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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 6 of 11

Even more questions surround the sandblasting operation.

Although early decontamination work occurred all over the shipyard, the Navy's environmental contractors have checked for radiation only where the Navy directed them to check -- mostly in former laboratory buildings. It appears that there has been no systematic sampling of the shipyard for radiation, other than on the surface of the landfill. The area from the landfill to the water, on the southeast side of the shipyard, was created originally by filling in a portion of the bay; it is known to have been used for disposal of all manner of shipyard refuse, including oil and chemicals. And yet that area has not been fully investigated in regard to radiation, even though the Navy's own environmental contractors have repeatedly brought up the possibility of contamination.

A 1988 report on the southeast end of the shipyard, which includes the landfill area, by Navy contractor Harding Lawson Associates notes: "Waste disposal in the bay fill area may also include sandblast waste from ships exposed to nuclear detonations in the Bikini Atolls." (Attempts to contact officials for Harding Lawson Associates, which is no longer in business, were unsuccessful.) In a similar report completed in 1992, another Navy contractor mentioned "unsubstantiated claims" that "sandblast wastes from the maintenance of ships that were involved in the testing of nuclear weaponry may have been disposed on-site." The report doesn't reveal if the claims were investigated, or whether the supposed "on-site" location is known.

Three years later, in yet another report, contractor PRC Inc. says, "It has been postulated that fallout particles, including cesium-137 and plutonium-239, may have been mixed with sandblast waste s that were generated during Operation Crossroads decontamination activities."

The danger posed by the Crossroads decontamination effort at Hunters Point is neither theoretical nor negligible. The ships cleaned at the shipyard had been grossly contaminated by a plutonium fission bomb. Plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years, meaning that half of whatever plutonium and other fission products were sandblasted from the ships at Hunters Point will still exist, somewhere, for thousands of years. The risk of plutonium remains long after it has settled into the ground; any disturbance of the soil -- including construction or wind -- can kick up dustlike plutonium particles. Even one of those particles, if inhaled and lodged in the lungs, can cause cancer. Clearly, historical evidence suggests that sandblast grit contaminated with fallout particles was disposed of at or near the landfill, and in the bay itself. Yet the matter has never been fully investigated by the Navy or its contractors.

And because the NRDL was at the core of U.S. attempts to understand nuclear warfare, the scope of experimentation with radioactive materials at Hunters Point was truly breathtaking, and the potential for nuclear contamination by no means limited to the ships irradiated in Operation Crossroads.

In fall 1952, the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory at the Hunters Point Shipyard requested and received permission from the Atomic Energy Commission to increase the amount of plutonium allowed at the lab from 1 to 15 grams. According to a letter to regulators, the NRDL needed the additional plutonium for research and development experiments that could use as much as 10 grams of plutonium at a time. It is unclear how many times that 15-gram store of plutonium was depleted by experimentation, and then restored to the allowed 15 grams. But even if "only" 15 grams of plutonium ever arrived at the NRDL, almost all that 15 grams of plutonium still exists, somewhere. It may be at Hunters Point, or in the ocean, or in another nuclear storage or dump site, but because of its long half-life, almost all of it still exists, and what exists is still extraordinarily dangerous. By standard scientific rule of thumb, 15 grams of plutonium could, if distributed efficiently, cause 15 million cases of cancer.From the very beginning of the NRDL, scientists experimented with all sorts of radiation sources. They stored and analyzed samples of plants, animals, and objects irradiated in almost every nuclear test undertaken by the U.S. They raised animals of all kinds, from laboratory mice to horses, and then contaminated them in any number of ways, seeking to study the effects of radiation. And the scientists moved their research efforts all over the shipyard.

Most of the early research at the NRDL was designed to answer the question of how to protect against, and clean up after, contamination caused by an atomic bomb blast. This was the height of the Cold War, and military leaders wanted to know how to protect both equipment and people. Atomic weapons tests offered an early opportunity to study radiation's effects on life.

In 1946 and 1947, in addition to the Operation Crossroads ships, the Hunters Point shipyard received numerous samples of plant and animal life from the Bikini test site. Some 5,000 animals had been placed on the island specifically to study the effects of radiation. Some of these died within a few weeks of the blast, but many of the rest, including rats and a dog named "Plutonia," came to the NRDL. Other samples sent to the lab included fish caught, and then frozen, after the tests, additional sea animal and plant life, and, of course, nearly everything that had been on the ships at Bikini.

Danny Amato, now retired and living in Marinwood, took care of the dogs and other animals used in experiments at the NRDL in the early 1950s. He also traveled with them to Eniwetok Atoll in the Pacific and to Camp Mercury, Nev., for several early nuclear bomb tests. The animals were used to measure response to radiation. "We had them in pens," he says of the dogs, which were mainly German shepherds. "I used to get attached to them, and then after the bomb blast they were like one big scab. It was brutal.

About The Author

Lisa Davis


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