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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

Page 10 of 11

"We did do test trenches and found radium sources down to about nine feet. We have not gone in and done a full remediation."

Clearly, there is radium in the landfill area. "There was an area at one point designated by the Navy as a radioactive disposal area, and that's where the radium dials are," the EPA's Dean says, referring to thousands of dials with radium-covered components (radium makes them glow in the dark) that were taken off ships and thrown in the landfill. The dials have long been the subject of controversy. Radium decays into radon gas, a known carcinogen. Environmental groups want all of the dials removed. The Navy and regulators are still haggling over how deep to dig for the radium dials.

And there are other questions about the Navy's plan for taking care of radon. Navy contractors found that at least 15 soil samples taken in the vicinity of the landfill contained radon above what would be considered an expected background level. In every case, the high level of radon was attributed to radium dials -- even where no radium dials were found. Soil samples were taken for laboratory analysis "to identify radioisotopes" only if radium- containing dials were found. If excavation encountered no dials, and, therefore, no immediate explanation for the radiation, samples were not taken to the lab. In other words, the Navy assumed that all radon in the soil originated from these radium-containing devices, without even looking for anything else.

Dean explains the situation this way: The radium dials and instruments came in many different shapes and sizes, some as small as a dime. They are spread all over the bay fill area, including the landfill and beyond. Some have decomposed, perhaps showing up only as a patch of rust-colored soil. Some have produced radium readings in soil as far as 18 inches from where the dial was located. It is therefore reasonable, the EPA scientist asserts, to assume that all radon in the soil came from radium dials.

Putting radium dials aside, it is reasonable to at least wonder whether contaminated sandblasting material, furniture or fixtures from contaminated ships, or radioactive materials used in NRDL research found their way into the landfill. Dean discounts the NRDL labs as a source for landfill radiation. "They weren't taking NRDL waste and putting it out there. That would have been illegal," he says. "They wouldn't have done that. It would have been more appropriate for them to put it in a drum and take it out to the Farallones the Farallon Island Nuclear Waste Site ."

Even so, the EPA disagrees with the Navy's suggestion to cap the landfill. "We think it soil in the landfill should be removed, very carefully," says Dean. "On the surface, leaving it capped seems like a very good idea. The Navy says that you have to leave landfills closed, you can't dig them up. But I think since the fire, they're starting to look at it very seriously. I think the technology exists, and I think it's in the best interest of the Navy and the community to get the radiation out of that landfill."

Environmentalists and academics are more caustic in their comments on plans for a cap.

Saul Bloom, executive director of ARC Ecology, which has sued the Navy repeatedly over issues at Hunters Point, has particularly strong feelings. "It's the elephant in the room that no one wants to look at," Bloom says. "The Navy is so reprehensible. These folks couldn't be honest if you paid them even more than they make now."

Given the history of the site, and the findings so far, Davis, the Monterey-based environmental expert, believes the safest course of action would be to dig up all of the radium dials from the landfill as part of a thorough investigation of the dump.

"They don't want radon leaking into the urban environment for the next 40 years, presumably," he says. "If they find radon there, it's not enough to just find the radon and cap it, because the gas is going to come out of the cap. The cap will crack, and no cap stays intact for that long. So, basically, what you're inviting is an accumulation of deadly gas that leaks into whatever urban environment is created there.

"And that is just stupid."

The Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory began its experiments, both wise and reckless, in an America that people born after the cultural firestorm of the 1960s, the political heartbreak of the Kennedy and King assassinations, and the constitutional betrayal of Watergate might have trouble imagining. The years directly after the end of World War II contained no credit cards; this was a time when a loaf of bread cost 14 cents -- or less -- and television was a rarity in most neighborhoods. Americans were going to the theater to watch James Stewart and Donna Reed in It's a Wonderful Life, but things weren't looking so good in real life. The transition to peace brought with it increasing unemployment as factories scaled back from the full production required by the war. In short order, the country was gripped by inflation and union strikes. Even Hollywood reflected America's painful readjustment. The film The Best Years of Our Lives, which chronicled the problems faced by three veterans and their families after the war, won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1946.President Harry Truman, who wanted to stimulate the economy through a military buildup and also believed the Soviet Union posed a real threat to American security, announced his Truman Doctrine, saying, "I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures." Anti-communism became a central theme of the Truman administration, and the president went so far as to enact the Employee Loyalty Program, in which the heads of all government agencies had to ensure that each of their employees was a loyal American. People all over the country were accused of being disloyal, as the government pried into their personal lives.

About The Author

Lisa Davis


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