baker," was an underwater bomb set off on July 25, 1946. The blast created an unexpectedly large column of water -- about 2 million tons' worth -- that reached a mile into the sky and then rained high amounts of nuclear fission products (the Baker bomb was made of plutonium) over most of the 95 ships that had been purposely anchored in the vicinity as targets. The blast also created the largest waves then known to man. Measuring devices were so damaged by the explosion that it's impossible to know exactly how tall the waves were, but photographic estimates put the first at about 94 feet in height.

Navy officials were ill-prepared for the intensity of Shot Baker and the damage it left behind. In a December 1946 letter, Dr. Stafford Warren, head of the Atomic Energy Commission's Medical Advisory Board and the UCLA Medical School, wrote:

The test turned out to be literally a hundred times larger than the original conception. We had no time to train sufficient men to do the job but had to strip the Manhattan District and call upon knowledgeable civilians. ... I never want to go through the experience of the last three weeks of August 1946 again. The air inhalation possibilities and all of the rest indicated conclusively that, just upon the basis of statistics alone, we were certain to get into trouble if we did not close the operation shortly.

I agree entirely that the greatest hazard is the insidious long-time exposure to long-lived isotopes and low concentration in bombed cities where the under-water detonation has been used. I believe they would be uninhabitable for several generations.

The Navy was left with a huge mess and little understanding of how to deal with the effects of this new weapon. A team of scientists, doctors, and enlisted men was hastily assembled to study radiation decontamination; though not officially named for another year or so, the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory had been born.

From a military viewpoint, Hunters Point seemed a logical location to set up a radiation laboratory. The shipyard was among the largest in the country, able to handle any ship in the Navy's fleet, and had been a staging area for actions in the Pacific. Also, it was across the bay from the University of California at Berkeley and up the peninsula from Stanford University, both leaders in early nuclear research. That Hunters Point sat in the middle of a major urban area was apparently inconsequential in the military calculus.

Things happened furiously at the beginning of the NRDL. Laboratory operations moved from one borrowed space at the shipyard to another. Navy historical documents describe the situation with deadpan understatement: "The problems of the pioneers at NRDL were legion." Among other things, the NRDL had difficulty berthing the 14 ships that were contaminated in Operations Crossroads and then taken to Hunters Point, finding trained personnel, and acquiring adequate equipment. The lab's original contingent of Geiger counters, for example, totaled six machines, four of which didn't work.

But the NRDL grew apace, its expansion stoked by fears, both legitimate and exaggerated, of a Soviet military that had itself acquired the atomic bomb in 1949. At its peak, reached in the late 1950s, the NRDL employed some 600 military and civilian scientists who operated under supervision from both the Defense Department and the former Atomic Energy Commission.

The United States carried out more than 175 atmospheric nuclear tests between 1945 and 1962; the NRDL was involved in most of them, whether they were conducted in the South Pacific or on desert testing grounds in Nevada. (The Soviet Union exploded more than 140 nuclear devices in that time.) The laboratory, also home to a cross-services radiation training school, was generously funded by all branches of the military; a significant part of that funding came through the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project, an agency dedicated to early nuclear weapons research.

By the late 1950s, the NRDL had branched out into biomedical radiation research, studying the effects of radiation on specific organs of the body. The biomedical research grew to more intricate study of the long-term effects of radiation in animals and, to a much lesser extent, humans. The NRDL also took on an increasing role with the federal Office of Civil Defense, researching the effects of nuclear detonations on a variety of bomb shelters and studying how people responded under different nuclear war scenarios.

Along the way, the NRDL received numerous patents and scientific awards, as well it should have. Some of the country's leading scientists worked on experiments that set the stage for discoveries valuable for the future health and safety of Americans. Other experiments from the era seem, now, almost reckless, mixing pure ignorance and scientific curiosity in a way that led to gross mishandling of radiological material. NRDL scientists published many, many research papers, but much of that research was never shared with the rest of the world. In fact, the military still considers boxes and boxes of NRDL research papers to be classified material.

