Quest to detect plutonium

View-of-Hunters-Point-Shipyard-new-condos-NRDL-Bldg-815-gantry-crain-through-hole-in-fence-103018-by-Lea-Suzuki-SF-Chronicle, Quest to detect plutonium, Local News & Views
A view of the Shipyard facing east through a hole in the fence, taken on Oct. 30, 2018, shows new condo construction on the left, the windowless Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory, Building 815, and the huge gantry crain. – Photo: Lea Suzuki, SF Chronicle

by SF Bay View Health and Environmental Science Editor Ahimsa Porter Sumchai MD

“In addition to NOT measuring 90 percent of the radionuclides of concern, 90 percent of the measurements that were made on soil samples didn’t measure for two of the four radionuclides admitted by the Navy to be key at the Hunters Point Shipyard: strontium-90 and plutonium-239. The soil samples were mainly measured for gamma emitters. Strontium-90 and plutonium-239 are beta and alpha emitters.” – “The great majority of Hunters Point sites were never sampled for radioactive contaminants,” by Daniel Hirsch et al, Committee to Bridge the Gap, October 2018

Navy-exempted-90-of-Hunters-Point-Shipyard-sites-from-sampling-by-Daniel-Hirsch-et-al-Committee-to-Bridge-the-Gap-1018, Quest to detect plutonium, Local News & Views
When soil samples were taken by the Navy at the Hunters Point Shipyard, 90 percent of them did not measure plutonium-239, according to the Committee to Bridge the Gap.

It should be easy enough to detect an elephant in a room – it would occupy the entire space and crowd out animals less gigantic in weight and size. And yet the elephant in the room at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard goes unnoticed and unspoken. 

Plutonium-Facts-graphic, Quest to detect plutonium, Local News & Views
“Surely you know what plutonium is. It’s one of the most dangerous, radioactive, toxic elements in the world. It’s used in atom bombs and the production of nuclear energy. And it’s responsible for killing a massive number of people in the world – in mere seconds,” according to a 2019 article, “Watch How Plutonium, the Most Toxic Element in the World, Is Created.”

The elephant in the room at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard goes unmentioned in Navy documents and city government reports yet hides in plain sight during environmental testing. The Navy does not look for the elephant in the room and when it does the elephant detected is massive in size. The elephant in the room at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard is plutonium.

Like an elephant in a room and a bull in a china shop, plutonium is what you get when you make uranium more radioactive. Plutonium-239 was artificially synthesized on March 28, 1941, by bombarding uranium 238 with neutrons. Plutonium in the environment exists in the form of microscopic particles – remnants of nuclear weapons testing.

“The element plutonium was discovered by Nobel Laureate Glenn T. Seaborg and colleagues in February 1941. The 60-inch cyclotron at the University of California at Berkeley produced the first isotope of plutonium, Pu-238. It was made by bombarding a U-238 target with deuterons, producing Np-238. … The radionuclide Np-238 decayed (by emitting beta-radiation) to Pu-238 … 

Nucleus-of-atom-splitting, Quest to detect plutonium, Local News & Views
When the nucleus of an atom fissions, it splits into several smaller fragments. Like a bull in a china shop, radioactive plutonium wreaks havoc in lung tissue by killing lung cells and causing scarring of the lungs, lung disease and cancer. Plutonium enters the bloodstream exposing the kidneys to alpha particles. Plutonium concentrates in bones, liver and spleen.

“The isotope Pu-239 was produced on March 28, 1941, by bombarding a U-238 target with neutrons to produce U-239 … This radionuclide decayed by beta emission … to Pu-239 (which has a very long half-life of 24,600 years),” according to Scientific American.

Plutonium has 20 radioactive isotopes with half-lives ranging from 80 million years for Pu-244 to 24,600 years for Pu-239. Pu-239 and Pu-241 are fissile isotopes capable of sustaining a nuclear chain reaction. Pu-239 is the fissile isotope used in the production of the “Fat Man” plutonium bombs unleashed on Nagasaki in 1945 and detonated underwater during Operations Crossroads on July 25, 1946.

Fat Man in the room at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard

“There will probably be enough plutonium near the surface to poison the combined armed forces of the United States at their highest wartime strength.” – Los Alamos Laboratory estimate of the Shot Baker underwater atomic test, National Security Archive Bikini A-Bomb Tests, July 1946

Replica-of-Fat-Man-atomic-bomb, Quest to detect plutonium, Local News & Views
This is a replica of the Fat Man bomb dropped on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945. Fat Man was an implosion type nuclear weapon with a solid plutonium core weighing over 10,000 pounds built by scientists at Los Alamos Laboratory in 1945. One hundred twenty plutonium bombs were produced before Fat Man “retired” in 1950.

Parcel F is the sediment area of the decommissioned naval base. Plutonium was detected by the Navy in concentrations 44 times higher than background in the northern berths region of the Hunters Point Shipyard where Operation Crossroads ships were docked and in the Parcel B submarine area, where the shipyard artists’ colony is currently sited.

