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?

A few years later, the state Department of Health Services hired UC Davis professors Thomas Suchanek and Manuel Lagunas-Solar to test fish around the waste dump site. Suchanek, a research ecologist and director of UC's Clear Lake Environmental Research Center, collected fish samples at various time periods between December 1986 and September 1987. Lagunas-Solar, a radiochemist at the UC Crocker Nuclear Laboratory, analyzed the results.

The researchers found plutonium, cesium, and americium -- an isotope that emits about three times as much radioactivity as radium -- in the fish. In particular, americium and one kind of plutonium were found at levels higher than has been reported at any other site in the world.

In their analysis, Suchanek and Lagunas-Solar also recalculated the results of samples taken earlier by Dyer and his EPA researchers and found certain radionuclides to be as high as 1,000 times what would be typically attributed to background levels from nuclear fallout, as opposed to the two-to-25-times-background conclusions reached by the EPA researchers.

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.

After conducting their initial research, but before having published the results, Suchanek and Lagunas-Solar concluded that their findings warranted study of creatures lower in the food chain, and thus closer to the source of radiation. (Radioactivity multiplies as it moves up the food chain in such a way that creatures at the top of the chain -- fish that feed on fish, for example -- might contain 40 times more radioactivity than crustaceans or other prey on the bottom.)

Based on the findings of research he and Lagunas-Solar had conducted, Suchanek says he was approved for a $260,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency to study radioactive isotopes in crustaceans living near the Farallones. But then Suchanek and Lagunas-Solar published their findings about radiation contaminants at the nuclear dump.

And some strange things happened.

Suchanek says he met with Dyer, the EPA radiation specialist, who warned him to "stay away from the nation's nuclear waste dumps." Shortly after Dyer's visit, Suchanek says, he was notified by the NOAA that the agency's remotely operated vehicle -- the unmanned submarine that was key to Suchanek's proposed research -- would not be available, and, therefore, his research into the Farallon site would not be funded.

Dyer disputes Suchanek's account.

"I wasn't working on the West Coast in the 1980s, and I wouldn't have cared what was going on out there then," Dyer says. "I was accused of almost everything. This was such a political thing. I finally decided, "It's California, I have to get used to that.'"


A decade ago, Herman Karl, a USGS geologist, and Ed Ueber, the NOAA's director of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, began what would become the most extensive look at the mysterious barrels of radiation on the seabed undertaken to date, even though it only covered about 15 percent of the waste site. They and their crew sailed into the choppy waters near the Farallon Islands, set anchor, and carefully lowered a small, unmanned submarine -- that is, a remotely operated vehicle -- to the bottom of the sea. The idea was to definitively locate the containers of radioactive waste the Navy had dumped, and then determine what was leaking out of them.

Karl and his colleagues at the USGS had already mapped what appeared to be nuclear waste containers using sidescan sonar, a special type of sonar that projects a beam of sound into the environment and uses the returning echoes to form a picture of the surrounding area. Now it was time to see if those scans had, indeed, identified waste barrels, rather than rocks or other naturally occurring sea-floor phenomena. This was an important step in any further research of the area. The containers were not where Navy logs from the time said the barrels had been dumped. (The difficulty in locating the barrels may have been due to changes in navigational equipment over the last 50 years.) Without a map of some kind -- in this case, the sidescan sonar images -- there would be limited hope of knowing even where to start studying the waste site.

The weather was terrible, and the seas unforgiving. The first few attempts were a bust. The project quickly ran through its $1 million budget from the EPA and NOAA, leaving Karl and Ueber to beg, borrow, and steal from other projects to keep this one alive. "Herman and I were doing this on a handshake," recalls Ueber. "It was what we could add on to our normal work ... to get this project done."

At one point, Ueber went down in a manned submersible -- borrowed from the Navy -- and tooled around some barrels about 1,000 feet below. The sub's propeller got too close to the bottom and kicked up dirt, so Ueber had to wait for the dust storm to clear before heading back up. He says instruments on the sub measured radiation at three times higher than what is considered normal background levels in the atmosphere. That was the last time the researchers were able to use the sub, a particularly pricey piece of equipment that, were it contaminated or damaged, would cost more than $100 million to replace.

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