In the 1950s, nuclear reactors and weapons were all the rage. Bombs were getting bigger, people were hosting nuclear parties and reactors were enabling the Navy to launch submarines and ships that could go years without refueling.
But all that nuclear activity had a dark consequence — and no, we’re not talking about the fun Super Mutants of Fallout.
As most everyone knows, using radioactive materials to generate power also creates waste. Triggering the nuclear process in a material (which is what you need to do to create said power) is basically irreversible. Once activated, nuclear material is dangerous for thousands of years.
The Navy was still in the process of learning that fact in the 1950s as they tried to decide what to do with a newfound problem: dealing with nuclear waste.
Their initial solution, unsurprisingly, was similar to how they dealt with chemical waste and other debris at the time. They dumped it — usually in 6,000 to 12,000 feet of water.
At this point, Godzilla is your best-case scenario.
Sailors like George Albernaz, assigned to the USS Calhoun County in the ’50s, were left to decide how they’d go about their job dumping the materials, typically low-level nuclear waste.
They would take about 300 barrels per trip out into the ocean from docks on the Atlantic Coast and roll them to the edge of the ship. When the ship tipped just right on the waves, they would push the barrels over.
Most of them, filled with dense metals, salts, and tools encased in concrete inside the barrel, would sink right away. Barrels that bobbed back up were shot with a rifle by a man standing on the end of the ship, which usually sent it directly to the bottom of the sea.
But the rifle fire wasn’t always enough.
In July 1957, two barrels bobbed back up during a dumping mission and simply would not sink. So, the Navy sent two aircraft to fire on them with machine guns until they finally sank to Poseidon’s depths.
While shooting radioactive barrels actually sounds sort-of fun, the sailors involved said that the Navy failed to properly inform them of the dangers of working with radiation, took shortcuts on safety and detection procedures, and failed to provide necessary safety gear.
That left men like Albernaz susceptible to a number of diseases and conditions associated with radiation, including cancer and other lifelong ailments.
A 1992 article in the New York Times detailed other shortcomings of the Navy’s programs, including instances where dumps occurred mere miles from major ports, like Boston, in only a few hundred feet of water, increasing the chances that radioactive particles could make their way into civilian population centers.
These days, Navy nuclear waste is taken to be stored on land, but the U.S. still lacks permanent storage for high-level nuclear waste. Instead, nearly all high-level nuclear waste in the U.S. is stored in temporary storage, often on the grounds of nuclear power generation facilities.
It’s not ideal, and a number of potential permanent sites have been proposed and debated, but at least barrels probably won’t come bobbing back up.
If they do, well, even the F-35 could probably sink them.