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The US Military’s Radioactive Waste Cleanups
Below Budget, Ahead of Schedule, and Still Radioactive
In April, 2023, a scientific first was unveiled by the US Navy’s personnel charged with the cleanup of radioactive waste from the San Francisco shipyard it operated for much of the 20th century. In a presentation to the Hunters Point Community Advisory Committee, the Navy presented members with a scatter plot of data points, each signifying a measurement of the former base’s soil’s concentration of the carcinogenic nuclear fission byproduct Strontium-90.
Measured in picocuries per gram (pCi/g), the data points are the measurements of the radioactivity in one gram of material. Never before had any earthly material, radioactive or otherwise, been measured to have a negative concentration of another material, but the military—with a budget representing 40% of the planet’s military spend—had found one. Or, they thought so low of the audience as to believe no one would spot the curious anomalies.
Hunters Point Naval Shipyard is the site of a former military shipyard located in San Francisco, purchased by the US Navy in 1939. Between 1945 and 1974, the Navy utilized the site primarily as a repair facility, sharing the space for the majority of that time with the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory (NRDL). According to a Historical Assessment published by the Navy in 2004, the NRDL used the site for activities including the “decontamination of and (sic) scientific research on ships contaminated during atomic weapons testing.”
The story of the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard is one entry in a continuing history of the US military’s cavalier attitude towards cleaning up their nuclear messes. Hunters Point Shipyard was used as the venue to clean radioactive fallout (radioactive particles released from the explosion) from ships involved in atomic weapons testing, but the Navy left behind considerable levels of nuclear waste at Hunters Point which they nonetheless now call clean.
Those nuclear tests, which more than half a century ago produced the radioactive fallout which stuck to those ships, left remnants inside each of us (literally, not figuratively), contaminated previously inhabited lands, and displaced hundreds of indigenous residents who were left with health impairments for the rest of their lives.
Then, as now, if the facts do not support the claims of a Job Well Done, defense agencies simply opt to present newly created facts.
Candor, Sunshine Notwithstanding
In December 1953, President Eisenhower embarked upon a campaign of public speeches dubbed Operation Candor. Decades before the murderous CIA-backed coups and assassinations during Operation Condor, Candor’s intent—or at least its public façade—was a frank conversation with the American public to calibrate the popular conception and concern regarding atomic energy. Within the realm of US foreign policy, however, candor versus jingoism is little more than a difference in tone and a calculation of which facts to share.
Though the US had already conducted dozens of nuclear tests throughout the South Pacific in the years following World War II, the Soviet Union’s successful first test of a hydrogen bomb in 1953 demonstrated the Cold War adversary to be far more militarily formidable than the American government and citizens previously understood. The president thus sought to prescribe unto the American public the appropriate level of existential fear of the Reds and the Bomb that they should hold. The propagandistic exercise would likewise be needed to make nuclear testing a normal part of a responsible government’s duties in the minds of the American public, if it had to enter their consciousness at all.
Eisenhower’s operation kicked off with a speech delivered to the UN General Assembly in which he characterized the United States as peacemakers whose benevolence necessitated its buildup of atomic weaponry. Dubbed “Atoms for Peace,” the public relations campaign was followed by the president’s successful campaign to lobby Congress to revise the original 1946 Atomic Energy Act.
The 1954 Atomic Energy Act loosened the secrecy of nuclear data in order to broaden private sector participation, empowering the AEC to provide grants and subsidies to the private sector for research and development of peaceful and wartime applications of atomic energy.
Willard Libby was appointed to the AEC’s General Advisory Committee in 1950, later becoming one of the initial five AEC commissioners in 1954. A 1955 Time Magazine feature on Libby described how his wife came to know of him in 1940 when a friend’s maid introduced her, first disclaiming that—“He's not terribly exciting, but he always wears clean shirts.” In 1945, after the United States dropped the first of the two nuclear bombs engineered by the Manhattan Project onto the city Hiroshima, Libby triumphantly brought the day’s newspapers—replete with headlines about the bombing—home to his wife and said, “This is what I've been doing!”
