Fallout: The Past Is Present

The Nuclear Witnesses

Despite the time and resources devoted to researching the shipyard's radiation history, the Navy's report is curiously less than rigorous in many ways. For example, only eight former shipyard employees were interviewed for the report, none of whom worked there earlier than 1952. All of those interviewed worked inside the NRDL, most of them either as scientists or in management positions.

To be sure, these men all held important jobs in their day, but their positions seem to have little bearing on a question that Frank Brinton asks with unintentional understatement: "What would they know about what happened to the garbage?"

According to their own report, Navy researchers did not interview anyone who actually handled waste at the shipyard; nor did they speak with anyone who handled radioactive waste sent out to be dumped at sea (a process that ended in 1970).

The Navy did not speak with anyone who loaded or unloaded ships, installed, removed, or repaired equipment, operated machinery, or performed any other job in the yard on a regular basis, and who might therefore have actually witnessed waste-handling.

In a written answer to SF Weekly's questions about the report, Navy radiological officials explained their methods this way: "Finding personnel to interview for the [Historical Radiation Assessment] has proven to be one of our biggest challenges. Most personnel who managed operations using [general radiation materials] at Hunters Point Shipyard in the 1940s to 1950s are no longer living or have limited memory of the operations."

No doubt many people who worked at the shipyard in the years immediately following World War II have died, but the U.S. Navy certainly has mastered challenges more difficult than finding former employees whose addresses are in government files and computers. Most of the civilian employees of the shipyard served at one point or another in the military; if still alive, they receive pension checks and health care services from the government. A crowd of people who worked at Hunters Point gathers annually for a reunion lunch in South San Francisco; in recent years, 150 to 200 people have attended, and many of them have connections to the shipyard dating back to the 1940s. The group maintains a roster. For that matter, most of the people on the roster are listed in the phone book.

But the failure to find people who worked with shipyard waste is not the only apparent incongruity in the report.

The Historical Radiation Assessment lists several locations at the shipyard as having been cleaned of radiation, or never having contained nuclear materials. But some of those "clean" locations are also scheduled in the report to be resurveyed for possible radiological contamination -- a happenstance that has caught the attention of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the San Francisco Department of Public Health. In reviewing the Navy's report, both agencies noted, with some puzzlement, that several supposedly clean buildings are scheduled for resurvey without any apparent explanation.

"Where there is good evidence that radiation materials were used, we've gone back to make sure that emissions in those areas are clean," DeMars explains. "We're being very conservative about going back over these buildings."

But it may be difficult to be conservative where the Navy report is, apparently, simply wrong. Consider shipyard Building 821, for instance, which the Navy contends was used only as an X-ray facility, and never contained radiation sources. Nonetheless, Navy contractors resurveyed the building and removed cesium, a cancer-causing radioactive material, from a drainpipe.

On the other hand, some potentially hazardous sites aren't reflected in the study's findings, because they apparently weren't investigated.

In "Fallout," SF Weekly reported that, according to historical documents contained in the National Archives, the shipyard's Building 539 was used to store radioisotopes until at least 1956, and Building 354 was used in the early 1950s for "high level NRDL projects." Neither building is mentioned in the Historical Radiation Assessment.

The Navy does not have records on all of the former buildings used by the NRDL, explains Vincent DeInnocentiis, health physicist for the Navy's Radiological Affairs Support Office. Many of those buildings have been torn down, he says, in which case Navy officials attempt to find and survey the former area where the building most likely existed. Also, DeInnocentiis says, there are typographical errors in some of the old records, and building numbers are simply wrong. Despite these potentially permanent gaps in information, Navy officials have no plans to survey areas outside those in which their research indicates radiological materials may have been stored or used.

In a manner of speaking, Frank Brinton knows where the bodies are buried at Hunters Point Shipyard. Indeed, the largest shipyard on the West Coast presented him with some odd disposal challenges over the years ... including dead animals irradiated at a nuclear research laboratory located on the base.

NRDL scientists experimented on thousands of animals during their research into the effects of radiation on living organisms. The Navy's Historical Radiation Assessment, citing an official 1969 NRDL report, says irradiated animals were disposed of with great care. To wit:

"Radioactive carcasses of small animals used in irradiation studies were contained in plastic bags with formaldehyde and placed in 20-gallon cans for disposal in accordance with [Atomic Energy Commission] regulations. When bags containing carcasses were added to drums of waste for disposal, the bags were punctured and sand was added to fill voids and cover all carcasses. Larger animals were disposed of in concrete casks."

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