By the late 1960s, the United States no longer engaged in above-ground nuclear testing, and most of the work at the lab was being done for civilian, not military, purposes. Meanwhile, the Vietnam conflict was in full swing, and the political climate in San Francisco had become less than welcoming to any sort of military operation, let alone nuclear experimentation. In 1967, the Summer of Love brought hundreds of young, war-protesting hippies to San Francisco, solidifying the city's image as the liberal headquarters of America.

In November 1969, the NRDL closed up shop with little warning. Five years later, the shipyard itself closed to military operations, without much resistance from the city. Even though the base's closure meant the loss of thousands of jobs, San Francisco clearly did not mourn it.

Over the next 2 1/2 decades, some of the buildings and dry docks were leased to private businesses. But for the most part, the shipyard became, and remains, a strange, empty wasteland. Overgrown weeds crowd pavement, obscuring where streets end and begin. Empty military buildings with broken windows sit like ghosts facing the bay. Sea gulls have taken over docks where mighty ships awaited refurbishing for the next battle. It would take little, now, to transform parts of the once-dynamic shipyard into a post-apocalypse movie set.

The chapter of NRDL history that has received by far the most press attention involves the lab's research into decontaminating ships used in Operation Crossroads. Indeed, whenever Navy environmental documents mention radiation at the Hunters Point Shipyard, it's generally a note about decontaminating those ships more than half a century ago. Many important aspects of those decontamination activities, however, have not been publicly examined.The moment the Baker bomb exploded in the water near Bikini, the Navy's target ships were contaminated with high-level radiation; they grew even more contaminated as they sat for weeks in radioactive lagoon water while Navy and civilian scientists attempted to figure out if and how they might be saved. By the time all was said and done, the radioactivity of algae on the bottoms of some of the ships was strong enough to be detected through their steel hulls.

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.)

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:

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.

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.

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."

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."

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."

The Navy lists Building 253 as having housed ordnance and electronics shops where workers stripped paint and aluminum. But early NRDL records show that the site was used to store equipment and other lab items that were ready for disposal but were "too hot" to mix with regular salvage.

Building 113 was, for a time, leased to the San Francisco Police Department; the Navy calls it a former "tug maintenance and salvage diver's shop." NRDL records show that the building was used to store samples that came from the bomb blasts in Bikini.

The Navy's Richard Mach says that Buildings 539 and 354 are not on the Navy's maps of the shipyard, while Building 253 was shared by the NRDL and the shipyard for storage. Its radiation status, he says, is unknown. And Building 113, he says, was an analytical laboratory for the shipyard, not the NRDL, where radioactive material was stored. The building, he says, has been surveyed and cleared for reuse. Public environmental records on the shipyard do not indicate that any of these buildings have been tested for radiation.

By law, before it can transfer ownership of property in California, the Navy is required to notify the state Department of Health Services of any location where radioactive materials were used or housed, and to show that the site has been cleaned to meet state standards. Several of the sites noted in NRDL records obtained from the National Archives are missing from the list of radiation-related buildings the Navy provided to the state.

In fact, several of the buildings the Navy listed in its own environmental documents as potentially contaminated sites were apparently not mentioned to the state. For instance, a 1992 radiation survey by a Navy contractor identified Building 224, along with several other buildings, as one that "may require further investigation for radioactivity due to former NRDL activities." NRDL records show that the building, previously an air raid shelter, was used to store radiation samples from 1947 until at least 1951.

The Department of Health Services has no record of this building, nor is there a record of follow-up investigation during the nine years since the site was identified by the Navy itself.

Last August, the landfill at the Hunters Point Shipyard caught fire and burned for more than a month before federal and city firefighters could put it out. The Navy did not notify residents or city officials about the fire for nearly three weeks, until plumes of green and yellow smoke floated over the Bayview community that abuts the shipyard. The EPA and most of San Francisco's congressional delegation criticized the Navy for its handling of the matter.

