Veterans for Peace to Sail Chesapeake Bay to Highlight Radioactive Contamination at Navy Bases

The Golden Rule, operated by Veterans for Peace, is the first ship to engage in environmental direct action in the world. Photo: Veterans for Peace

This story was originally published on Military Poisons blog.

The Golden Rule is undertaking a great expedition throughout the country that will take the ship to Washington and Baltimore in the spring of 2023. They’ll be touring the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay. The ship is currently visiting friends in Havana, Cuba. The 30-foot vessel is sailing on a peace mission to promote non-violence and to spread an anti-nuclear message to the general public.

 In 1958, four Quaker peace activists sailed the Golden Rule toward the Marshall Islands with the goal of interfering with nuclear weapons testing. The US Coast Guard stopped the vessel and arrested her skipper, a retired Naval lieutenant commander, and the rest of the crew. The arrest of the crew of this historic, well-publicized direct action led to public outcry around the world – which ultimately led to the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963, which the US, USSR and the UK all signed.

Castle Bravo, a thermonuclear bomb, explodes in the Marshall Islands on March 1, 1954.

The United States detonated 67 nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands from 1946 to 1958. These were unspeakable crimes against humanity and the planet, while the effects from the radiation on the islands have left residents with health problems and long lasting effects on their ecosystem.  The Castle Bravo detonation measured 15 megatons which is 1,000 times more powerful than the 15 kiloton bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

The ship was sold and used for a pleasure boat until it sank in 2010. Veterans For Peace, Quakers and others completely restored the ship and her nuclear abolition mission.

Now, after seven years of west coast and Hawaii educational events, the small crew of four, and two supporting the mission on shore, hope to draw attention to radioactive contamination along the shorelines of the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay. This is part of an 11,000 mile, 15-month voyage where over 100 cities and towns are welcoming the Golden Rule.  The ship will make brief stops in Washington, DC, Alexandria, VA, Indian Head, MD, Dahlgren, VA, St. Mary’s City, MD, Solomons, MD, Chesapeake Beach, MD, Annapolis, MD, and Baltimore, MD.

The Navy admits to extensive radiological contamination at
Indian Head, MD, Dahlgren, VA,  Chesapeake Beach, MD, and Annapolis, MD.

The Golden Rule will linger for photo-ops and press outreach at four radiologically contaminated installations in the Washington-Baltimore region: 

·        The Indian Head Naval Surface Warfare Center

·        The Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Virginia

·        The Naval Research Laboratory – Chesapeake Bay Detachment in Chesapeake Beach, Maryland

·        The US Naval Academy Naval Support Activity in Annapolis, Maryland


In 1980 Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), commonly known as the Superfund law. The law created broad federal authority to account for and contain releases of hazardous substances that may endanger public health or the environment. Although the record of the legislation has fallen short of its lofty goals, the law has required to Navy and other military branches to be somewhat transparent.

CERCLA also applies to radioactive materials, the kind recklessly used and slathered over hundreds of military sites across the country.   

Radioactive waste carelessly dumped by the military dating back to the Manhattan Project in the 1940’s is still killing people across the country. Four-year-olds in neighborhoods adjacent to the Santa Susana Field Lab near Los Angeles,  are still being diagnosed with rare and aggressive forms of leukemia. Ella, friend of Barbie, is a doll who comes with no hair.  She is popular among sick children near nuclear sites.

In the Chesapeake region soils on bases may be radioactive, along with sediment in drains. Radium paint shops contributed to the radioactive contamination. Electron tubes, fuses, thorite, and thoriated-tungsten welding electrodes were all carelessly discarded. Sealed radioactive sources were used on site in radiography units and laboratory equipment. Industrial wastes, along with disposal and waste burial areas are known to contain radioactive materials. These commodities include discarded depleted uranium used in experiments and testing. The Dahlgren facility handled a stockpile of nuclear bombs.