While many prominent scientists involved in the Manhattan Project came to regret taking part in the development of the only nuclear bombs dropped on a war adversary in human history, even advocating against further nuclear weapon development, Libby never wavered. He steadfastly advocated a policy expanding the US nuclear arsenal on the basis that an unmatched arsenal would make war inconceivable. The bellicosity of the stance aside, it severely underestimated blindly, then willfully, the deleterious consequences of nuclear testing fallout.
Despite the president’s superficial ‘candor’ describing the Soviet threat and the opportunities for peaceful applications of atomic energy, in March, 1954 Eisenhower’s AEC oversaw the largest thermonuclear device detonation in US history as part of the Operation Castle tests.
The test site was Bikini, an atoll (a coral reef that encloses a lagoon) in the Marshall Islands, an island chain 225 miles north of Ecuador that the US had assumed control over from Japan after the latter’s WWII surrender. Bikini had been uninhabited since 1946, when its population and that of a neighboring island, Enewetak, were relocated for earlier American nuclear tests. Until the US-Soviet moratorium on nuclear testing took effect in 1958, these two islands were the primary sites of the sixty-four nuclear tests conducted in the vicinity of or directly on the Marshall Islands in the span of a decade.
The energy released from the explosion of the largest of the Castle tests, Castle Bravo, was more than twice as powerful as predicted based upon previous testing in the US, and produced approximately 1,000 times the power of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. Spreading nuclear fallout over at least 7,000 square miles, its mushroom cloud rose 130,000 feet into the air and stretched 25 miles across.
The March 1, 1954 Castle Bravo test fully vaporized three islands. Within hours, fatal levels of radioactive contamination spread to populations that lived on the nearby islands, none of whom were evacuated in advance.
In his 2021 book Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders, Robert Pincus identified a letter sent by a Marine Corporal dated March 5, 1954 to his mother which read—
There were two destroyers here to-day bearing natives of one of the Marshall Islands that was within senty-five miles of the blast. They were suffering from various burns and radioactivity.
His mother, either unaware of or unsympathetic to the top secret nature of this information which he had not been permitted to communicate to her, shared these comments with her local paper. It drew sufficient attention for the AEC to release a March 11 press release stating—
"During the course of a routine atomic test in the Marshall Islands, twenty-eight U.S. personnel and 236 residents were transported from neighboring atolls to Kwajalein Island according to plans as a precautionary measure. The individuals were unexpectedly exposed to some radiation. There were no burns. All were reported well. After the completion of the atomic tests, they will be returned to their homes."
But leaks were not the only source of public information about the nuclear fallout in the days after Bravo. The test was conducted just 82 miles from a Japanese fishing vessel, with no forewarning given. Yoshio Masaki, the ship’s fishing master, was on deck, and later recorded in his log the frightening things he saw and heard—
“Suddenly the boat has been surrounded by a bright light. Such an early dawn is impossible. Makes feel something very dangerous.”
Clouds of ash and white rain fell for five hours as the crew attempted to continue their expedition. When it subsided, most of the 23 crew members were dizzy, vomiting, or feverish, and all of the men were hospitalized within two weeks of returning to shore. Though the US would initially try to dismiss the crew—the fishermen’s successful tuna haul notwithstanding—as Soviets spying on the nuclear tests, the Japanese media’s coverage of the incident, the sailors’ accounts, and the resulting panic about potentially radioactive tuna within the Japanese market focused international scrutiny upon the US nuclear testing regime.
Strauss rejected the idea of any misstep—
With respect to the stories concerning widespread contamination of tuna and other fish as a result of the tests, the facts do not confirm them. The only contaminated fish discovered were in the open hold of a Japanese trawler [that had been] well within the danger zone. The Federal Drug Administration has informed us that their thorough survey found no radioactive contamination of boats or fish. The fallout dissipated rapidly in the ocean current and has posed no risk. No radioactivity has been detected in an area between five and five hundred miles of the test site.
