Via The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: Treasure Island cleanup exposes Navy’s mishandling of its nuclear past. Treasure Island was created in San Francisco Bay for the 1939 International Exhibition. Excerpt:
After the exposition, the island was set to become a civilian airport—until the United States entered World War II. The Navy seized the land for the Treasure Island Naval Station and demolished the expo’s Art Moderne structures, leaving just the terminal and two hangars. In the spaces around them rose a little village of beige one- and two-story sheds.
For years, the base served its purpose until, in 1993, it landed on a decommission list. The military decamped, dismantling and cleanup began, and a few years later some former Navy housing was turned into city-subsidized rentals. By 2007, the Navy was well into the process of preparing the land for full transfer to civilian control.
That year, cleanup operations shifted from removing Navy industrial toxins and sludge to identifying any lingering radioactive waste. New World Environmental, a contractor working for the Navy, assigned specialist Robert McLean to conduct a preliminary radiation survey.
That was how McLean found himself cruising through neighborhoods built near former US Navy training academies, with a Ludlum radiation meter poked out of his truck window. He did not expect to find much; just the year before, a Navy-commissioned historical report had suggested there was little likelihood that significant radioactive waste would be found on the island. And by then, hundreds of San Franciscans were living in modest townhouses on Treasure Island and neighboring Yerba Buena Island–with the Navy’s assurances that doing so was perfectly safe.
Then, the sensor needle hopped.
“We picked up readings from inside the truck, without even getting out of the vehicle,” said McLean, speaking publicly about his discovery for the first time. That first detection was not the last.
“We found radiation, contaminated materials, in playgrounds and in areas that had previously been playgrounds,” said McLean, 52, who livesin North Carolina. “We found it in front yards. We found it underneath sidewalks and along the roadways.”
Months went by. With each new finding of radioactivity, it seemed the Navy would incrementally raise its estimates of how much waste might have been left behind on the island.
McLean tried to blow the whistle, calling Kent Prendergast, radiation health division chief for the California Department of Public Health.
“McLean indicated that he was concerned regarding the fact that they are finding radium sources … at many locations on the west side of Treasure Island,” Prendergast wrote in an internal email dated June 25, 2008. McLean “was concerned that the sources could represent a hazard to children or something the bad guys could use to make a dirty bomb.”
McLean reported finding radium pieces that emitted enough radiation for a person at close range to receive, in an hour, five times the maximum radiation a nuclear worker is allowed to absorb in a year. Ionizing radiation increases cancer risks; eating or breathing traces of radioactive material can subject human cells to decades of bombardment that further raises those risks.
In addition to the dangerously radioactive radium pieces, McLean’s readings showed that soil surrounding the objects was contaminated with traces of the material. Concentrations were not high enough to be certain people would be harmed, but such an unexpected discovery is supposed to prompt a thorough examination.
Instead, it prompted the bureaucratic equivalent of warfare, with state health officials on one side pushing for Treasure Island to be scoured more thoroughly for radioactivity and Navy officials and their contractors on the other, claiming there was no need.
If this seems bizarre and implausible, you were probably born long after the end of nuclear testing in the atmosphere. In the 1950s and 60s, the American military simply didn't care about the effects of radiation on people—even the citizens who paid for them.
I can still remember John F. Kennedy's witty response at a press conference, when an H-bomb was planned to be launched into space and detonated in the Van Allen radiation belt.
"Well, we asked Dr. Van Allen and he didn't mind," said JFK. Ho ho ho.
The H-bomb was launched, and blacked out electrical systems all over the Pacific Ocean. And that's how we learned about the electromagnetic pulse that a high-altitude nuclear explosion can cause.
Meanwhile, fallout from atmospheric tests in Nevada was drifting gently onto countless Americans, inducing untold numbers of cancers and premature deaths. As I tried to point out in a recent Tyee book review, the American nuclear threat to America is far from over. We are always a far more dangerous enemy to ourselves than any outside menace.