Urine-toxicology-screening-of-shipyard-artist-at-Hunters-Point-Shipyard, Quest to detect plutonium, Local News & Views
Urinary screening conducted on a shipyard artist with a studio located in the Parcel B submarine area for over a decade detects uranium in concentrations exceeding reference range and cesium in high normal concentrations. – Photo: Hunters Point Biomonitoring Foundation Inc.
Radionuclides-in-sediment-at-Parcel-F-at-Hunters-Point-Naval-Shipyard-by-Battelle-and-Sea-Engineering-2013, Quest to detect plutonium, Local News & Views
Maximum detected concentrations of Pu-239 and Pu-240 in Hunters Point Naval Shipyard Parcel F sediment occur in the submarine area where the Shipyard artists are currently located and Berths North where Operation Crossroads target ships were docked, including the USS Independence. Note maximum concentrations of Cs-137, Co-60, Pu-239 and -240, Ra-226 and Sr-90 are also detected in the submarine area of the base where the artist colony is sited. – Photo: Battelle and Sea Engineering
Map-of-radioactive-ships-at-Hunters-Point-Shipyard, Quest to detect plutonium, Local News & Views
The Historical Radiological Assessment, or HRA, uses this as its cover photo. Target and support ships exposed to the 23-kiloton underwater detonation of the “Fat Man” plutonium bomb on July 25, 1946, are pictured here docked at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. Shot Baker was one of a series of 23 nuclear weapons tests conducted by the United States in the Bikini Atoll off the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958. The Baker test proved that radioactivity could disable a fleet. – Photo: HP Shipyard Historical Radiological Assessment 
USS-Independence-at-Hunters-Point-Shipyard, Quest to detect plutonium, Local News & Views
The bomb-scarred, radioactive hulk of the World War II-era aircraft carrier USS Independence is shown here moored at the Shipyard’s historic 8,400-ton gantry crane, where it operated as a floating NRDL radiation laboratory and nuclear waste repository until sunk by the Navy on Jan. 26, 1951. On April 16, 2015, NOAA confirmed the location of the USS Independence on the sea floor off California’s Farallon Islands.

According to historical records, up to 90 Operation Crossroads target and support ships were towed back to Hunters Point in 1946, where workers sandblasted them in futile efforts to remove radioactive contamination after exposure to plutonium bombs. The aircraft carrier USS Independence, “damaged by shock waves, heat and radiation,” remained docked at the shipyard for years, emitting radiation until 1951, when it was sunk by the Navy off California’s Farallon Islands.

Additionally, 600,000 gallons of radioactive fuel oil was burned in power plants into the atmosphere over the naval base and the Bayview Hunters Point community.

Hunters Point Biomonitoring prepares to conduct rapid emergency urinary screenings for plutonium radioisotopes

The Hunters Point Biomonitoring Foundation Inc., in collaboration with James Dahlgren Medical, has launched a human biomonitoring initiative to conduct rapid emergency urinary screenings to detect what author Jeremy Bernstein titles “plutonium, the world’s most dangerous element.”

Dr.-James-Dahlgren-w-geiger-counter-at-HP-Biomonitoring-by-Ahimsa, Quest to detect plutonium, Local News & Views
Got Geiger counter! Dr. James Dahlgren is a UCSF-trained, board-certified internist who draws upon 40 years of experience in environmental toxicology. Dr. Dahlgren is founder of Pacific Toxicology Laboratories and served as expert witness in Hinkley versus PG&E – commonly called the Erin Brokovich case – that settled in 1966 for $333 million, previously the largest toxic tort settlement in U.S. history. On Nov. 10, 2021, a federal judge approved a partial settlement for $626.25 million to Flint, Michigan, residents. Dr. Dahlgren conducted Geiger counter readings that detected gamma counts as high as 50 cpm at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard main gate at Crisp Road and Palou Avenue. Baseline is below 20 cpm. Geiger counter readings downwind at the major intersection and transit station at Third Street and Palou Avenue detected gamma readings as high as 56 cpm. – Photo: Dr. Ahimsa Porter Sumchai

Plutonium is a toxic synthetic element with no natural biological functions. Not only is it useless to the body – it is strongly retained by humans when ingested, primarily lodging in bone and liver cells where it can release harmful alpha radiation.” – Mark Jensen, Argonne National Laboratory Nature Chemical Biology online, June 26, 2011

A team of scientists in Japan and China developed and tested a human urine bioassay capable of rapidly detecting plutonium isotopes Pu-239, Pu-240 and Pu-241 in trace amounts. The investigators cite the need for rapid assessment of the exposure level in detecting Pu for the purpose of radiation protection and medical intervention and offer urinalysis as the most basic and straightforward technique for bioassay.

HP Biomonitoring currently relies on a urinary toxic exposure screening capable of detecting 35 potential toxicants including radioactive elements of concern documented in the Historical Radiological Assessment. The urinary screening detects barium, bismuth, cobalt, cesium, gadolinium, potassium, niobium, nickel, lead, strontium, thorium, thallium and uranium. It does not detect two key radioactive elements of concern at HPNS – radium and plutonium.

The Navy conducted biomonitoring on fish and shellfish in the Parcel F feasibility study but did not test for plutonium despite its detection in concentrations 44 times greater than background along the shipyard shoreline.