There was a rumor last week of a danger from radioactivity falling in the United States. As with Soviet nuclear tests, there might be a small increase in natural background radiation in some local areas. However, it is only infinitesimally higher than what has been observed after previous tests in the continental United States and overseas, far too small to pose any risk to persons, animals or plants. Radioactivity dissipates rapidly after tests, and soon returns to normal levels of natural background radiation.
Yet a March 21, 1954 memo uncovered decades later in the US National Archives by Professor Higuchi Toshihiro of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy of Georgetown University revealed that the US was sufficiently concerned to halt imports of Japanese tuna. Imports were later allowed once radiation monitoring equipment in Japanese tuna packaging warehouses had been operationalized.
While the AEC tried to allay public concern, they proceeded undeterred with planning their subsequent nuclear tests. In a particularly tone-deaf remark presumably intended to show Americans that they were in safe hands, Chairman Strauss, boasted publicly after a March 31, 1954 Eisenhower press conference that the bomb was sufficiently powerful to take out any city in the United States.
On April 20th, the Marshallese Congress wrote to the United Nations appealing for a halt to future tests in the Marshall Islands:
…In view of the increasing danger from the experiments with deadly explosives thousands of times more powerful than anything previously known to men, the lethal effects of which have already touched the inhabitants of two of the atolls in the Marshalls, namely, Rongelap and Uterik, who are now suffering in various degrees from “lowering of blood count,” burns, nausea and the falling off of hair from the head, and whose complete recovery no one can promise with any certainty, we, the Marshallese people feel that we must follow the dictates of our consciences to bring forth this urgent plea to the United Nations...
…For security reasons, Kwajalein Island is being kept for the military use. Bikini and Eniwetak were taken away for atomic bomb tests and their inhabitants were moved to Kili Island and Ujelang Atoll respectively. Because Rongelap and Uterik are now radioactive, their inhabitants are being kept on Kwajalein for an indeterminate length of time. “Where next?” is the big question which looms large in all of our minds.
Throughout the documentary record, the Marshall Islanders’ characteristic selflessness and tolerance is evident, despite frequently receiving patronizing communications from the US in return.
The UN Trusteeship Council shared the petition with the US representatives, who passed it along to the Eisenhower administration. The US representative to the UN, Henry Cabot Lodge, addressed the body on May 14th, which in short was three parts whitewashing, one part apology.Lodge would say in his remarks that—
I am informed that there is no medical reason to expect any permanent after effects on their general health due to the falling of radioactive materials…As the petitioners rightly imply the United States would not have been conducting such tests if it had not been determined after very careful study that they were required in the interests of general peace and security the selection of test sites in this particular area was made.
The US would also need to plan for what they reasonably assumed would be a more scrutinized report about the incident to the UN Trusteeship Council. The Marshall Islands were, administratively, a Trust Territory of the United States since the end of the second world war. Moreover, it was deemed a ‘strategic area’ by the US, which meant that the US could have opted to assume the responsibilities of the Council relating ‘to political economic social and educational matters’ for the Trust Territory. But the US had declined the option, and thus was required to cooperate with and report to the Council regarding the territory’s handling.
Concerned over the likelihood the Council might have some concerns about the US subjecting the Marshallese people to recurring and escalating levels of nuclear fallout, the US delegation prepared a list of the questions in advance that they believed were likely to be asked of them, and asked Chairman Strauss for the AEC to prepare responses. Among the prewritten answers to the yet to be asked questions was a response to—
What was the extent of the sea area, including lagoons and surrounding open sea, contaminated or otherwise affected? What were the effects? How lasting are they? Will any areas require decontamination? Is there any way of doing this?
