Skip to main content

The never-ending mess from America’s early nuclear tests

The never-ending mess from America’s early nuclear tests


An atomic bomb, a scandal, and the neighborhood next door

Share this story

The Hunters Point Shipyard in San Francisco is where ships irradiated by early nuclear testing in the Pacific were towed so they could be decontaminated. Now, people are trying to clean it up. But there’s been a lot of trouble along the way, like a case of ecological fraud that’s sent two people to prison, so far. The neighborhood feels poisoned by the government — and how do you clean that up?

The city today is in the grips of a housing crisis: the population is growing, land is at a premium, and new housing is desperately needed. And one of the biggest new developments is in an area called Bayview-Hunters Point. It’s a classic gentrification story: a brand-new, expensive development built next to an established, lower-income, historically black community. It’s also the site of radioactive waste, an alleged cover up, and some criminal convictions. Less classic.

The development sits at the edge of the Bayview-Hunters Point community, the site of the defunct Hunters Point Shipyard. In addition to the wastes from the irradiated ships, the site is also contaminated with radioactive paint used to make deck markers and devices glow, fuels and pesticides, and radioactive materials used in lab experiments. And that’s all on top of the asbestos that’s just naturally in the soil there.

The EPA added the shipyard to the Superfund list in 1989 — and cleaning it up has been a massive effort. So the Navy brought in a firm called Tetra Tech EC to help. But a few years ago, whistleblowers starting coming forward with claims of botched cleanup work by Tetra Tech. And reporters with NBC Bay Area got their hands on an internal report that admitted Tetra Tech workers falsified soil tests. NBC called it “an apparent effort to declare the soil free of radiological contamination when it may not have been.”

The scandal has only gotten worse from there. So with the help of freelance reporter Chris Roberts, who’s been covering the story for Curbed, we take a look at the past, present, and future of the Hunters Point Shipyard.

Verge Science on YouTube /

The home base for our explorations into the future of science.