Every once in a while, I remember to tell people that there’s a lot of radioactive waste sprinkled just off the coast of San Francisco. Always a favorite piece of information.
The US Geological Survey’s Western Coastal and Marine Geology Group released a big report on the area around the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary when I worked at the Survey: “Beyond the Golden Gate—Oceanography, Geology, Biology, and Environmental Issues in the Gulf of the Farallones.” A few years earlier, CMG had been involved in looking at how material dredged from the Bay Area’s harbors and waterways could be disposed of on the Farallon Slope (where the continental shelf ramps downward), and in the process devised a potential method for identifying drums of radioactive waste. The Farallones are a group of islands about 19 miles from the San Francisco coast with great biological diversity. The Farallones include the largest seabird breeding area in the contiguous U.S. and are a popular spot for great white sharks.
There are about 47,500 55-gallon radioactive waste drums scattered over 350 nautical square miles around the Farallon Islands. The radiation is low-level according to the Navy, but it declines to specifically describe what the radioactive material is. One seaman who accompanied the disposal barges from the nuclear laboratories at Hunter’s Point in the 1950s admitted to SF Weekly that he was ordered to shoot barrels that did not sink right away. Below is a map from USGS showing the dump sites and areas that may contain waste in relation to the Bay Area. It is unfortunate that these happen to coincide geographically with some of our local fisheries. The inset photo is of a crab crawling on one of the drums.
One of the interesting pieces of that radioactive waste is a huge, irradiated Navy ship, believed to be the USS Independence (pictured here in San Francisco Bay in 1943). Remember those photos and films of mushroom clouds in the South Pacific? If you look closely, near the stem of the cloud are sometimes dozens of ships. The Navy anchored them nearby to see how they’d be affected by the explosion. The Independence was one of those ships, located about 560 yards from the first “Operation Crossroads” Bikini Atoll atomic test explosion on July 1, 1946. She didn’t sink, so the Navy anchored her nearby for the July 25 follow-up (pictured below). She was still floating. After that, the Independence was retired.
The Independence, mangled by the blasts and dosed with intense radiation, was later used in radiation experiments at Hunters Point Shipyard in San Francisco. Eventually, the Navy decided to get rid of her. She is supposed to have been packed with radioactive materials before being scuttled. The Navy says it sunk the ship 200 miles from the coast, but surveys show no shipwreck at the avowed location and a large shipwreck near the Farallones that seems to match the Independence.
(Note the two sailors standing in one of the gashes in the hull near the right edge of the photo. Click on the photo to get a bigger view.)