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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 8 of 11

The EPA's Dean says he believes all animals were dumped in the Farallones undersea waste site, but he raised yet another question about radioactivity at Hunters Point while responding to SF Weekly's inquiries about animal experimentation at the NRDL. "We also found a leach field out there where they may have been flushing animal waste into the drain," he said, adding that the matter still needs investigation. "There is some possibility that there is a leach field in the immediate area around Building 707."

The NRDL's biomedical branch also did human research. One scientist kept a fully functioning human liver alive in the laboratory to study the effects of various doses of radiation on it. In later years, NRDL scientists, along with Hamilton from UC Berkeley, participated in controversial human radiation experiments that were eventually condemned by the government. In one instance, scientists had an NRDL employee drink tritium, a radioactive hydrogen isotope, so that they could study the effects in a human. (Small amounts of tritium were later commonly used in cancer research.)

On another occasion, one of the NRDL scientists worked with a group of young enlisted men who were weight lifters. The scientist gave them regular doses of potassium-42, a radioactive isotope, in order to study how the substance was metabolized. Ultimately, the experiment stopped because of a bureaucratic snafu. The weight lifters needed to go to another laboratory to complete some of the tests; the weight lifters, stationed at the shipyard, would have to be paid extra for work elsewhere, and the Navy was unable to secure the money.

As the laboratory began doing more work for the Office of Civilian Defense, NRDL scientists devoted more time to studying nuclear fallout. In 1959, for example, they detonated nonnuclear underwater blasts in San Francisco Bay to simulate the blast effects of a nuclear bomb. Later, they borrowed prisoners from the California penal system and kept them, along with a few civilian volunteers, in a bomb shelter for several days while simulating a nuclear attack. The idea was to study the interaction among people locked in a closed environment. "All of these people were criminals," remembers Adm. John McQuilken, who was commander of the NRDL from October 1957 until July 1960. "It was interesting to see the interplay between people. Cigarettes became the means of exchange. It was really damned interesting from a personnel standpoint."

McQuilken, who ran the NRDL during some of its peak years, remembers it as a time of both excitement and naiveté. "At that time, radiation wasn't something that anybody knew much about, really," McQuilken says. "At that time, everything in the nuclear business was new, and we ran quite an outfit. We were mixed up in all of the tests in the Pacific and out in Nevada.

"We were feeling our way as to what the radiation was and trying to extrapolate what this all meant. ... I can't remember what the budget was, but we were a popular place at the time."

By 1966, when the first nuclear-powered ship, the USS Enterprise, arrived at the Hunters Point Shipyard for overhaul, records indicate that the NRDL had a supply designation of "unlimited authority for nuclear material." And the amount and variety -- in both type and location -- of experiments conducted under that authority raise questions about the limited scope of radiological assessment done as part of the process for turning the shipyard over to the city of San Francisco.

Researchers from the Monterey Institute of International Studies, hired by SF Weekly to evaluate environmental documents relating to Hunters Point, found that " c onsidering the historical background and uses of the shipyard , a thorough investigation should have begun with a Geiger Counter of all buildings, parking lots, landfill areas, beach, and inter-tidal areas." No such investigation was conducted. Instead, Navy consultants looked for radiation where the Navy told them radiation might exist, and nowhere else.

Even the radiological investigation the Navy did conduct seems open to question. Environmental documents associated with the radiological cleanup at the shipyard repeatedly reference a 1988 radiation survey done by contractor Harding Lawson Associates (HLA) as the basis for cleanup plans at the shipyard. Apparently, there was no such survey.

Navy spokesman Lee Saunders explains the situation this way:

Apparently, HLA proposed a radiation sampling plan in 1988, as part of its initial assessment of the shipyard. But the full survey never was undertaken; instead, after negotiation, less comprehensive radiation sampling was done in 1989, and the results were included in a table, placed in another document, compiled by another Navy contractor in 1990. Even so, later environmental studies refer to the Harding Lawson Associates 1988 Radiation Survey as if it were the comprehensive radiation study that it clearly never was.

"I'm not aware of any other survey than what was in the later reference document," says Saunders. "Since that reading was part of the scoping document in 1988, I would assume it was the first radiation survey done there."

Monterey Institute of International Studies researchers also questioned the standards the Navy used when evaluating the limited radiation testing that was done at the shipyard. The researchers found that the Navy's Environmental Impact Statement and supporting data failed to establish a reasonable basis for the four-phase radiation cleanup plan the Navy has proposed. The researchers noted that these environmental documents do not contain background information on when, how, and where soil samples were analyzed for mixed fission products and plutonium -- if they were. Without that information, the researchers contend, it cannot be said that the proposed methods and scope of cleanup are, or are not, appropriate.

Clearly, the Navy's activities have caused some level of radiation contamination in the waters and bay sediment directly surrounding the shipyard, and the Navy has recognized that the accumulation of radiation in fish could be hazardous to human health. Fishing is already prohibited in the area immediately surrounding the shipyard, but environmental documents suggest no other attempts to address nuclear contamination of the bay and bay life. Monterey Institute researchers questioned this stance. "Even if the Navy bans fishing at Hunters Point Shipyard, fish are migratory and could be caught by fishermen in other parts of the San Francisco Bay, thereby posing a risk to human health," they wrote.

About The Author

Lisa Davis


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