The amount of activity in the soil does not constitute a hazard to the growth and edibility of plant life. The amount of activity in Bikini and Eniwetok lagoons would make it unwise to eat fish at this time from these areas without monitoring them first. The information presently available indicates that the fish in all the lagoons except Bikini and Eniwetok and in the open sea are suitable for consumption at this time as the activity is so small that no deleterious effects may be expected to the fish themselves nor will the edibility of the fish be impaired. It is pertinent to note that the fish which normally inhabit the lagoons are not of the migratory species and that those migratory fish which enter the lagoons are not apt to become radioactive during the short period in which they remain in the lagoons. No sea areas need decontamination. The radioactivity on practically all of the islands will be at a very low level in a few months.
Among the populations not evacuated until days after the Bravo blast were the residents of the Rongelap island, who had been exposed to radiation doses that typically cause extensive physiological damage.
The AEC spotted an opportunity.
Less than a week after Bravo, the AEC established the “Study of Response of Human Beings Exposed to Significant Beta and Gamma Radiation due to Fallout from High Yield Weapons.” The project would study the islanders exposed to the radiation for the remainder of their lives without their knowledge as part of “Project Sunshine.” When the Marshallese of Rongelap were returned to the island in 1957, a US physician began to make annual trips to provide care and take notes about their condition.
Project Gabriel, a study initiated in 1949 on the impact of atomic weapons upon crops, animals, and humans was the predecessor to Project Sunshine. Described in the 1995 final report published by the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, it described —
In 1953, under contract to the AEC and the Air Force, the Rand Corporation convened a review of Gabriel. The study was directed by Dr. Willard Libby, a University of Chicago radiochemist who would receive the Nobel Prize in 1960 for the development of the radioactive carbon dating method. The resulting report concluded that strontium 90 (Sr-90) was the most dangerous long-term, global radioactive product of bomb testing and that a global study of strontium 90 fallout was needed.
Libby was promoted in October 1954 to the principal scientist on the AEC, and was its de facto spokesperson on fallout. The AEC was conducting further tests at its Nevada facilities, and public concern was mounting. Unbothered, Libby was recorded saying “People have got to learn to live with the facts of life, and part of the facts of life are fallout."
Because Strontium-90 shares many chemical properties with Calcium, plants and animals—humans included—use it as they would Calcium. When humans ingest plants that have absorbed it, or more commonly consume the milk or meat of livestock that had consumed those plants, it is incorporated into the person’ bones and teeth. Furthermore, Strontium-90, beyond being an inevitable byproduct of nuclear fission, has among the longest half-lives of radioactive contaminants—remaining present and radioactive in ecosystems for hundreds of years.
Although the AEC did not intend to share their research publicly, they needed human cadavers in order to study the long-term radiological hazards of atomic weapons. To cloak their real study’s real objective, everyone outside of a small circle of friends would be told it was for the purposes of studying Radium, not Strontium-90 in the body.
In a declassified transcription from a secret conference, Libby explained that "I don't know how to get them, but I do say that it is a matter of prime importance to get them and particularly in the young age group. So, human samples are of prime importance, and if anybody knows how to do a good job of body snatching, they will really be serving their country…"
Under Operation Sunshine the AEC would ultimately accrue 9,000 samples of human bones, entire skeletons, and nearly 600 human fetuses—they had learned that children had around three to four times more Strontium-90 in their bones— from around the world, according to Eileen Welsome’s book The Plutonium Files.
Commissioner Libby, in a separate 1955 discussion with his colleagues on establishing the agency’s regulatory framework, expressed a feeling that was widespread in the AEC: “Our great hazard is that this great benefit to mankind will be killed aborning by unnecessary regulation. There is not any doubt about the practicability of isotopes and atomic power in my mind. The question is whether we can get it there in our lifetime.”
The scientist charged with shaping US nuclear weapon testing policy believed the great hazard his field faced was regulation, not nuclear weaponry. Following suit, the AEC’s campaign to dismiss concerns about radioactive fallout was resolutely opposed to obvious conclusions.
But Libby’s AEC’s secrets were far from undiscoverable, and public concern was mounting.
In Spring of 1954, not long after the Castle tests, Dr. Lester VanMiddlesworth was working in a Memphis, TN laboratory when a Geiger counter began to react dramatically to a slaughtered steer that had been grazing on nearby grassland. The AEC ultimately credited him for the ‘discovery’ and sent him further samples for testing.
