Nukewatch Quarterly Fall 2019
By Kelly Lundeen and Maggie Gunderson
Last November, the Woolsey Fire near Los Angeles, California caused three immediate deaths and concern nationwide—from West Coast residents including the Kardashians to the East Coast nonprofit organization Fairewinds Energy Education.
What’s worrisome is the potential re-suspension and dispersal of radioactive contamination from the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL), a Superfund site where the fire began. A partial meltdown of the Sodium Reactor Experiment at SSFL—which was the first nuclear reactor meltdown in the US and cause of the fourth largest release of radioactive iodine-131 in the history of nuclear power—occurred in 1959 and was kept secret for two decades. See the cover story in the Winter 2018-19 Nukewatch Quarterly.
Responding to public alarm, both the US Department of Energy and the California Dept. of Toxic Substances Control initially assured the public that the 2018 Woolsey Fire had not affected the contaminated areas, that no radioactivity was released, and that there was no threat to nearby communities. When satellite photographs revealed the contrary, both agencies were forced to walk back their statements.
Following reactor meltdowns in Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011), nearby wildfires have repeatedly re-suspended radioactive materials that were spewed, dispersed and deposited on surrounding territory. To ascertain where radioactively contaminated micro particles of dust and dirt may have migrated—in the winds that drove the Santa Susana fire all the way to Malibu Beach—Fairewinds Energy Education and Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles (PSR-LA) have embarked on an independent sampling project. Fairewinds developed protocols for a “citizen science” program along with Dr. Marco Kaltofen, a radioactive dust expert and professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, a private research university in Worcester, Mass. PSR-LA instructed area citizens in gathering more than 400 dust and soil samples following the fire, making this study statistically meaningful. Due to the high cost of the five-stage process using Geiger counters, liquid scintillation detectors, and scanning electron microscopes, only 20 of the first batch of 100 samples are currently at the laboratory. Learn more about the ongoing program at <www.fairewinds.org/woolsey-fire-blog>.
—M. Gunderson, Fairewinds Energy Education, Sept. 2019; Gar Smith, Nuclear Roulette, Chelsey Green Publishing, 2012, p. 63.