Scientists announced yesterday that they have completed the first ever survey of a 623-foot-long World War II aircraft carrier sitting 2,600 feet below the ocean's surface, a full 30 miles off the coast of Half Moon Bay. It's pretty cool, and also radioactive, but it's not necessarily something to worry about.
After seeing combat against Japan in 1944 and 1945, the USS Independence was contaminated with radiation in two South Pacific nuclear tests and deliberately sunk in 1951, but it's exact location had not been released by the Navy. Though the U.S. Geological Survey has been pretty sure of its location since mapping the sea floor in 1990, news of the official discovery comes from The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and was reported on by The San Jose Mercury News.
The location expedition was led by the NOAA with assistance from the Navy and Boeing. They mapped the sunken ship last month with a robotic underwater vehicle that used sonar to render three-dimensional images of it. "By using technology to create three-dimensional maps of the seafloor and wrecks like Independence, we can not only explore, but share what we've learned with the public and other scientists," Frank Cantelas, archaeologist with the NOAA's Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, explained the significance of the work.
After the Independence was damaged heavily during 1946 nuclear weapons tests at Bikini Atoll, it was repurposed as a nuclear decontamination lab and stationed at Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. In time, it was set out to sea containing an unknown number of barrels of radioactive waste.
Yes, that sounds concerning, but the barrels of waste were filled with concrete, then sealed in the thick steel walled engine and boiler rooms of the ship. After it mapped the Independence, scientists tested the submarine and the water on its instruments for radioactive isotopes, finding only normal background levels of radiation.
That said, the general safety of the area is a concern to some. The Farallon Islands Radioactive Waste Dump is a large area where the federal government dumped almost 48,000 barrels of low-level radioactive waste from 1946 and 1970. That probably wasn't a good idea, and Quentin Kopp, a retired judge and state legislator, has been known to question its safety and the lack of research into the matter. "If I were an elected legislator, state or federal, I would be pounding the table," Kopp told the Mercury News.
From a purely historical standpoint, though, NOAA official James Delgado, chief scientist of the Independence mission, is enchanted. "This ship is an evocative artifact of the dawn of the atomic age, when we began to learn the nature of the genie we'd uncorked from the bottle," he said. "It speaks to the 'Greatest Generation' — people's fathers, grandfathers, uncles and brothers who served on these ships, who flew off those decks and what they did to turn the tide in the Pacific war."