In 1957, Nobel Prize–winning chemist Linus Pauling drafted a petition with 9,000 scientists’ signatures on it, demanding a ban on nuclear testing as a first step toward multilateral disarmament. He later penned a letter in the New York Times explaining the link between Strontium-90 and cancer.
Manhattan Project alumni began to speak out too. Richard Hewlett and Jack Holl wrote in Atoms for Peace and War how Ralph E. Lapp, a nuclear physicist who worked for the military during WWII criticized the AEC’s secrecy about the true hazards of nuclear fallout in magazine editorials beginning in 1954, and in 1955 explained that at a minimum, the current nuclear bomb technologies could lethally contaminate an area the size of Maryland.
In the October 1956 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Lapp likened the AEC to Macbeth—"haunted by the ghost of things which will not die." He was referring to Strontium-90, which Lapp reported was turning up in the bones of people all over the world. Using data provided by Libby and others of the Commission, Lapp concluded that some limitation of the test program was urgently needed “to preserve the sanctity of the biosphere.”
In 1958, Dr. Herman Kalckar published an article for Nature suggesting the idea of a ‘Milk Teeth Radiation Census,’ which would analyze the levels of Strontium-90 in baby teeth over time across different age cohorts. Convinced of the potential, the Baby Tooth Survey kicked off later that year in St. Louis led by the Greater St. Louis Citizens’ Committee for Nuclear Information, or the CNI.
Within a year, the CNI had crowdsourced more than 14,000 teeth, and the initial findings were already jarring. Of the teeth studied, SR-90 levels in the incisor teeth of children born in 1951 was dramatically lower than levels for those born in 1954. Later analyses revealed that from 1945 to 1965, strontium 90 levels in baby teeth had risen 50-fold.
Throughout the 1950s, nuclear test ban advocates, including many of the most prominent scientists involved with the Manhattan Project were dismissed as communists. Pete Seeger, blacklisted himself for his antiwar folk songs and satires, was brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and plead the first in response to the representatives’ questioning in 1955. He also did not learn his lesson, capturing the mounting popular sentiment in his recording of “Mack the Bomb” later that decade.
Oh the shark has pretty teeth, dear, and he shows them—pearly white.And the AEC has figures, but it keeps them out of sight.When the shark bites with his teeth, dear, scarlet billows start to spread.Strontium 90 shows no color, but it leaves you just as dead.Strontium 90 leaves no clue, dear, it's not like thalidomide.If the baby is deformed, dear, you just blame the other side.Strontium 90 leaves no trace, dear, no one knows who gets the knife.You can always say that background radiation took the life.In your milk on Monday morning, comes an extra little kick.Well, the taste is just the same, dear, but the Geiger counters tick.
Having hit too close to home, the nuclear tests were incrementally curtailed by test ban treaties. But the primary benefactors of US nuclear testing fallout never were US citizens.
The Marshallese people of the Rongelap and Ailinginae atolls, who had only been evacuated days after the Castle Bravo test, were exposed to an estimated radiation dose which, according to a 2004 report by the US National Cancer Institute (NCI), “were very high and were in a range for which there is little experience in dose estimation or health risk assessment…. Doses of that magnitude from accident situations have rarely, if ever, been documented.”
Considering numerous variables including date of exposure, age and sex distribution, and different impacted organs, they estimated nuclear fallout would ultimately result in about 530 excess lifetime cancers among the 14,000 Marshall Islands residents exposed to the testing.
A different study by the NCI determined that, “The highest doses were to the thyroid glands of young children exposed on Rongelap at the time of the Castle Bravo test of 1 March 1954 and were about three times higher than for adults.” Just under 70% of the Rongelap children who were under 10 in 1954 developed thyroid tumors.
Despite decades of pleading for better medical care, the 300 residents of Rongelap and 100 tons of building materials were only evacuated to a different island 110 miles away in 1985. This was accomplished with the help of Greenpeace, not the US military.
