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How nuclear researchers handled -- and grossly mishandled -- the Cold War's most dangerous radioactive substances at a top-secret lab inside the Hunters Point Shipyard. The same shipyard the city wants to remake as San Francisco's newest neighborhood.

Wednesday, May 2 2001

For a long time now, San Francisco's leaders have dreamed of a new development along the city's waterfront, a 500-acre community where citizens promenade along San Francisco Bay, artists display their talents in a variety of new cultural institutions, and children frolic in new green spaces. In the dream, the community has offices and stores and more than 1,800 brand-new homes overlooking a bayside scene that includes one especially inviting aspect, a half-moon beach that curves in from a quiet arm of the bay. The beach has a gentle hillside immediately behind it, and, if everything goes according to plan, that hillside will become a park where the dogs and children of this dreamy future will be able to play and enjoy panoramic bay views -- on top of a toxic waste dump and just yards from a former nuclear research laboratory that handled, and significantly mishandled, large amounts of the most dangerous and long-lived radioactive poisons produced during the Cold War.

An SF Weekly investigation of the environmental history of the San Francisco Naval Shipyard at Hunters Point -- land the city hopes to acquire and transform into a master-planned community -- has found troubling evidence that the Navy conducted nuclear research and mishandled radioactive waste on a vastly greater scale than has yet been revealed.For 23 years following World War II, the Hunters Point Shipyard was the site of the military's largest facility for applied nuclear research -- the top-secret Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory. Over the course of its life, according to government documents declassified at the request of SF Weekly, the NRDL handled nearly every kind of radioactive material known to man -- including, at one point, enough plutonium to kill 15 million people. The shipyard is also well known as a site where Navy ships were decontaminated after being irradiated in atomic weapons tests.

Yet in the early days of the Atomic Age, procedures for handling radioactive materials were shockingly lax by today's standards. The NRDL often experimented with and disposed of nuclear material with little apparent concern that it was operating in the middle of a major metropolitan area. Among other things, historical documents show, scientists at the NRDL:

- Oversaw the dumping of huge amounts of contaminated sand and acid into San Francisco Bay after they were used in attempts to clean irradiated ships.

- Spread radioactive material on- and off-base, as if it were fertilizer, to practice decontamination. - Burned radioactive fuel oil in a boiler, discharging the smoke into the atmosphere.

- Sold radioactive ships as scrap metal to a private company in Alameda.

- Hung a source of cobalt-60, a nuclear isotope that emits high-energy electromagnetic radiation similar to X-rays, in San Francisco Bay for two weeks, apparently just to see what would happen.

- Conducted human experiments that included requiring people to drink radioactive elements.

- Experimented with significant amounts of a wide variety of long-lived radiological poisons, including plutonium, cesium, uranium, thorium and radium.

- Studied and disposed of thousands of irradiated mice, rats, dogs, goats, mules, and pigs, among other animals. At one point, the lab owned a ranch in Contra Costa County used specifically to raise animals for radiation testing.

- Sought permission to dump 1,000 gallons of liquid waste containing "small amounts of fission products" into San Francisco Bay, as an experiment to study how tidal action would dilute the radioactivity. The experiment was meant as a precursor to the disposal of 1,000 gallons of liquid radioactive waste in the bay every day. (The documents do not say whether the experiment or the daily dumping occurred.)

After decades of wrangling over environmental concerns, the U.S. Navy and the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency finally agreed last fall on a method for transferring the naval shipyard in phases, or parcels, to city control. In what is known as a Memorandum of Agreement, the Navy pledged to clean up the main portion of the base -- that is, three of the six parcels comprising the shipyard property -- to certain environmental standards, and to a depth of 10 feet below the surface, at a cost of at least $120 million.

Federal law still controls the shipyard cleanup. That is to say, the Navy must clean up the site to standards that the state and federal environmental agencies agree upon, regardless of how much it costs or how long it takes. But the Memorandum of Agreement also gives the city the ability to sue if the Navy reneges on its commitments. "The EPA has never once assessed penalties against the Navy for being late," Deputy City Attorney Michael Cohen says. "We did not trust leaving the fate of the shipyard in the hands of the EPA. What we're saying is that you have to satisfy the regulators, and you have to satisfy us."

In deciding what would satisfy them, city leaders agreed to believe that $120 million would be enough money to clean up much of a century-old shipyard, and the toxic solvents, metals, and other contaminants that, it's long been known, were used, spilled, and dumped there by the Navy. But when they made the pact, city officials had no way of knowing anything close to the full history or extent of nuclear activity at the naval base. City officials did not know much about this nuclear history because, during negotiations over transfer of the Hunters Point Shipyard, the Navy has disclosed very little of it.

In the years since the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory shut down in 1969, the Navy has discussed certain specific NRDL activities, including the lab's role in attempting to decontaminate ships irradiated in nuclear weapons tests in the South Pacific. But the Navy has glossed over much NRDL history, particularly as it pertains to the environmental assessment and cleanup of the Hunters Point Shipyard, and particularly regarding radioactive elements with life spans in the tens of thousands of years. The shipyard's radiation history has garnered little more than a few paragraphs in the environmental documents guiding cleanup of Hunters Point. In those and associated documents, the Navy mostly maintains that there are few, if any, records of what took place at the shipyard during the early years of the nuclear age. Environmental contractors hired to assess the shipyard repeatedly caution about "data gaps" in the historical record that would otherwise guide them in determining what sort of cleanup is appropriate.

About The Author

Lisa Davis


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