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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 7 of 11

"We wore gloves and coveralls and had to tape around the sleeves cuffs . We'd have to shower and shower and soap and soap after we were done."

The young Navy man's job included noting the animals' condition and taking blood samples.

"Afterwards after the animals were exposed , slowly, slowly the animals would get bleeding scabs," he says. "Not right away. It took weeks or months. Sometimes they looked just fine, and then after they were brought back to Hunters Point, they got sick."

Of course, atomic bombs could not be detonated often enough to do all the types of research the NRDL's scientists and overseers were interested in. So scientists acquired radiation sources and routinely contaminated things, so they could then figure out how to decontaminate them. In 1948, for instance, NRDL scientists hung a source of cobalt-60 off the fantail of the USS Independence, in San Francisco Bay, for two weeks. The point of the experiment, apparently, was to study the level of contamination this caused. (Documents reviewed by SF Weekly don't provide the size of the radiation source or the results of the study.)

On several occasions, NRDL scientists spread radiation on asphalt near the docks, to simulate fallout, and attempted to clean it off in various ways. At least once, scientists spread radioactive material on the roofs of buildings and the lawns surrounding Navy facilities in San Bruno, again to experiment with cleaning it up.

In the mid-1950s, there seemed to be a problem with storing radium tubes -- that is, glass tubes containing radioactive materials. Specifically, so many of them were stored together, there was concern they could constitute a critical mass capable of sustained atomic reaction. The radium tubes were spread to different buildings on the shipyard, but it remains unclear exactly where the tubes went. Standard procedure would have been to dispose of used tubes with other radiation waste sent out to sea. But a 1949 directive from the shipyard commander raises the possibility that some of that waste might have been buried somewhere on the shipyard: "A plot of land can be set aside near the shore station to be used as a burial ground, however, the former method of sinking at sea is recommended. If a burial plot is used, it should be adequately posted and supervised."

By 1949, the Atomic Energy Commission had allocated more than $15,000 a year (in those days, a significant sum) to the NRDL to purchase artificial radioactive isotopes that emit alpha radiation, high-energy particles that are easily absorbed by air and cannot penetrate skin, but can be deadly if inhaled or ingested. Three years later, the NRDL received a 67-pound container of synthetic radioisotopes (that is, artificially produced radioactive elements). The radioisotopes would have been stored inside a shield that documents available to SF Weekly do not describe, obscuring exactly how much radioactive material the package actually contained.

In the mid-1950s, NRDL scientists devoted a lot of time to figuring out how to protect Air Force planes delivering "special weapons" from contamination by the weapons' explosions. Thus, researchers fooled around with different paints and other coatings, trying to create a sleeve for the planes. Equally important was the predicament of how to remove fallout contamination from planes -- including unmanned aircraft -- that might be involved in nuclear tests or attacks. At one point, the NRDL made arrangements to receive contaminated airplane engines at the shipyard.

In another experiment, scientists at the NRDL seemed to be trying to create some sort of device to decontaminate cars. Test cars would be placed underneath a tarp with a hose connected to either end. Various chemicals, including ethylene oxide, a toxic, highly flammable gas used as a liquid under pressure, would be sprayed on the cars through the hoses.

In 1950, engineers at the NRDL proposed a tracer study to test how tidal currents flowing past the shipyard might dilute liquid waste containing low concentrations of radioactivity. According to a memo from the time, the lab was planning "large scale experimentation" at the NRDL, which would produce as much as 1,000 gallons a day of the waste. It remains unclear what happened after the study.

In all, NRDL records show that the laboratory used and stored a multitude of radioactive elements, including cobalt, plutonium, tritium, uranium, radium, and thorium.

The scientists often used these sources of radiation to contaminate animals, including thousands of mice, rats, pigs, and dogs that were kept at the shipyard. The NRDL also operated a ranch in Contra Costa County where it raised larger animals -- cows, goats, etc. -- for research. "We had quite a collection of mules, horses, rabbits, and even firefly tails purchased by the gram ," remembers Wellard Guffy, who was a supply officer for the NRDL in the late 1950s. "When I had to buy a dozen jackasses, I had to go talk to the shipyard supply officer to explain why . No two days were alike."

After the biomedical branch of the lab was in full swing, the animals were used for all kinds of NRDL experiments. In one case, scientists bred radioactive chickens to see if they would lay radioactive eggs. (They did -- the radiation was mainly in the shell.)

The Navy has maintained that all NRDL research materials, including the thousands of animals sacrificed in radiation experiments, were placed in 55-gallon metal barrels and dumped at sea, and land animal carcasses have been identified at the Farallones undersea dump site. Still, the Navy has offered little documentation in regard to animal disposal, and the question remains: Were large animals such as pigs and jackasses consistently chopped into pieces that would fit in the barrels -- or were some of them deposited in a landfill just yards from the NRDL headquarters?

About The Author

Lisa Davis


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