San Francisco's "Second Downtown" Is a Nuclear Dump

The kicker? The Navy refuses to investigate its own mess.

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Feb 25 2014, 5:30pm
The view of San Francisco from Treasure Island. Image: John Chandler/Flickr

The US's legacy of nuclear research and weapons production has left its mark all over the country—there are currently more than 100 cleanup sites identified in 30 states. But prevalent as they are, it's not often that the site for a city's planned "second downtown" turns out to be filled with radioactive waste.

Treasure Island, an infill project located in the San Francisco Bay, was created by the federal government in the late 30s to host the 1939 Golden Gate International Expo, and was later converted to a naval base as the US prepared for World War II. While the Navy's operational presence waned for years, it wasn't until the mid-90s that it officially gave up Treasure Island.

In the intervening years, the island has been home to movie productions and music festivals, but the big goal for land-strapped San Francisco has been to develop the neighborhood into an "ecometropolis," as the Bay Citizen called it in April 2011. The goal then was to grow the island's population from 2,000 to 19,000 with the development of high rises and infrastructure across the old base, which was projected to cost $1.5 billion. 

But there's only one problem: Soil at the site is contaminated with radioactive waste, and it seems every year the amount of contamination found gets worse. In 2012, the Bay Citizen said the island's radiation history is "more widespread than reported," and then in 2013 said nuclear byproducts were "higher than [the] Navy disclosed."

So how did San Francisco get saddled with a toxic dump? Well, that last quote gives a clue: The Bay Citizen story is based on the results of a Center for Investigative Reporting investigation that found the US Navy had not properly assessed the levels of cesium-137, a fission byproduct, in soil samples dating back to the 1970s. In reality, contamination levels are some three times higher than the Navy reported, and 60 percent higher than the Navy's own safety guidelines.

And here's the kicker: According to a new CIR report—the result of a year-long investigation—published today on the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists' site, the Navy refuses to investigate its own mess.

Per the report, a 2006 survey by the Navy found that while problems occasionally happened, nuclear activities at the Treasure Island base were closely regulated and frequently inspected. But what the report ignored were decades of audits that found poor safety procedures at the island. But in 2007, as the Navy readied to hand the island over to the City of San Francisco, a study by a civilian contractor named Robert McLean found the island to be far more contaminated than thought. The Navy, however, did not take action:

Under normal cleanup protocol, the discoveries by McLean and others should have led to the bureaucratic equivalent of soul-searching. The Navy should have revised its 2006 historical radiation survey swiftly to incorporate the new knowledge. It should have complemented the historical research by scanning the island inch by inch to create a radiation road map. And it should have clearly communicated that process to civilians living on Treasure Island.

Instead, military officials continued to proceed as though the 2006 report were accurate, not updating it until 2012. Even then, the Navy failed to account for the base’s history of lax radiation safety or for dangers posed by ships irradiated at Bikini Atoll.

Read the report, as it's a stunner. In short, the island is an irradiated mess, and only through a massive dive through old records and interviews with old personnel was CIR able to find the true scope of the Navy's forgotten activities. Now San Francisco's "second downtown," as CIR calls the island, will have to be decontaminated before it can be built. Meanwhile, the Navy stands by its own studies.

On its face, the fact that a naval base contaminated by nuclear waste sits just outside of San Francisco proper is a perfect example of the United State's complicated relationship with its nuclear history. Remember, in the early days of the Atomic Age, US leaders largely didn't understand the long-term (or short-term, for that matter) risks of nuclear contamination, which is how we got atomic bombs being used in public works projects—as well as cutesy videos to sell the public on it.

Today, it's much clearer that building homes on radioactive soil is not a good idea. But with the US still struggling to dispose of known nuclear waste while arguing over the politics of nuclear power, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the Navy would drag its heels over dealing with its own documented problem. Yet that doesn't make it any less shameful.