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?

By 1997, Karl was talking with his counterparts in the British government, who had developed equipment that could measure radiation as far as 3,000 feet undersea. The British scientists were anxious to get in on Karl's study, and agreed to bring their equipment to the Farallones. But it took another year before the USGS's ship, already committed to other projects, became available.

In the end, the joint team of researchers was able to confirm the mapping that Karl's group at the USGS had done with the sidescan sonar, which is to say that there were barrels where the researchers predicted they would be, and no containers where they had not. And the British scientists reported only low levels of radiation. But the team was only able to study 15 percent of the area before also running out of time and money.

Which means that approximately 85 percent of the nation's largest undersea nuclear waste dump has never been observed or tested.

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.
Ed Ueber, director of the Gulf of the Farallones National 
Marine Sanctuary, worked with the USGS  to map the 
location of nuclear waste containers near the Farallones.
Paul Trapani
Ed Ueber, director of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, worked with the USGS to map the location of nuclear waste containers near the Farallones.


In the 1970s, a group of marine biologists working on Project Tektite, a public-private partnership created to study the behavior of sharks, spent a good deal of time diving near the Farallon Islands. The divers had no clue they were in the middle of an undersea nuclear waste dump. They saw a seabed littered with corroded 55-gallon drums and cement boxes, animal carcasses, and debris, but it wasn't until they saw a newspaper article about the site that they realized where they'd been. Shortly afterward, Dr. Harold Ross, who'd led the Tektite expedition, offered the government, through Congress, the use of his group's sophisticated diving and surveillance equipment to take a closer look at the area. His offer went unheeded.

For decades, scientists have said that the Farallon Islands Nuclear Waste Site ought to be monitored. As far back as 1960, the National Academy of Sciences took the official position that the site should be studied regularly. In two congressional hearings on the waste site, there was disagreement over the level of potential danger associated with the waste, but essentially everyone agreed that the site should be monitored to record the effects of radiation on the environment and fish.

At the 1980 hearing, then-Congressman Burton said, "There should be mandated as quickly as possible, through either committee language, appropriation, or authorizing language, a system of monitoring. ... We have to have a systematic, periodic monitoring of the fish and other aquaculture to find out what is happening."

His colleagues were equally passionate that the area be watched.

Even the EPA, which had by this time released a study that generally found the site to be an unlikely hazard, said that the dump ought to be kept under periodic surveillance. Hawkins, the assistant EPA administrator, told the congressmen, "It will now be necessary to collect additional samples for further analysis, and that is something that the government intends to see get done."

It did not.

In an exchange with EPA radiation specialist Robert Dyer, Burton asked how often the site should be monitored. Here is an excerpt of what followed:

Dyer: "Six-month type of period."

Burton: "Have you been doing that?"

Dyer: "No, we haven't."

Burton: "Do you plan to do it?"

At this point, Hawkins stepped into the fray, arguing that the agency had no resources for conducting a monitoring study of the Farallon site.

Burton: "Do you plan to ask for the resources?"

Hawkins: "We plan to pursue with NOAA and anyone else that we can pursue it with to see if we can get these resources ..."

Burton: "... you have got a responsibility to come to the Congress and ask for more money to do this."

No regular monitoring program followed.

In 1983, California legislators passed a law that funded investigation of the levels of radionuclides in some edible fishes from around the Farallon waste site. The state Department of Health Services subsequently contracted with the University of California -- Suchanek's group -- to monitor levels of radionuclides in bottom fishes and mussels in the area.

But the Legislature chose not to continue the law, and after 1987, there was no further monitoring.

On at least two occasions, federal agencies have hired contractors to look into potential hazards at the dump site. Both times the contractors have recommended that the area continue to be monitored. Neither time did government officials follow the advice of the contractors.

A May 1974 report done for the EPA by Interstate Electronics Corp. says:

Because the shallower site may be one that could provide radioactive material that can be transported into the productive zone[i.e., the food chain] and possibly onto the beaches or into San Francisco Bay itself, a program to study the status of containers at this site should be initiated as a first priority.

No such program was undertaken, other than Dyer's limited work for the EPA.

Nearly 20 years later, in 1993, the Hazardous Materials Response Branch of the NOAA hired another contractor, Tetra Tech Inc., to research "the present and future risks to resources in the vicinity of the Farallones."

Tetra Tech assumed in the study that risk was based on low-level waste, and concluded that any hazard to natural resources was "below the level of concern." The report also stated that plutonium and americium will reach maximum release rates 80 to 200 years after their disposal (that is, starting somewhere around 2030) and "are expected to persist in the environment for an extended period of time."

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