n a ghostly reminder of the Bay Area’s nuclear heritage, scientists announced Thursday they have captured the first clear images of a radioactivity-polluted World War II aircraft carrier that rests on the ocean floor 30 miles off the coast of Half Moon Bay.
The USS Independence saw combat at Wake Island and other decisive battles against Japan in 1944 and 1945 and was later blasted with radiation in two South Pacific nuclear tests. The Navy deliberately sank the contaminated ship in 1951 south of the Farallon Islands.
The rediscovery of the USS Independence offers a fascinating glimpse into American military history and raises old questions about the safety of the Farallon Islands Radioactive Waste Dump — a vast region overlapping what is now a marine sanctuary where the federal government dumped nearly 48,000 barrels of low-level radioactive waste between 1946 and 1970.
But word of the Independence survey stirred up lingering concerns about the nuclear waste near the Farallon Islands, an area teeming with wildlife. Retired judge and state legislator Quentin Kopp, who many years ago demanded research into the Navy’s disposal of radioactive material off Northern California before 1970, said Thursday that the question of whether the waste posed a risk to humans and wildlife was never resolved.
“If I were an elected legislator, state or federal, I would be pounding the table,” Kopp said.
Kai Vetter, a UC Berkeley nuclear engineering professor who assisted the survey, said the ocean acts as a natural buffer against radiation. And the contaminated sites are small enough that they wouldn’t work their way into the broader food chain, he added.
“The risk here to have a public health impact is extremely small,” Vetter said.
Vetter said he hopes to obtain samples of the hull of the Independence in the next year to analyze the effects of radiation and other forces on the metal. Delgado said, however, there are no plans to further examine the wreck at this time.
The Gulf of the Farallones sanctuary is a haven for wildlife, from white sharks to elephant seals and whales, despite its history as a dumping ground.
Richard Charter, a senior fellow at the Ocean Foundation, was involved in the creation of the sanctuary back in 1981. He said the radioactive waste is a relic of a dark age before the enviornmental movement took hold.
“It’s just one of those things that humans rather stupidly did in the past that we can’t retroactively fix,” he said.