Hunters-Point-Shipyard-Parcel-F-sediment-exposure-pathways-graphic, Quest to detect plutonium, Local News & Views

A disturbing amount of research exists on human biomonitoring of plutonium exposed populations. Data on plutonium activity in lung, vertebrae and liver in 236 deceased residents were obtained during autopsy as part of the Los Alamos Tissue Program. Autopsy tissue taken from residents living adjacent to Los Alamos National Laboratory detected elevated levels of plutonium in lung tissue linked to length of residential exposure.

The Manhattan Project Human Plutonium Injection Experiment conducted in 1944 and 1945 researched urinary excretion of plutonium injected in three patients – including a 58-year-old house painter injected with plutonium on May 14, 1945, at the University of California hospital in San Francisco. The first urinary excretion curves for plutonium were developed based on unethical research conducted on patients who were not informed they had received a radioactive injection:

Manhattan-Project-Human-Plutonium-Injection-Experiments-Joseph-Hamilton-Louis-Hempelmann-Wright-Langham-at-Los-Alamos-and-Berkeley, Quest to detect plutonium, Local News & Views
The Manhattan Project Human Plutonium Injection Experiments rival research conducted by Nazi Germany and the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. Criticism of Hamilton’s human experiments using plutonium is documented in Eileen Welsome’s book, “The Plutonium Files.”

The Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory Experience with Plutonium in Man,” led by W.H. Langham, presents the medical experience with exposure to Pu-239 using a method of estimating body burden using urinary analyses. The researchers found plutonium concentrations in pulmonary lymph nodes, lung tissue and liver to be higher than in bone in 27 Los Alamos Lab personnel who had accumulated plutonium body burdens ranging from 0.1 to 1.3 uq – 0.007–0.09 uc. 

Black-worker-being-exposed-to-plutonium-by-Democracy-Now, Quest to detect plutonium, Local News & Views
An African American worker is subjected to plutonium without their knowledge or consent in this photo from Democracy Now, in “Plutonium Files: How the U.S. Secretly Fed Radioactivity to Thousands of Americans.”

The exposure was determined to be via inhalation as indicated by a strong correlation between high urine counts and Pu contamination in the nasal vestibule: “There was clear evidence of a linear association between cumulative internal plutonium lung dose and risk of lung cancer mortality.”

Human-lung-tissue-damaged-by-plutonium-exposure-near-Los-Alamos, Quest to detect plutonium, Local News & Views
Human lung tissue damaged by plutonium exposure was gathered from autopsies conducted on residents living adjacent to the Los Alamos Laboratory. Human biomonitoring research documents an increase in lung cancer in white male workers at Los Alamos National Laboratory and Mayak Nuclear Plant workers in Russia.

The Mayak Production Association was the first plutonium production plant built, in haste and total secrecy, in 1945 by 40,000 prisoners and POWs as part of the Soviet Union’s atomic bomb project. The number of Mayak workers exposed to large internal and external doses of plutonium is 18,831

“At the request of the San Francisco Department of Public Health, the Greater Bay Area Cancer Registry (BGACR) at the University of California San Francisco conducted a cancer incidence analysis for Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood for the period 2008-2012. The GBACR analysis identified a 31 percent increase in lung cancer cases among men. This finding was statistically significant.” – Tomas Aragon, MD DrPH, Health Officer, March 6, 2019

Speaking truth to environmental toxic exposures

The Hunters Point Biomonitoring Foundation Inc. dedicates the HP Biomonitoring Plutonium Screening Initiative to the memory of Dr. Janette Sherman, pioneering physician, chemist and toxicological researcher known for her work on radiation and breast cancer. Dr. Sherman studied the effects of radiation and thermal burns as a researcher at Building 815 – headquarters for the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratories.

Dr.-Janette-Sherman-in-Haleakala-National-Park-in-Hawaii, Quest to detect plutonium, Local News & Views
In the course of her lifetime, physician and activist “tox doc” Dr. Janette Sherman gave voice to countless – and often voiceless – victims of environmental toxic exposures. As a young woman right out of school, she worked for years in the Hunters Point Shipyard’s windowless Building 815, the main headquarters of the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory and offered the Bay View her experience as a witness when she saw our coverage. Janette died on Nov. 7, 2019, at age 89. She is shown hiking in Haleakala National Park in Hawaii.

In the 2017 SF Bay View article “Less than one lifetime,” Dr. Sherman writes: “I remember monitoring a building where plutonium was refined. When plutonium decays and emits alpha particles, there is a ‘kickback,’ thus plutonium had crept out of the laboratories and spread contamination as far as the building entrance.” Dr. Sherman’s medical-legal files are preserved by the National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health.

SF Bay View Health and Environmental Science Editor Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, MD, PD, founder and principal investigator for the Hunters Point Community Biomonitoring Program, founding chair of the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard Restoration Advisory Board’s Radiological Subcommittee and contributor to the 2005 Draft Historical Radiological Assessment, can be reached at Dr. Sumchai is medical director of Golden State MD Health & Wellness, a UCSF and Stanford trained author and researcher, and a member of the UCSF Medical Alumni Association Board of Directors.