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John Gessleman spent his post-adolescent years as a gunner's mate in the United States Navy. Between 1955 and 1959, he was stationed on the USS Cahokia, a tug that shipped out of San Francisco Naval Shipyard at Hunters Point. Part of his regular job was to escort a barge carrying radioactive waste under the Golden Gate Bridge and out into the Gulf of the Farallones. There, the bottom of the barge would open to release containers of radioactive waste into the sea.
Now, Gessleman lives in Pennsylvania; his speech is slurred, and his wife, Ann, often has to translate what he's saying on the phone. In 1980, Gessleman was diagnosed with a form of multiple sclerosis, which has left him in a wheelchair, with limited use of his left arm and sight in only one eye. John Gessleman believes his time in the Navy, working near radioactive waste, contributed to his present condition. He remembers, for example, sleeping on the starboard side of his ship -- the side next to the barge's loading gate -- but as with most claims by atomic veterans, the government disagreed, and refused to pay him for a service-related disability.
Gessleman says that the carcasses of dead animals constituted much of the cargo on the barge his tug regularly towed; those animals had been used in experiments at the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory at Hunters Point, the military's leading laboratory for applied nuclear research, and at the University of California's Lawrence Laboratories. There were other kinds of waste inside 55-gallon drums that were loaded onto the barge, but Gessleman doesn't remember what that waste was; in fact, he's not sure, now, that he ever knew what was in the barrels.
The routine was always the same: Barrels were collected on the barge until it was full, and then it sailed out the Golden Gate and dropped its load into the sea. On a few occasions, Gessleman remembers, a representative from the Atomic Energy Commission came on board the ship and told the captain that measurements showed the radiation levels were too high, and the ship should be cleaned up before the next load.
Another part of Gessleman's job was to shoot holes in the barrels that didn't immediately sink, so that they would. He says he did his job -- shooting about 10 to 20 barrels once or twice each week -- which means that many of the Navy's radioactive waste containers were breached before they ever reached the bottom of the sea, and became part of what is known as the Farallon Islands Nuclear Waste Site.
The Farallon waste site is a triangle-shaped piece of seascape that sits about 30 miles west of San Francisco. It encompasses most of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, a gorgeous refuge of marine and other wildlife that includes some of the most fertile commercial fishing waters in the Pacific. The islands themselves are home to one of the nation's largest populations of breeding seabirds, along with thousands of sea lions. The waters surrounding them are rich with fish and bottom-dwelling sea life. In fact, in recent decades, divers in the area have brought up at least 50 species of worms and crustaceans previously unknown to science.
Certainly, this seems a ridiculous place to situate the nation's first and largest sea dump of nuclear waste. In the mid-1940s, however, the Defense Department and, indeed, the federal government as a whole were much more concerned about keeping nuclear trash out of enemy hands than they were about the environment. The waters near the Farallones were seen as a convenient spot, far enough away to be out of sight, close enough to be under control.
Government officials have long acknowledged that the dump site contains some 47,500 barrels of low-level radiation waste generated by Navy and University of California nuclear laboratories. And yet, neither the Navy nor anyone else has ever been able to produce any kind of accounting or documentation that confirms the numbers of barrels dumped or describes the contents of the barrels. Government officials have speculated that the waste was trash, a mix of junk and laboratory accessories, some of which had been exposed to small amounts of radiation, none of which posed a threat to human health.
But such assertions grossly underestimate the extent of Cold War-era research in the Bay Area and the types of radioactive materials used in that research. Although official government statements continue to refer to the Farallon Islands Nuclear Waste Site as a "low-level" waste repository -- that is, a place containing radioactive materials that have short "half-lives," and that would therefore decay quickly and be diluted by sea water -- there is good reason to believe that something far more dangerous is parked at the bottom of the ocean near the Farallones.
Once-classified military documents and former government employees strongly suggest that the Navy's "low-level" designation is incorrect, and that significant amounts of high-level, extremely long-lived radioactive materials are sitting on the ocean bottom near the Farallones. To wit:
- The Navy's own documents, declassified at the request of SF Weekly, show that significant amounts of the nuclear bomb component plutonium, which has a half-life of 24,000 years, and similarly long-lived "mixed fission" products were used at the nuclear laboratory at Hunters Point. The Navy has asserted that all nuclear materials used at the NRDL were subsequently disposed of at the Farallon waste site.