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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 3 of 11

Dr. Davis, one of the world's leading authorities on environmental contamination, says that capping the landfill is an inappropriate and ineffective response to significant toxic contamination, and especially to potential contamination with radiation sources that have half-lives in the thousands of years. The cap, Davis says, should be removed and the landfill systematically examined for environmental hazards.

"It's clear that that was a very, very toxic industrial facility, and it was operating long before there were any sensible regulations in place to govern that kind of thing," Davis says. "So, as far as I'm concerned, that's an environmental land mine, and the cap that is put across it is mainly a cap that keeps it out of our sight.

"But as we know, just because things are out of sight doesn't mean that they're not dangerous."

During its 23-year life span, the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory at the San Francisco Naval Shipyard at Hunters Point served all branches of the U.S. military and became the military's chief research facility for studying the effects of radiation. The lab was at the heart of U.S. nuclear defense policy, yet it started by accident.The first atomic bomb, nicknamed "Fat Man," was exploded in a test in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945. The operation, code-named Trinity, was the culmination of the work of the Manhattan Project, in which American scientists were racing against German scientists for the successful production of the first atomic bomb. Within hours of the successful test, the USS Indianapolis left San Francisco for the South Pacific, carrying a similar bomb, this one called "Little Boy." On Aug. 6, Little Boy was loaded onto a U.S. B-29 bomber named the Enola Gay, which dropped it on Hiroshima, Japan. The city was instantly devastated, with more than 130,000 people killed and thousands more suffering radiation poisoning.

Three days later, the U.S. dropped a similar bomb on Nagasaki, killing or maiming at least 145,000 more people. Japan surrendered within weeks. Even though much of Europe and Asia lay in ruins, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, allies in the fight against the Axis powers, were already eyeing each other warily and would soon enter the long contest for world domination known as the Cold War. Conventional wisdom was that the next war would surely involve atomic weapons, and government leaders believed that the United States could and should develop the means of preparing for and defending itself against nuclear attack.

In July 1946, the United States Navy engaged in Operation Crossroads, two widely publicized atomic bomb tests staged near the Bikini Islands in the South Pacific. The first of the weapons tested, known as "Shot Able," was dropped on July 1, 1946, and exploded in the air, in a manner similar to the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The second device, called "Shot Baker," was an underwater bomb set off on July 25, 1946. The blast created an unexpectedly large column of water -- about 2 million tons' worth -- that reached a mile into the sky and then rained high amounts of nuclear fission products (the Baker bomb was made of plutonium) over most of the 95 ships that had been purposely anchored in the vicinity as targets. The blast also created the largest waves then known to man. Measuring devices were so damaged by the explosion that it's impossible to know exactly how tall the waves were, but photographic estimates put the first at about 94 feet in height.

Navy officials were ill-prepared for the intensity of Shot Baker and the damage it left behind. In a December 1946 letter, Dr. Stafford Warren, head of the Atomic Energy Commission's Medical Advisory Board and the UCLA Medical School, wrote:

The test turned out to be literally a hundred times larger than the original conception. We had no time to train sufficient men to do the job but had to strip the Manhattan District and call upon knowledgeable civilians. ... I never want to go through the experience of the last three weeks of August 1946 again. The air inhalation possibilities and all of the rest indicated conclusively that, just upon the basis of statistics alone, we were certain to get into trouble if we did not close the operation shortly.

I agree entirely that the greatest hazard is the insidious long-time exposure to long-lived isotopes and low concentration in bombed cities where the under-water detonation has been used. I believe they would be uninhabitable for several generations.

The Navy was left with a huge mess and little understanding of how to deal with the effects of this new weapon. A team of scientists, doctors, and enlisted men was hastily assembled to study radiation decontamination; though not officially named for another year or so, the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory had been born.

From a military viewpoint, Hunters Point seemed a logical location to set up a radiation laboratory. The shipyard was among the largest in the country, able to handle any ship in the Navy's fleet, and had been a staging area for actions in the Pacific. Also, it was across the bay from the University of California at Berkeley and up the peninsula from Stanford University, both leaders in early nuclear research. That Hunters Point sat in the middle of a major urban area was apparently inconsequential in the military calculus.

Things happened furiously at the beginning of the NRDL. Laboratory operations moved from one borrowed space at the shipyard to another. Navy historical documents describe the situation with deadpan understatement: "The problems of the pioneers at NRDL were legion." Among other things, the NRDL had difficulty berthing the 14 ships that were contaminated in Operations Crossroads and then taken to Hunters Point, finding trained personnel, and acquiring adequate equipment. The lab's original contingent of Geiger counters, for example, totaled six machines, four of which didn't work.

But the NRDL grew apace, its expansion stoked by fears, both legitimate and exaggerated, of a Soviet military that had itself acquired the atomic bomb in 1949. At its peak, reached in the late 1950s, the NRDL employed some 600 military and civilian scientists who operated under supervision from both the Defense Department and the former Atomic Energy Commission.

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Lisa Davis


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