Despite Hunters Point being designated for environmental cleanup for more than two decades, there is still little reliable data about the changes to the composition of the site’s soil over the period. Prior to the Navy releasing their measurements, from 2005 to 2018 much of the cleanup had been subcontracted by the Navy to the firm Tetra Tech, an international consulting firm with over $3 billion in annual revenues.
Netting payments of approximately $450 million for the cleanup, by the time the firm ultimately ended its participation in the cleanup project, there was little verifiable progress to point to. Starting in 2012, several former employees began reporting that they had been ordered by superiors to fake their soil samples in order to expedite the cleanup. That same year, the Navy’s Radiological Affairs Support Office discovered “anomalies” in soil samples, but chose to let Tetra Tech investigate itself.
In 2014, additional whistleblowers claimed the company had orchestrated deliberate fraud in the collection of 2,500 samples. Meanwhile, the self-conducted investigation had concluded the same year, with the firm admitting to two falsifications in sampling data in an isolated incident. The Navy was satisfied with Tetra Tech’s suggested remedy of ethics training for its employees.
Despite relentless local environmental advocacy, all relevant government stakeholders—the Navy, the EPA, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the legislators representing the state of California held firm in their confidence that the Tetra Tech’s report covered the full extent of their misrepresentations of the site cleanup.
In September, 2016, with the Navy already selling parcels of the shipyard to Five Point Holdings, a subsidiary of the housing developer Lennar Corporation—who, in turn, had already begun building and had sold approximately 350 town homes in the trendy new ‘SF Shipyard’—the EPA and California Department of Toxic Substances Control finally wrote the Navy advising them to discontinue the land transfers due to the fraud.
Independent analyses by the US Navy and the EPA of the available data recorded by Tetra Tech concluded that for each of the parcels on the Hunters Point shipyard at least half of the data was unreliable with some parcels as much as 97% unreliably documented.
The Navy, the State of California, and several other parties have ongoing lawsuits and investigations into Tetra Tech related to the allegations. Amid their deference however, the credulousness with which government institutions treated Tetra Tech’s claims has inspired more than a cursory inspection of the connections between the regulators and regulated. For example:
During his successful bid for San Francisco’s mayorship, current California governor Gavin Newsom’s campaign treasurer was Laurence Pelosi, nephew of Nancy. Pelosi, at the time and still today is a senior executive for Lennar Corporation, serving today as its President of Acquisitions.
In March 2004, two months after taking office in Newsom, along with senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer finalized an agreement with the Navy to transfer the shipyard to the City of San Francisco, which would in turn transfer the land to Lennar. Feinstein’s husband, Richard Blum, was a partner at Lennar.
Mayor Newsom received funds from the San Francisco 49ers in 2006 during the campaign finance report period immediately preceding negotiations between the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development and team owners. Lennar agreed it would set aside land and provide $100 million to help build a new and privately financed stadium for the San Francisco 49ers.
Same Fraud, Different Face
The Navy took over the project of testing the shipyard’s soil in 2020, and presented their initial measurements to the public in 2021. Even while using a benchmark threshold for acceptable concentration of Strontium-90 nearly 100 times more permissive than the EPA’s recommendation, the data showed that 23 (10%) of the site samples exceeded the target benchmark. They then sought to walk that back, leading to the April, 2023 presentation which showed the less than zero concentration of Strontium 90.
As reported by Tom Perkins in The Guardian, the April, 2023 presentation was a revised update on the progress of the cleanup work, ‘correcting’ the measurements previously shared with the public in 2021. For no coherently explained reason, the Navy characterized the previously announced measurements as inaccurate, and the new data was to be taken as gospel.
The organization Public Employees for Environmental Protection (PEER) submitted a complaint to the Office of the Naval Inspector General, charging fraud and abuse of authority by the Navy’s cleanup personnel. Luckily for the creators of the unprecedented Strontium 90 measurement graphic, the complaint was dismissed in deference to the twelve ongoing lawsuits related to the Tetra Tech data falsification controversy.