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?

Then again, government officials have acknowledged that the site contains at least some long-lived nuclear material.

In a 1980 congressional hearing, David Hawkins, then-assistant administrator for the EPA, testified that the bulk of the nuclear waste in the Farallones consists of equipment, tools, lab clothing, and other materials contaminated with low-level, relatively short-lived radioactive substances. Still, he acknowledged that isotopes with the potential to adversely affect the environment for long time periods -- including strontium and cesium -- also had been dumped at the site.

"And, at times, they may have included small quantities of source materials such as uranium and thorium, or traces of special nuclear materials such as plutonium," Hawkins said, giving no indication of why he named those particular materials, and insisting that because there were no logs of what had been dumped, the government had no way to know for sure what is on the Farallones sea floor.

Dr. Thomas Suchanek found americium, an isotope that 
emits more radioactivity than radium, in fish collected near 
the Farallon Islands.
Paul Trapani
Dr. Thomas Suchanek found americium, an isotope that emits more radioactivity than radium, in fish collected near the Farallon Islands.
Dr. Thomas Suchanek found americium, an isotope that 
emits more radioactivity than radium, in fish collected near 
the Farallon Islands.
Paul Trapani
Dr. Thomas Suchanek found americium, an isotope that emits more radioactivity than radium, in fish collected near the Farallon Islands.

A decade later, another clue was dropped, this time during a meeting among representatives of state and federal agencies reviewing the Farallon site. At that meeting, according to two officials who were present, a U.S. Navy captain reported that the Navy was aware of having dumped some 9,000 containers of "special waste" into the Farallones area.

"Special waste" is a term that U.S. defense agencies use for high-level, long-lived radioactive materials, including uranium and plutonium, the latter of which, because of its long half-life, would be as dangerously radioactive today as it was 56 years ago, at the end of World War II. (Plutonium-239, the fuel of nuclear weapons, can cause cancer if even a tiny fragment makes its way inside the body, and has a half-life of 24,000 years. That is, half of a given mass of plutonium will decay in 24,000 years, or, to put it conversely, half the amount present today will still remain in 24,000 years.)

At the next meeting of the interagency group, U.S. Geological Survey geologist Herman Karl remembers, the Navy captain recanted his earlier report, saying that the Navy was not aware of any special waste dumped in the area. The subject was never discussed again in group meetings, Karl says. Another official who attended the meetings, and who requested anonymity, backs Karl's account of the two meetings. A third government official remembers the captain being part of the group, but nothing else.

Attempts to contact the Navy captain were unsuccessful.

In a prepared statement, Lt. Steve Curry of the Navy's Office of Information in Washington, D.C., responded to questions about the Farallon waste site this way: "The barrels in question contain mostly laboratory wastes generated during research activities and/or decontamination procedures." Curry said the EPA, in cooperation with the Navy, had investigated the site in 1975 and again in 1985. He went on to say, "A typical waste package observed during the 1985 investigation (after 30 years immersion) showed very little evidence of any effect of the deep sea environment other than a small area of mild implosion on the upper surface, and its concrete matrix showed very little spalling [chipping or flaking]."

Curry's statement fails to address the crucial distinction of whether these "laboratory wastes" are high-level, long-life radiation sources or lab equipment and materials that were slightly contaminated during NRDL research.

And the government's own research conclusively disproves Curry's suggestion that the waste containers in the Farallones remain largely intact. Studies by the EPA and other government-funded researchers, some of which have even been presented to Congress, clearly show that many of the 55-gallon barrels containing radioactive waste at the Farallon site have imploded, or are corroded and disintegrating.

The USS Independence was definitely sunk somewhere in the Pacific Ocean after it left Hunters Point Shipyard for the last time in 1951. It was definitely filled with radioactive waste -- some of it of the high-level variety -- when it went down. Although the Navy will not confirm the ship's whereabouts, the Independenceis widely believed to rest in or near the Farallon undersea nuclear dump.

The 10,000-ton aircraft carrier was among the Navy's largest vessels when it was built in 1942, and had seen a great deal of action in World War II. Originally a cruiser, the Independence was converted into an aircraft carrier after it was hit by a Japanese torpedo at Tarawa. "The Mighty I," as the ship was nicknamed, participated in the October 1943 battle at Wake Island.

The ship's radioactive history began in 1946, when it was a target ship parked in the lagoon surrounded by Bikini Atoll during the United States' largest atom bomb test. The Independence was only 560 yards from the blast, so close that it caught fire, and its upper decks were mangled into a mess of misshapen metal.

Following the test, the highly contaminated Independence was one of 14 ships brought to the San Francisco Naval Shipyard at Hunters Point for experimental decontamination in exercises that gave birth to the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory. After several months of trying to cleanse the giant vessel with everything from vegetables to detergent to kerosene, government scientists decided that sandblasting followed by a citric acid rinse was the way to get rid of radioactive contaminants.

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