Fallout: The Past Is Present

The Nuclear Witnesses

Because Hunters Point was for more than two decades home to the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory, the military's largest applied nuclear research lab, one of those reports, focused on radiological activities and substances, has been billed as exhaustive. Known as a Historical Radiation Assessment, that report, released in late March, is based on information from shipyard employees and documents that might shed light on how and where radioactive substances were used at the base.

But the report, which Navy officials acknowledge is years late, fails to document the complete history of radiological activities and waste disposal at the shipyard. In compiling the assessment, the Navy's Radiological Affairs Support Office did indeed look at some records, and interview some former shipyard workers.

But the study is hardly definitive.

According to its report, the Navy apparently did not interview anyone who worked at the shipyard before 1952, even though the greatest carelessness in handling nuclear material at the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory almost certainly occurred in the late 1940s, during the first years of the Cold War, when interest in radiation was soaring and knowledge of the dangers of nuclear material was minimal.

The Navy did not interview the people who carried out maintenance at the base, and who would, potentially, know about what waste went where.

The Navy did not ask anyone who worked outside the radiation lab buildings what they did with waste.

The Navy did not contact the men who loaded or unloaded ships that carried waste.

The Navy did not talk to Frank Brinton, the man who, for nearly three decades, was in charge of a shipyard landfill that has long been at the center of controversy over the oft-criticized cleanup of Hunters Point.

And the Navy did not talk to Richard Logan, a man who helped remove the interior fixtures from an aircraft carrier irradiated during atomic bomb tests and helped install them into buildings on what was then the San Francisco Naval Shipyard at Hunters Point.

During the height of the Cold War, Hunters Point Shipyard was among the busiest Navy bases in the country, large enough to handle any ship in the Navy's fleet. More than 7,000 military and civilian employees worked there, keeping vessels repaired and afloat.

In 1946, the United States detonated two 23-kiloton atomic bombs over a fleet of target ships anchored near Bikini atoll in the South Pacific Ocean. Many of the ships targeted in the Operation Crossroads tests were towed back to Hunters Point Shipyard. Most of the ships were too damaged and radioactive to reuse and were eventually sunk -- but not before military scientists had a chance to study and experiment with the early nuclear weapon targets.

Those early studies gave birth to the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory, which grew on Hunters Point Shipyard until it eventually included more than 600 civilian and military scientists working with all branches of the military. For 23 years, the NRDL experimented with applied uses of radiation, contaminating and decontaminating vessels, inanimate objects, land, animals, and occasionally humans in the name of protecting Americans' health and safety. Lab personnel participated in virtually every nuclear test in the United States until 1969, when operations shut down.

The shipyard closed its gates as an active military base in 1974. The Navy began seriously addressing environmental problems at the shipyard in the early 1990s, after the federal Environmental Protection Agency added the property to the national list of Superfund sites.

In 2000, after years of on-again-off-again negotiations, the city of San Francisco and the U.S. Navy agreed on a method for transferring the shipyard, in parcels, to city ownership. The details were set out in a January 2001 agreement between Mayor Willie Brown and Secretary of the Navy Gordon England. The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency has planned a mixed-use community on the bay-front property, which is to include 1,800 homes.

In May 2001, SF Weekly reported, in the two opening parts of the series "Fallout," that the Navy had, mostly owing to the scientific ignorance of bygone eras, grossly mishandled radioactive substances and other chemical waste at the property. The series also revealed the Navy's failure to research and disclose much of the radiological history of Hunters Point Shipyard.

This spring, the Navy released a much-anticipated first draft of its Historical Radiation Assessment, a report on radioactive materials used and disposed of through the years at the shipyard. According to its author, the Navy's Radiological Affairs Support Office, the 634-page report took five years and more than $2 million to complete. The purpose of the document, of course, was to identify areas that require special attention and cleanup because of their radiation history; such an assessment is, therefore, usually undertaken early in the environmental cleanup of an area with a nuclear past.

At Hunters Point, however, the report was decades late in coming. The Navy's contractors are working on the fifth stage of a radiation cleanup plan -- meaning either that the contractors will have to review all of their previous work in light of information newly disclosed by the radiation assessment, or that the report is essentially meaningless to the cleanup effort.

"The Navy realizes that the [Historical Radiation Assessment] should have come out years before it did," explains Dave DeMars, the Navy's lead remedial project manager at the shipyard. "It literally took years to complete."

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