A brief history of nuclear madness from our friends at ICAN

 Indian Head, Maryland

The Indian Head Naval Surface Warfare Center, just 20 miles south of Washington on the Potomac in Maryland, has 90 locations being investigated for radioactive materials, including the use of depleted uranium. The Base has been used to test and bury munitions since 1890. A list of contaminants in the soil and sediment reads like a dictionary of deadly human carcinogens. This small installation is likely to represent the most severely contaminated patch of real estate just about anywhere in the United States, although the Navy is extraordinarily secretive about contaminants in the environment here. After all, it is located in EPA Region 3, the heart of the beast. The Navy’s Indian head facility is located on the eastern bank of the Potomac River in Charles County. Maryland

Dahlgren, Virginia

82 radioactive sites are
being investigated at Dahlgren, Virginia

The Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Virginia, 40 miles south of Washington on the western bank of the mighty Potomac, has 82 areas that are being investigated for radioactivity. Depleted uranium munitions were tested on the banks of the Potomac.  Highly radioactive materials were thought to be lost in the river. Atomic bombs with a yield surpassing the “Little Boy” that destroyed Hiroshima were assembled and stockpiled here. The place is still radioactive.

A blog published on a popular Navy website trivializes the handling of nuclear weapons at the facility and provides insight into the Naval command’s mental pathology.

“Perhaps another reason for the high security was the danger brought on by the materials used in the bombs.  About the only difference between the final version of the weapon and the version tested at Dahlgren was the Dahlgren tests used either normal or depleted uranium, primarily the U-238 isotope.  Special health people were sent to the base from Los Alamos to monitor if there were any radiation hazards involved.  If it were spilled, it spread readily and was very difficult to control. Once, there was a spill (by a man from Los Alamos), and he had to go through a special cleansing process to get it off his hands. 

If P-239, plutonium, was spilled, it could spread across a table, down the legs, across the floor, and onto the ceiling.  The group kept buckets of axle grease around to stop such an accident from getting worse.  Such dangerous material meant that none of it could be lost, and everything had to be accounted for down to the fraction of a gram.  On one occasion, a device was lost out into the water.  They had to mark where it landed in the river and send in a team of divers to retrieve it.

Fun anecdote—when Dahlgren received a shipment of the uranium, the team would take some sailors with them to help load and unload the boxes of uranium.  The boxes were only 8-inch square, about a foot high, but they weighed about 100 pounds.  Sailors were always very surprised to try and pick up a little box that was so heavy!”

 MK-8 Elsie at Dahlgren

Dahlgren was asked to to develop a light case (Light Case… LC… Elsie.) for the atomic bomb.

The ultimate ELSIE design was a Mark 8.  It was much lighter than the Mark 1 “Little Boy” at only 3,230 pounds (Little Boy was 9,000 pounds) and measured in at 9.7 feet and long and 14 inches in diameter, half the diameter of Little Boy. Its yield was probably 20-50 kilotons.”

In 1951 Operation Buster-Jangle confirmed the ballistic tests at Dahlgren. Operation Buster–Jangle was a series of seven nuclear weapons tests conducted in 1951 at the Nevada Test Site.  6,500 soldiers took part in the Operation Buster–Jangle “Dog” tests for combat maneuvers after the detonation of a nuclear weapon took place.  Soldiers were instructed to create foxholes and construct gun emplacements and bunkers 7 miles south of the detonation area. After the nuclear bomb was detonated, the troops were ordered to move forward towards the affected area. The ground troops got as close as 3,000 feet from ground zero before they were instructed to move out of the area.

The Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Virginia is located on the western shores of the Potomac, just south of the Rt. 301 bridge.

The image provided by the Navy shows the Middle Danger Area of the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren – Potomac River Test Range. On most days naval weapons are fired into the river from the Pumpkin Neck Explosive Experimental Area. The Navy warns the public that these facilities are used to conduct munitions testing and should be avoided while testing is in progress. Local oystermen have reported dredging up parts of bombs. 

Chesapeake Beach, Maryland

Navy figure shows location of the Hypervelocity Gun Facility that used depleted uranium in frequent testing

The Naval Research Laboratory – Chesapeake Bay Detachment in Chesapeake Beach, Maryland (NRL-CBD)

NRL-CBD, as the Navy likes to call it, is also a hotbed of radioactivity. The place is situated on beautiful cliffs overlooking the Chesapeake Bay, just 35 southeast of Washington, DC. “The beach” has provided a getaway for weapons testing for personnel at the Naval Research Laboratory on the banks of the severely contaminated Anacostia River in Washington. Aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) containing PFAS was first used in Chesapeake Beach in 1968.

