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Fallout 

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
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Page 4 of 11

The United States carried out more than 175 atmospheric nuclear tests between 1945 and 1962; the NRDL was involved in most of them, whether they were conducted in the South Pacific or on desert testing grounds in Nevada. (The Soviet Union exploded more than 140 nuclear devices in that time.) The laboratory, also home to a cross-services radiation training school, was generously funded by all branches of the military; a significant part of that funding came through the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project, an agency dedicated to early nuclear weapons research.

By the late 1950s, the NRDL had branched out into biomedical radiation research, studying the effects of radiation on specific organs of the body. The biomedical research grew to more intricate study of the long-term effects of radiation in animals and, to a much lesser extent, humans. The NRDL also took on an increasing role with the federal Office of Civil Defense, researching the effects of nuclear detonations on a variety of bomb shelters and studying how people responded under different nuclear war scenarios.

Along the way, the NRDL received numerous patents and scientific awards, as well it should have. Some of the country's leading scientists worked on experiments that set the stage for discoveries valuable for the future health and safety of Americans. Other experiments from the era seem, now, almost reckless, mixing pure ignorance and scientific curiosity in a way that led to gross mishandling of radiological material. NRDL scientists published many, many research papers, but much of that research was never shared with the rest of the world. In fact, the military still considers boxes and boxes of NRDL research papers to be classified material.

By the late 1960s, the United States no longer engaged in above-ground nuclear testing, and most of the work at the lab was being done for civilian, not military, purposes. Meanwhile, the Vietnam conflict was in full swing, and the political climate in San Francisco had become less than welcoming to any sort of military operation, let alone nuclear experimentation. In 1967, the Summer of Love brought hundreds of young, war-protesting hippies to San Francisco, solidifying the city's image as the liberal headquarters of America.

In November 1969, the NRDL closed up shop with little warning. Five years later, the shipyard itself closed to military operations, without much resistance from the city. Even though the base's closure meant the loss of thousands of jobs, San Francisco clearly did not mourn it.

Over the next 2 1/2 decades, some of the buildings and dry docks were leased to private businesses. But for the most part, the shipyard became, and remains, a strange, empty wasteland. Overgrown weeds crowd pavement, obscuring where streets end and begin. Empty military buildings with broken windows sit like ghosts facing the bay. Sea gulls have taken over docks where mighty ships awaited refurbishing for the next battle. It would take little, now, to transform parts of the once-dynamic shipyard into a post-apocalypse movie set.

The chapter of NRDL history that has received by far the most press attention involves the lab's research into decontaminating ships used in Operation Crossroads. Indeed, whenever Navy environmental documents mention radiation at the Hunters Point Shipyard, it's generally a note about decontaminating those ships more than half a century ago. Many important aspects of those decontamination activities, however, have not been publicly examined.The moment the Baker bomb exploded in the water near Bikini, the Navy's target ships were contaminated with high-level radiation; they grew even more contaminated as they sat for weeks in radioactive lagoon water while Navy and civilian scientists attempted to figure out if and how they might be saved. By the time all was said and done, the radioactivity of algae on the bottoms of some of the ships was strong enough to be detected through their steel hulls.

Several of the contaminated ships were sunk in the Pacific. Others were sent to Navy facilities at Pearl Harbor and Puget Sound. In late 1946, the first of 14 contaminated Crossroads ships and submarines arrived in San Francisco for decontamination experimentation. Raymond Richetti spent 30 years at the Hunters Point Shipyard, beginning in 1943, and remembers the ships coming from Bikini. Especially, he remembers that no one knew what to do with them. "We worked on the ships," he says. "There were some dead human bodies in there. No one knew much about radiation at that time. They wouldn't allow anybody in there who might be of childbearing age."

After experimenting with everything from corncobs to coffee grounds and salt water to laundry detergent, scientists at the NRDL finally came to believe that the most promising method of removing radioactive contamination from ships would involve sandblasting them, and then rinsing them with hydrochloric and citric acid. Some of the waste from sandblasting the radioactive ships was scooped into containers and dumped in the Pacific Ocean near the Farallon Islands. But fine particles blanketed the shipyard. And a significant amount of both the sandblast and acid waste went into the bay near Hunters Point. (The bay water surrounding the shipyard is considered one of the parcels being transferred to city control.)

A November 1946 report outlines the debate that led to the Navy's decision to dump the waste into the bay. And there was internal debate on the safety of the dumping, even at the dawn of the Cold War. Dr. Joseph Hamilton, a pioneer in radioactive research and head of the Crocker Nuclear Laboratory at UC Berkeley, argued that the materials were perfectly safe because any fission products they contained would sink into bay-bottom mud and stay there. Hamilton, who was also a proponent of radiological warfare and conducted numerous experiments that involved injecting humans with plutonium without their knowledge, continually downplayed any potential danger associated with radioactive waste. Meanwhile, Warren, the UCLA doctor who had been put in charge of safety at Bikini, clearly disagreed. Even in these early years, Warren was concerned about the potential long-term effects of radioactivity. In the end, however, Hamilton won over the military leaders, and it was his not particularly conservative advice that was most consistently followed in regard to the disposal of radioactive materials at Hunters Point. (Warren and Hamilton are both dead.)

About The Author

Lisa Davis

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