Radioactive Waste: Old Records Reveal History of Navy Shipyard Dumping
Davis, Lisa, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal
It started with a story about fish.
I'd written a feature story on the inventor of a submersible vehicle and his quest to explore the deepest channel of the ocean. In researching the story, I stumbled onto what amounted to a footnote about fish feeding off of barrels of nuclear waste dumped long ago near the Farallon Islands. The subject caught my interest, and I scratched at it a bit whenever I had time.
Eventually, fish became toxic-waste dumping, which led to environmental cleanup, which led back to the source of the undersea nuclear material - the former Hunters Point Shipyard in San Francisco, a 500-acre decommissioned naval base that the city plans to take over and develop into, among other things, 1,800 units of housing.
After more than a year of digging into historical records, interviewing former employees, reviewing environmental cleanup reports, and talking to scientists, we produced a two-part series, "Fallout," that essentially did what the Navy had failed to do: disclose the history of nuclear activity at the Hunters Point Shipyard.
The series focused on a secret government research facility known as the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory (NRDL), which operated at the Hunters Point Shipyard from 1946 to 1969. The lab originally was created to study, and attempt to decontaminate, ships involved in a series of atomic bomb tests near the Bikini Islands known as Operation Crossroads. The lab went on to become the military's largest facility for applied nuclear research, and was involved in every nuclear test the government performed during that time.
NRDL handled almost every kind of radioactive material known to man - including, at one point; enough plutonium to kill 15 million people. Its scientists often experimented with and disposed of nuclear material with little apparent concern that it was operating in the middle of a major metropolitan area.
On one occasion, they spread radioactive material on the ground to practice cleaning it up. Another time, NRDL scientists hung a radioactive source off the fantail of a ship in the San Francisco Bay just to see what it would do. The Navy oversaw the dumping of tons of radioactive sand and acid into San Francisco Bay, and burned radioactive fuel oil in a boiler, discharging the smoke into the atmosphere. Navy officials also scuttled an old aircraft carrier filled with radioactive waste in the bay outside San Francisco.
How did we learn this?
From yet another feature story, I knew a bit about the National Archives and Records Administration branch in San Bruno, Calif., and some of the old records collections housed there. For unknown reasons, there are very few actual records from Hunters Point Shipyard in the archives, but many records (650 cubic feet, to be exact) from NRDL, probably because the lab's researchers played a key role in advancing nuclear science. Of course, for much the same reason, many of the NRDL records remain classified.
Thankfully, they are also very old records. And because of their age, many of the NRDL records were eligible for declassification. All federal records have a prescribed life span, meaning that they are retained in certain locations for certain periods of time, and classified for specific reasons and lengths of time. Generally, if the time period and reason for classification have expired, the records are eligible to be declassified. (That's not to say we gained access to everything we requested - far from it. For example, anything relating to nuclear technology that is still in use anywhere, in any form, remained classified, as did many records on individuals assigned to NRDL). Thus began a routine: I requested about 10 boxes of NRDL or shipyard records at a time. The archivists notified me when whatever I was allowed to see of the group was ready. Then, I'd spend a few days in the locked room, opening boxes - some full, some empty except for a few pieces of paper. …