The Radioactive USS Independence Has Been Found

Aerial view of ex-USS Independence at anchor in San Francisco Bay, California, January 1951. There is visible damage from the atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll.
(Image:  San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, P82-019a.3090pl_SAFR 19106/NOAA)
Aerial view of ex-USS Independence at anchor in San Francisco Bay, California, January 1951. There is visible damage from the atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll. (Image: San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, P82-019a.3090pl_SAFR 19106/NOAA)

Resting in 2,600 feet of water off California’s Farallon Islands is a ghostly reminder of the Bay Area’s nuclear heritage. The USS Independence has been found, and now we have clear images of the radioactivity-polluted World War II aircraft carrier.

The carrier is “amazingly intact,” said NOAA scientists working with the U.S. Navy and private industry partners. The USS Independence was a light aircraft carrier, and was the lead ship of its class; the USS Independence played a vital role in the Pacific during World War II.

From November 1943 through to August 1945, the Independence (CVL 22) had operated in the central and western Pacific. Then in 1946, it was one of more than 90 vessels that were assembled for testing the atomic bomb in the Bikini Atoll. Scientists at the time were testing how radiation, heat, and shockwaves impacted on the ships. Like other Operation Crossroads ships, the Independence survived the tests and was sent back to the U.S.

Features on an historic photo of USS Independence CVL 22 are captured in a three-dimensional (3D) low-resolution sonar image of the shipwreck in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The Coda Octopus Echoscope 3D sonar, integrated on the Boeing Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) Echo Ranger, imaged the shipwreck during the first maritime archaeological survey. The sonar image with oranges color tones (lower) shows an outline of a possible airplane in the forward aircraft elevator hatch opening. Image: NOAA, Boeing, and Coda Octopus

Features on a historic photo of the USS Independence CVL 22 are captured in a 3-dimensional (3D) low-resolution sonar image of the shipwreck in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The Coda Octopus Echoscope 3D sonar, integrated on the Boeing Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) Echo Ranger, imaged the shipwreck during the first maritime archaeological survey. The sonar image with oranges color tones (lower) shows an outline of a possible airplane in the forward aircraft elevator hatch opening.
(Image: NOAA, Boeing, and Coda Octopus)

Once moored at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in San Francisco, the Navy used the Independence as part of its studies on decontamination. On Jan. 26, 1951, the Navy towed the blast-damaged carrier with an unknown amount of barrels containing radioactive waste to sea, where it was scuttled with two torpedo’s.

“After 64 years on the seafloor, the Independence sits on the bottom as if ready to launch its planes,” said James Delgado, chief scientist on the Independence mission and maritime heritage director for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, NOAA said on its website. “This ship fought a long, hard war in the Pacific, and after the war was subjected to two atomic blasts that ripped through the ship. It is a reminder of the industrial might and skill of the ‘greatest generation’ that sent not only this ship, but their loved ones, to war.”

Boeing’s Echo Ranger on a mission with NOAA:

The Independence is the deepest known shipwreck in the sanctuary, and is only one of an estimated 300 wrecks.

It was found during an ongoing 2-year study to locate, map, and study historic shipwrecks in the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, as well as nearby waters.

The Boeing Company provided an 18.5-foot-long autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), Echo Ranger, through a cooperative research and development agreement with NOAA. Boeing partnered with Coda Octopus technology company, which integrated its 3D-imaging sonar system, Echoscope, into the AUV.

The shipwreck site of the former aircraft carrier, Independence, is located in the northern region of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Half Moon Bay, California was the port of operations for the Independence survey mission. The first multibeam sonar survey of the Independence site was conducted by the NOAA ship Okeanos Explorer in 2009. Image: NOAA's Office of Ocean Exploration and Research and NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries

The shipwreck site of the former aircraft carrier Independence is located in the northern region of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Half Moon Bay, California, was the port of operations for the Independence survey mission. The first multibeam sonar survey of the Independence site was conducted by the NOAA ship Okeanos Explorer in 2009.
(Image: NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research and NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries)

“Boeing is excited for the opportunity to partner with NOAA to utilize this state of the art technology,” said Fred Sheldon, Boeing project manager for AUVs, NOAA said on their website. “The Echo Ranger is uniquely suited for this type of mission and performed perfectly allowing us to conduct a thorough survey of the USS Independence.”

Scientists and technicians followed the AUV while it successfully surveyed the nearly intact hull 150 feet above the wreck. It was determined that the Independence was upright and slightly listing to starboard. It had large holes leading to the hangar decks that once housed the carrier’s aircraft, and much of its flight deck was still intact.

Aerial view of ex-USS Independence at anchor in San Francisco Bay, California, January 1951. There is visible damage from the atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll. Image:  San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, P82-019a.3090pl_SAFR 19106/NOAA

Aerial view of ex-USS Independence at anchor in San Francisco Bay, California, January 1951. There is visible damage from the atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll.
(Image: San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, P82-019a.3090pl_SAFR 19106/NOAA)

With the federal government having dumped nearly 48,000 barrels of low-level radioactive waste between 1946 and 1970, some still question the safety of the Farallon Islands Radioactive Waste Dump.

James Delgado, the chief scientist of the Independence mission for NOAA, said he doesn’t know how many drums of radioactive material are buried within the ship, perhaps a few hundred. But he is doubtful that they pose any health or environmental risk. The barrels were filled with concrete and sealed in the ship’s engine and boiler rooms, which were protected by thick walls of steel, reported the San Jose Mercury News.

The dumping of radioactive waste into the sea is just another example of the stupidity of governments. Over time, we will all find out just how stupid it was.

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