Perhaps more than anything else, the tragedy pointed out something that environment watchers have known for a long time: No one knows what's in the 46-acre landfill on the edge of the shipyard, right next door to the former home of the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory. If the Navy has its way, no one ever will. Contractors put a temporary cap on the site to put out the fire. As part of its cleanup operation, the Navy has proposed capping the landfill permanently, without further investigation into the toxic stew that lies beneath, which includes many nonradiological pollutants (see sidebar). An official decision on the disposition of the landfill has not been made.

Navy contractors have taken some samples around the perimeter of the area and a few in the middle, but the landfill itself has never been systematically analyzed. This would involve taking samples from the core of the landfill, which runs as deep as 49 feet.

Mach says Navy contractors have done a walk-over survey of the landfill site, which would identify radiation down to about 18 inches below the surface, and also dug trenches about nine feet deep into the landfill, which were then surveyed for radiation. "We looked at record searches, looked at aerial photographs, and tested," Mach says. "Through those mechanisms, you get a very good feel for the landfill. You will never know exactly what's in the landfill unless you dig it up. We do have a very good feel for what's in there, but can't tell you that there's a can of paint here or there.

"We did do test trenches and found radium sources down to about nine feet. We have not gone in and done a full remediation."

Clearly, there is radium in the landfill area. "There was an area at one point designated by the Navy as a radioactive disposal area, and that's where the radium dials are," the EPA's Dean says, referring to thousands of dials with radium-covered components (radium makes them glow in the dark) that were taken off ships and thrown in the landfill. The dials have long been the subject of controversy. Radium decays into radon gas, a known carcinogen. Environmental groups want all of the dials removed. The Navy and regulators are still haggling over how deep to dig for the radium dials.

And there are other questions about the Navy's plan for taking care of radon. Navy contractors found that at least 15 soil samples taken in the vicinity of the landfill contained radon above what would be considered an expected background level. In every case, the high level of radon was attributed to radium dials -- even where no radium dials were found. Soil samples were taken for laboratory analysis "to identify radioisotopes" only if radium- containing dials were found. If excavation encountered no dials, and, therefore, no immediate explanation for the radiation, samples were not taken to the lab. In other words, the Navy assumed that all radon in the soil originated from these radium-containing devices, without even looking for anything else.

Dean explains the situation this way: The radium dials and instruments came in many different shapes and sizes, some as small as a dime. They are spread all over the bay fill area, including the landfill and beyond. Some have decomposed, perhaps showing up only as a patch of rust-colored soil. Some have produced radium readings in soil as far as 18 inches from where the dial was located. It is therefore reasonable, the EPA scientist asserts, to assume that all radon in the soil came from radium dials.

Putting radium dials aside, it is reasonable to at least wonder whether contaminated sandblasting material, furniture or fixtures from contaminated ships, or radioactive materials used in NRDL research found their way into the landfill. Dean discounts the NRDL labs as a source for landfill radiation. "They weren't taking NRDL waste and putting it out there. That would have been illegal," he says. "They wouldn't have done that. It would have been more appropriate for them to put it in a drum and take it out to the Farallones the Farallon Island Nuclear Waste Site ."

Even so, the EPA disagrees with the Navy's suggestion to cap the landfill. "We think it soil in the landfill should be removed, very carefully," says Dean. "On the surface, leaving it capped seems like a very good idea. The Navy says that you have to leave landfills closed, you can't dig them up. But I think since the fire, they're starting to look at it very seriously. I think the technology exists, and I think it's in the best interest of the Navy and the community to get the radiation out of that landfill."

Environmentalists and academics are more caustic in their comments on plans for a cap.

Saul Bloom, executive director of ARC Ecology, which has sued the Navy repeatedly over issues at Hunters Point, has particularly strong feelings. "It's the elephant in the room that no one wants to look at," Bloom says. "The Navy is so reprehensible. These folks couldn't be honest if you paid them even more than they make now."

Given the history of the site, and the findings so far, Davis, the Monterey-based environmental expert, believes the safest course of action would be to dig up all of the radium dials from the landfill as part of a thorough investigation of the dump.

"They don't want radon leaking into the urban environment for the next 40 years, presumably," he says. "If they find radon there, it's not enough to just find the radon and cap it, because the gas is going to come out of the cap. The cap will crack, and no cap stays intact for that long. So, basically, what you're inviting is an accumulation of deadly gas that leaks into whatever urban environment is created there.

