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?

Eventually, the NRDL brass determined that the Independence was so "dirty" it was beyond hope of being safe to sail again. At that point, parked in the bay at Hunters Point, the Independencebecame a guinea pig. The prevailing wisdom, as revealed in NRDL records, seemed to be that since the Navy was planning to sink the contaminated ship anyway, it was the perfect place for radiation experiments.

On one occasion, scientists sprayed mixed fission products across a portion of the ship. Eventually, the NRDL decided to turn some sections of the aircraft carrier into a radiation lab. The ship-as-lab is described in a November 1948 memo from the NRDL to the Army's chief of engineers:

Engineering Applications Division is in process of converting some of the interior compartments of the ship into an improvised hot-laboratory where high levels of activity can be used on fairly large-scale practical samples as a means of testing "quick and dirty" methods of decontamination.

Dr. Herman Karl headed a USGS study aimed at locating 
barrels of nuclear waste at the bottom of the sea.
Paul Trapani
Dr. Herman Karl headed a USGS study aimed at locating barrels of nuclear waste at the bottom of the sea.
Dr. Herman Karl headed a USGS study aimed at locating 
barrels of nuclear waste at the bottom of the sea.
Paul Trapani
Dr. Herman Karl headed a USGS study aimed at locating barrels of nuclear waste at the bottom of the sea.

... The big advantage of such an improvised hot-laboratory is that spills or other accidental contamination do not matter, since if the whole laboratory becomes contaminated it can either be moved to a new compartment or gross decontamination methods can be used on the laboratory without the necessity of careful disposal.

All the while, the ship was used for another purpose: Radioactive waste produced by both the NRDL and the University of California's nuclear laboratories was stowed on the Independence until shortly before its sinking in January 1951. Correspondence from the time indicates that the radioactive waste packed onto the ship went down with it. A Dec. 23, 1949, memo from C.J. Brown, assistant chief of the Navy's Bureau for Research and Medical Military Specialties, describes the situation this way:

During the past year,Independence has been used as a test laboratory for radiological decontamination studies. Large quantities of fresh fission product mixtures were introduced on board during these studies and subsequently were drained into empty tanks aboard the ship for stowage. Other contaminated materials that have been used in connection with the research program of the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory also have been put on board theIndependence.

Brown went on to explain that if the Navy wanted to salvage the Independence for scrap, it would have to remove and dispose of the contaminants on board, a process that would exceed the ship's scrap value. So Navy officials decided to sink the ship in a weapons test.

The exact circumstances surrounding the Independence's sinking have never been made public. At the time, Navy officials told reporters that the ship had been sunk in a weapons test some 200 miles off the coast. But the captain of a merchant ship claimed to have witnessed the Independence go down only 40 miles outside the Golden Gate, which would put it near the Farallon Islands Nuclear Waste Site. The Navy did not comment on the merchant captain's observations. But during a recent project aimed at mapping nuclear waste barrels dumped near the Farallones, government scientists found nothing where the Navy has said it sank the Independence, and a large shipwreck that fits the Independence's description close to the nuclear waste site.

Navy officials still refuse to comment on the location of the Independence, citing policies, aimed at preventing salvage or looting, that prohibit confirming the exact location of any sunken Navy ship. Regardless of where it is, the Independence, which remains the property of the U.S. Navy, has apparently not been monitored in regard to radioactive contamination.

Depending on what, precisely, they turn out to be, the "mixed fission" products on the USS Independence could represent as much radiation as all the barrels in the Farallon dump site, according to W. Jackson Davis, head of the International Environmental Policy program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and an international environmental consultant. (SF Weekly contracted with a team of analysts working under Davis' direction to review environmental documents pertaining to the Hunters Point Shipyard. Their findings were included in Part One of this series.)

"You'd sure like to know what "mixed fission' products mean," Davis says. "Whether you could immediately tell by monitoring the surrounding area, I'm not sure. It could mean that the waste is still entombed within that ship."

That the waste might be mostly contained by the Independence is not necessarily a positive notion. Shipwrecks attract the very creatures that tend to absorb radiation into the food chain of sea life. Invertebrates such as clams and mussels are particularly attracted to the hard surface area provided by sunken ships.


The safety of nuclear waste dumped in the Gulf of the Farallones began to be questioned nearly as soon as dumping stopped in 1970. But the concern has been expressed publicly only in fits and spurts.

In 1974, the EPA conducted an investigation of the site but could locate only about 150 of the 47,500 containers the government has acknowledged dumping there. Most had imploded or were otherwise damaged. Three years later, government scientists retrieved one barrel, which showed only low levels of radiation. But a survey of the sediment surrounding containers at the sea bottom showed radiation 25 times higher than "background," or what is normally attributed to the fallout from atmospheric testing. More disturbing were underwater photographs taken at the site that showed sable fish feeding within inches of a leaking barrel of radioactive waste.

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