Two new reports released Thursday show that radioactive contamination at the Hunters Point Shipyard is far more widespread than previously known.
Independent research conducted by former researchers of the University of California at Santa Cruz chronicles nearly seven decades of nuclear activity at the shipyard, as well as the Navy’s systemic failure to conduct comprehensive testing for radioactive materials — giving credence to lingering concerns over the sufficiency of retesting efforts.
The research also calls into question a longstanding narrative by the Navy and regulatory agencies that parts of the shipyard are clean and safe for development. A spokesperson for the Navy did not return requests for comment by press time.
Slated for development into more than 10,000 homes, the former U.S. naval base has been at the center of a botched radioactive cleanup that began to unravel earlier this year, after federal audits showed that Navy contractor Tetra Tech, tasked with the shipyard’s remediation for nearly a decade, may have faked much of its data.
The reports released Thursday are based on close examinations of Navy documents governing the shipyard’s historic uses as a cleaning site for ships subjected to atomic bomb explosions and as a storage and testing site for radioactive materials.
The first report specifically relies on two Historical Radiological Assessments issued by the U.S. Navy that span a period between 1939 and 2003, distilling information and data about nuclear activity there that, to a layman, is “buried in plain sight,” according to the report’s authors.
The report, entitled “Hunters Point Naval Shipyard: The Nuclear Arms Race Comes Home,” concludes that more than 80 severely contaminated ships exposed to nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific Ocean were cleaned at the shipyard through methods including sandblasting and steam cleaning conducted at its dry docks — these processes created the potential for contamination to spread throughout the entire shipyard.
“The Hunters Point Shipyard was established to move the contamination off these ships, but onto Hunters Point. You can’t neutralize radioactivity, you can just move it,” said Daniel Hirsch, the reports’ lead author and retired director of the Program on Environmental and Nuclear Policy at UC Santa Cruz. “Beyond that there were immensely large amounts of radioactivity allowed by the licensing for the naval radiological defense lab, used for research at the shipyard.”
A radioactive nuclear defense laboratory that operated on the shipyard from 1946 to 1969 “participated in every nuclear weapons test from 1950-1958,” according to the report.
The lab was licensed to store some 2,000 grams of plutonium-239 — a millionth of an ounce of which “will cause lung cancer with a virtual 100% statistical probability,” per the report — and large enough quantities of strontium-90, which causes bone cancer and leukemia, to contaminate “ten trillion tons of soil above the Environmental Protection Agency’s preliminary remediation goals.”
Dozens of other radionuclides were also in use at the shipyard, yet the Navy’s HRA deemed just 33 as “radionuclides of concern” and even fewer — less than five — are considered in current re-testing efforts underway at the shipyard.
According to the second report, 90 percent — or 792 of 883 sites identified at the shipyard — were never sampled for radioactive contamination due to “spotty records” that indicated they were not impacted.
“The Navy reviewed some available records of what activities occurred in different buildings and other related sites and then artificially restricted the sampling to the small fraction of sites for which it had records indicating specific radiological work had been carried out there,” per the report.
The Navy’s evaluation process of which sites were radiologically impacted “completely ignored the potential for contamination to have migrated throughout Hunters Point” through activities such as sandblasting.
More than 600,000 gallons of radioactively contaminated fuel oil were burned in boilers at Hunters Point, and onsite incinerators “burned dead test animals and other materials that could have contained radioactivity,” potentially “resulting in widespread dispersal of contamination,” according to the report.
“That’s the big scandal here — It’s not just that what Tetra Tech did measure was fabricated. But the Navy exempted 90 percent of the shipyard from being tested in any fashion — and 90 percent of radionuclides they didn’t test for,” said Hirsch. “With all those limitations, the irony is that Tetra Tech still had to fabricate 90 to 97 percent of its measurements.”
The reports are part of a series published by Hirsch and a team of former and current UC Santa Cruz students through a nonprofit organization called the Committee to Bridge the Gap, and are available here.