"And that is just stupid."

The Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory began its experiments, both wise and reckless, in an America that people born after the cultural firestorm of the 1960s, the political heartbreak of the Kennedy and King assassinations, and the constitutional betrayal of Watergate might have trouble imagining. The years directly after the end of World War II contained no credit cards; this was a time when a loaf of bread cost 14 cents -- or less -- and television was a rarity in most neighborhoods. Americans were going to the theater to watch James Stewart and Donna Reed in It's a Wonderful Life, but things weren't looking so good in real life. The transition to peace brought with it increasing unemployment as factories scaled back from the full production required by the war. In short order, the country was gripped by inflation and union strikes. Even Hollywood reflected America's painful readjustment. The film The Best Years of Our Lives, which chronicled the problems faced by three veterans and their families after the war, won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1946.President Harry Truman, who wanted to stimulate the economy through a military buildup and also believed the Soviet Union posed a real threat to American security, announced his Truman Doctrine, saying, "I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures." Anti-communism became a central theme of the Truman administration, and the president went so far as to enact the Employee Loyalty Program, in which the heads of all government agencies had to ensure that each of their employees was a loyal American. People all over the country were accused of being disloyal, as the government pried into their personal lives.

At the same time, the American public held the U.S. armed services in a high regard that they have never regained (except, perhaps, for a short time in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War). The military had, after all, won the good war, saving the country -- and the world -- from Nazism. To have served in this cause was to have been a hero. To continue serving, then, to protect America from communism -- yet another foreign, dictatorial ideology -- was to continue in a heroic tradition.

In the context of the times, the scientists of the NRDL served their country well. In the context of the times, it is understandable that the research conducted by these scientists was sealed away from public view. But that was then, not now. Public security, now, may depend more on disclosure than secrecy, and, today, heroism might be measured in the ability to acknowledge, and faithfully rectify, mistakes made in decades past.

The U.S. Navy has not fully disclosed the history of either the Hunters Point Shipyard or the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory, or the true nature of the environmental hazards that were left behind at the naval base. Navy officials have claimed not to know -- at least, not to have documentation of -- precisely what toxins are in, on, and around the shipyard. Clearly, some of this ignorance is willful. The NRDL documents declassified at the request of SF Weekly have long been available to the Navy. And there is a trove of thousands more research documents sitting on the shelves of the National Archives and Records Administration in San Bruno, among other records repositories. The Navy and other authorized government agencies could review these documents, which are not available to the public, at any time.

Despite millions of dollars the Navy has spent on fits and spurts of cleanup, its own contractors are continuously surprised by the toxins that they find. The surprises continue, yet the Navy refuses to undertake the sort of total-shipyard sampling that might identify just what is where.

Similarly, the Navy position on the Hunters Point landfill -- that it has no way to know what is in the landfill, but the landfill would be safe if capped -- is not only logically inconsistent; it may also be simply wrong, given the still-classified records that seem to have been left untouched.

The most dangerous radioactive poisons used at the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory have not vanished. They remain somewhere -- the former naval yard, the Farallon Island Nuclear Waste Site, or somewhere else -- and they will not be gone for thousands, or even tens of thousands, of years. Somewhere, we are living with them. The question is whether we will make reasonable efforts to find them, so we can monitor the dangers they pose, or if we will continue to pretend, in ignorance of the facts, that all is well.

San Francisco's political leaders have made clear their desire -- even lust -- to gain title to the Hunters Point Shipyard, despite a pattern of inadequate cleanup on the 500 acres where thousands of San Franciscans are expected to live, work, and play. The risks of such a transfer are real, and lasting.

"I personally would be very concerned about any transfer of that property to the city until the consequences of that transfer were really, thoroughly understood, and that means careful examination of exactly what's in that landfill site," says Dr. Davis. "My gosh, to cap a Superfund site and give it to the city and say everything is fine: That's policy nonsense.

"It does not serve the people of San Francisco."

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