The Navy conducted high velocity impact explosions using depleted uranium and thorium impact explosions in two buildings here. The activity took place a few hundred feet from a residential neighborhood, while the radioactivity remains. The Navy stored and used depleted uranium in high velocity impact studies in the Building 218C target chamber and Building 227 vault. The last use of DU at Chesapeake Beach was in the fall of 1992.

Building 218C is about 400 feet from a residential neighborhood off base.

The conclusion of the Final Status Survey Report of NRL-CBD Building 218 says the building requires additional remediation in  order to release the areas for unconditional use. 

The Navy was licensed to use natural uranium, depleted uranium, and thorium for research and development. High velocity projectiles were impacted on depleted uranium and, in some cases, depleted uranium and explosives.

Depleted uranium (DU) targets were located in the spherical target chamber with target debris contained in the target chamber and the flight tube. In a few tests, the quick closing valve did not function and allowed target debris from explosive tests to blow back through the flight tube into the orthogonal room, shadowgraph tube, and blast tank as far as the muzzle of the projectile launch tube.

DU remains embedded in some walls of the blast tank. It is possible that DU was lodged in inaccessible areas that were not affected by periodic cleaning and decontamination. The last use of depleted uranium (DU) at the NRL-CBD Hypervelocity Gun Facility was in the fall of 1992.  

Building 218C – Navy figure shows Hypervelocity Gun Facility Impacted areas.

Annapolis, Maryland

The radioactive waste dump was located between Kincaid Rd and Bennion Road. What’s in there? Is it a threat to human health?

A Historical Radiological Assessment released by the Navy in 2020 details the existence of radioactive sites at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. As the Navy describes it, “Potential radiological liabilities were identified, described, and categorized.”

A total of 14 areas are considered “Potentially Impacted” from general radioactive material activities, while a total of 18 “Areas of Interest” have insufficient information to be categorized as potentially “impacted” or “non-impacted.”

The Navy has not confirmed through this report that radioactive contamination is present at any area of interest. However, the report says potential for residual radioactive contamination exists and further evaluation is recommended at 1 impacted area and 13 areas of interest. It’s Navy-speak.

One very concerning issue is the radioactive waste dump near building 137.  The report refers to 12 drums of radioactive lubricating oils but there is no mention as to what, specifically, was being lubricated. According to a 1999 Radiological Decommissioning Survey Work Plan, records revealed that twelve drums of radioactive waste oil from engine wear studies were buried.  The Navy says the drums were removed using proper radiological controls. Radioactive waste sites from the 1950’s are always a concern. This was a time of little documentation and even less oversight of waste. Radioactive waste sites exist like this across the country, courtesy of the Navy.

The Navy says they used the following radioactive materials in Annapolis.

You can take it with a grain of Sodium-22, but radioactive elements may be hazardous to human health, especially when concentrated in a small geographic area. Radioactive forms of elements are called radionuclides. Every radionuclide emits radiation at its own specific rate, which is measured in terms of half-life. Radioactive half-life is the time required for half of the radioactive atoms present to decay. Radioactive decay is when a radioisotope transforms into another radioisotope; this process emits radiation in some form. Depleted Uranium, used throughout the Chesapeake region, has a radioactive half-life of 4.47 billion years. In the case of Uranium-238 usage in Annapolis, residents will have to wait 14 billion years for half of the radioactive atoms to decay. This is roughly three times the age of the planet.

The Great Loop of the Golden Rule.

The ship is currently in Havana, Cuba, heading this way.

The focus of the Golden Rule is primarily on nuclear weaponry and contamination so, in our region, they’re primarily interested in visiting Washington,  Indian Head, Dahlgren, Chesapeake Beach and Annapolis.
Here’s the itinerary  and the Facebook Page.

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Special thanks to the Downs Law Group for their continued financial support. We couldn’t continue to create these reports at this pace without their help.

The firm is working to create a multi-base coalition to provide legal representation and blood testing to individuals with a high likelihood of exposure to PFAS and other contaminants.

Interested in joining a multi-base class action law suit pertaining to illnesses stemming from various kinds of environmental contamination? See the Veterans & Civilians Clean Water Alliance Facebook group.

Military Poisons and the Women’s League for Peace and Freedom, US are continuing to raise funds to cover the costs of PFAS seafood testing in Maryland, Washington, DC, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida. You can make a tax-deductible contribution here.  What’s in your fish? What’s in your blood?

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