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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 5 of 11

Hamilton's advice was often given in the privacy of classified military meetings. Today, that advice can seem cavalier with respect to the dangers of radiation, and dismissive of the public's ability to understand those dangers. For example, the report from a November 1946 meeting states: "Dr. Hamilton advised that consideration be given to the public relations angle in not permitting the information to leak out regarding the local disposal of acid and sand containing some fission products in spite of the fact that the quantities involved entail absolutely no health or security hazard."

Based on Hamilton's recommendation, Navy brass determined that no special disposal of sandblast waste from the Bikini ships was necessary. They also decided that the acid solutions used to wash the sandblasted ships were also safe to dump into the bay, where any radioactivity picked up by the acid would be greatly diluted. (Each ship was estimated to require 5,000 to 10,000 gallons of acid for the washing procedure.) Warren, the UCLA doctor, disagreed with Hamilton's assessment, cautioning that no more than five ships should be cleaned in any one harbor. But the shipyard eventually worked on at least 14 vessels from the Bikini blast. The following year, some 125 tons of sandblast waste from the USS Rockridge, another contaminated ship brought back to San Francisco following the Bikini tests, was sold to a local contractor as fill material. Where that fill was used remains a mystery.

NRDL records show that at least two of the Operation Crossroads ships that came to San Francisco were eventually sold to the Lerner Co. in Alameda for scrap. The company no longer exists, and it's unknown what happened to the scrap metal from those ships.

In June 1947, the USS Independence arrived at Hunters Point. The 10,000-ton aircraft carrier was close enough to the blasts at Bikini to be severely mangled. The highly contaminated ship would be used for nuclear decontamination experiments at Hunters Point for more than three years. It sat in Dry Dock 4, where it was sandblasted for at least a year. Later, the ship was anchored off the southeast end of the shipyard. The carrier's huge anchor chain, one of the most radioactive parts of the ship, also was sandblasted; the sandblast material washed into the bay. NRDL documents indicate that equipment and furniture were removed from the ship and "sent to salvage," but it's unclear where. The shipyard landfill, which was in operation at the time, is a possible repository.Air Force Col. Nicholas Kane attended radiation safety school at the NRDL, which included work on the USS Independence. Kane died of cancer in 1978. Thirty years before, in a letter written to his wife, Rose, while he was at Hunters Point, Kane described removing the contents from the ship:

It is a pity that so many things were left on board, whose abandonment brought very little data to the problem of radioactive contamination. There were a good many armchairs and straight back chairs in aluminum and leather that I would love to have, but, of course, are considered contaminated, as are so many other articles of equipment and property. ... We monitored the carrier with our instruments, to determine the amount of nuclear contamination of various types still existing -- all clad in protective clothing, of course, and wearing special masks when in the tower and possibly higher contaminated sections.

In 1948, with the approval of officials at the Atomic Energy Commission, NRDL personnel burned contaminated fuel oil from the USS Independence and the USS Gasconade, another Crossroads target ship, in the boilers at Hunters Point. A report on the Gasconade notes that the ship was so contaminated it could only be boarded by workers wearing respiratory apparatus.

At some point, NRDL scientists determined that there was no hope of ever cleaning up the Independence, and began to use the mighty ship as a floating laboratory. The theory behind this plan was elegantly simple: Because the ship was already contaminated and scheduled for disposal, it was the perfect place for high-level radiation experiments and storage. "Large quantities of fresh fission products were introduced on board and drained into empty tanks for stowage," one memo from the time says. Correspondence between shipyard personnel also shows that samples (including sea life and plants) from Operation Crossroads were moved on board the Independence. Finally, in January 1951, the mighty Independence -- apparently full of nuclear waste -- was towed underneath the Golden Gate Bridge and sunk at sea, apparently near the Farallon Islands.

Concerns about the hazards the Crossroads ships might pose to Hunters Point and the San Francisco area were expressed early on. In 1947, Warren, the UCLA doctor, wrote to Navy Adm. W.S. Parsons about the Crossroads hazards, saying, among other things: "The residual of even what are considered safe amounts of long-life fission products will be the cause of uncertainty in the development of illness in so called susceptible individuals. Therefore, difficult and expensive medico-legal problems will probably occur if previously contaminated target ships are cleared for constant occupancy or disposal as scrap." And while the NRDL's early attempts to decontaminate the ships from Operation Crossroads have received a fair amount of publicity over the years, the questions the decontamination effort raises about civilian occupancy of the base remain largely unasked and unanswered.

For example, the Independence was cleaned out after it arrived in San Francisco. The Navy has claimed it disposed of radioactive waste produced by NRDL research in 55-gallon drums dumped at sea. But it is hard to imagine that all of the internal fixtures and furniture from an aircraft carrier would fit neatly into 55-gallon drums. The EPA's Steve Dean believes that radium dials and instruments from the Independence likely were disposed of in the landfill. But were the carrier's larger nuclear furniture and fixtures smashed, in a heroic feat of destruction, into small pieces that would fit in the drums? Were they sold for salvage or scrap? Were they put in the landfill at Hunters Point?

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Lisa Davis


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