Fallout

Newly released documents indicate the Navy dumped far more nuclear waste than it's ever acknowledged in a major commercial fishery just 30 miles west of San Francisco. Why won't the government even study the Farallon Islands Nuclear Waste Site?

- An entire radioactive ship, the 10,000-ton aircraft carrier USS Independence, is believed to have been sunk in or near the waste site. The carrier itself was clearly "hot" when it went down. It had been used as an atomic bomb target and a nuclear laboratory, and it was packed full of fresh fission products and other radiological waste at the time it sank.

- Two government officials say the Navy told them thousands of barrels containing "special" wastes -- that is, high-level, long-lived radioactive materials -- were dumped in the Farallon site.

In the decades since World War II ended, many scientific studies have shown that radioactive materials dumped at sea can enter the marine food chain through bottom-dwelling organisms, such as clams and mussels, and that radiation can accumulate in fish and other, higher-order animals that feed on the bottom-dwellers. It is also widely accepted that eating fish that have taken in significant amounts of radioactive material can be dangerous to humans, increasing the incidence of cancer and other radiation-linked diseases.

For as long as the public has known about the Farallon Islands Nuclear Waste Site, government officials and scientists alike -- including those who don't agree on the potential hazard of the Farallon dump -- have said that the area should be monitored. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's own contractors have said the site contains material that might be transported into the food chain, or even onto beaches or into San Francisco Bay.

Yet, more than 50 years after radioactive waste was dumped at the heart of a major fishery just off San Francisco, there has been no comprehensive study or regular monitoring of the site, the fish that swim there, or the fish that have been caught there and sold for human consumption.

Both the Navy and the U.S. Department of Energy have for years maintained a position that is internally inconsistent: They have repeatedly claimed that they do not know for certain what is in the Farallon Islands Nuclear Waste Site, and, simultaneously, they have repeatedly asserted that whatever was dumped in the Farallones is not dangerous. Not only does the position defy common sense, it ignores volumes of declassified government records detailing some of what was dumped in the Farallones. And the government has access to reams of documents that remain classified, and that would almost certainly describe radioactive materials used in government labs and dumped in the Farallones.

The simple truth is that no one can say with any degree of certainty whether the Farallon Islands Nuclear Waste Site and the fish taken there are safe, because no one has fully studied them. In fact, the U.S. government has gone out of its way to avoid learning or disclosing what it put on the sea floor 50 years ago.


The Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory was created at Hunters Point Shipyard in 1946 to handle and experiment with ships that were contaminated in the world's fourth atomic bomb explosion, which was part of the Operation Crossroads nuclear tests conducted at Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific. From humble, hasty beginnings, when it decontaminated ships that had been underneath the infamous mushroom cloud in the Pacific, the NRDL grew steadily bigger, and its work more complex.

The NRDL existed from 1946 until 1969; the Navy kept its very existence a secret until about 1950. At the peak of operations, the lab employed some 600 people -- mostly military and civilian scientists -- who researched the effects of nuclear weapons and how to mitigate those effects. The laboratory worked on projects for the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project and took part in almost every nuclear weapons test the military performed. Along the way, scientists exposed thousands of mice, dogs, and larger animals to long-lived radiation, often in nuclear tests in the Pacific and Nevada.

Wellard Guffy was a supply officer at the NRDL from 1957 to 1960. Part of his job was to oversee the disposal of the laboratory's radioactive waste. In fact, his name was on the Atomic Energy Commission license allowing the laboratory to dump near the Farallones during that time. He remembers what was sent out to sea this way: "Look at the dictionary of radioactive substances; we had it all. Plutonium, tritium, extremely dangerous stuff," he says, adding that "a lot of it was much less dangerous than that."

Guffy's recollections aside, there is voluminous documentation strongly suggesting that high-level, long-lived radioactive waste has been dumped in the Farallones.

Historical records obtained by SF Weeklyshow that the NRDL regularly acquired and used, among other things, uranium, plutonium, thorium, cesium, and strontium -- potentially deadly radioisotopes with half-lives from 30 to (in the case of thorium) several billion years. The lab also used mixed fission products (that is, highly radioactive substances akin to expended nuclear reactor fuel). Along with the radioactive waste the lab itself generated, the NRDL also handled nuclear disposal for other defense-related entities, including McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento and the University of California, a leader in nuclear research. Government officials have asserted that all nuclear materials used at the NRDL were disposed of at the Farallon waste site. If this assertion is true, then the Farallones site must be home to a variety of long-lived, high-level radioactive poisons.

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