Nukewatch Quarterly Winter 2021-2022
From Denise Duffield, PSR Los Angeles; Melissa Bumstead, Parents Vs SSFL; and Marco Kaltofen, Worcester Polytechnic Institute
A study published in the Journal of Environmental Radioactivity finds that radioactive contamination from California’s Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) was lofted off site during the 2018 Woolsey Fire, which began at SSFL. The study calls into question early and highly implausible claims by the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) and its toxics department that no contamination was released.
SSFL is a former testing complex for nuclear reactors and rocket engines located about 30 miles from Los Angeles in hills above the San Fernando Valley. For decades, accidents, spills, and fires at the SSFL, including a partial reactor meltdown in July 1959, resulted in extensive radioactive and chemical contamination that has not been cleaned up. The 1959 fuel melting caused the worst atmospheric release of radioactive iodine-131 in US history, and was the fourth worst in the world after Fukushima, in Japan, Chernobyl in Ukraine, and Windscale in England.
The study found radioactive particles associated with the fire at SSFL as high as nineteen times background [radiation levels] as much as nine miles away. And it concludes that “some ashes and dusts collected from the Woolsey Fire zone in the fire’s immediate aftermath contained high activities of radioactive isotopes associated with the Santa Susana Field Laboratory. … and confirmed the presence of radioactive micro-particles in the Woolsey Fire-related ashes and dusts.”
The findings contradict conclusions by CalEPA’s Dept. of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), which, a mere nine hours after the fire began on November 8, 2018, declared that the fire didn’t result in releases of hazardous materials. CalEPA/DTSC issued an interim study in December 2018, affirmed in a final version in December 2020, which asserted that “data from sampling and measurements did not detect the release of chemical or radiological contaminants from SSFL.” The assurances were widely criticized at the time, and the new findings have both disproved them and have reinvigorated widespread concerns about the failure to fully clean up SSFL as long promised.
The new study “Radioactive micro-particles related to the Woolsey Fire in Simi Valley, CA” was conducted by Marco Kaltofen of the Dept. of Physics, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and Maggie and Arnie Gundersen of Fairewinds Energy Education. It examined 360 samples of household dust, surface soils, and ash from 150 homes and elsewhere, collected from December 2018 to February 2019.
Radioactive micro-particles in ash and recently-settled dusts collected just after the Woolsey fire, were “found in Thousand Oaks, CA, and Simi Valley, CA, about nine and three miles from SSFL, respectively. The Thousand Oaks samples had alpha count rates up to 19 times background,” the study reports. The researchers noted that alpha radiation-emitting thorium was the source of this excess radioactivity. The authors warn of small, dispersed alpha particles because of the “high risk of inhalation-related long-term biological damage from internal alpha emitters compared to external radiation,” the authors report.
Had the state and the parties responsible for the contamination (Boeing, NASA, and the Energy Department) met their legally binding obligations to clean up SSFL by the 2017 deadline, the 2018 fire couldn’t have released contamination. Further failure to clean the site poses continuing risks to the nearby population, warned Congressional and local elected officials in an Oct. 14 letter.
Lawmakers Complain of Clean-up Failure, Delays, and Gutted Decontamination Standards
There is widespread concern among elected officials and the community about secret negotiations between the state and Boeing Corp. that could further delay the cleanup, and allow giant military contractor to walk away from its radioactive and chemical contamination. California Congressional rep’s Brad Sherman, Julia Brownley, Jose Luis Correa, Graciela Flores Napolitano, and US Senator Alex Padilla sent a letter to CalEPA October 14 reminding the agency: “The 2007 Consent Order and 2020 Administrative Orders on Consent … required that soil cleanup be completed by 2017, however the agreed upon soil remediation at the site has yet to begin. We are deeply concerned about the lengthy delays….” In addition, County Supervisors from Ventura and Los Angeles County, six city mayors, and a Los Angeles City Council member wrote October 14 to CalEPA declaring, “We are opposed to any action that would significantly delay or weaken site cleanup.” The officials singled out the state’s failure to enforce the 2007 Consent Order, confidential negotiations between DTSC and Boeing, and potential changes to methodology rules that could delay or weaken clean-up requirements; as well as delays in the Programmatic Environmental Impact Report.
The core of such a Boeing-Newsom Administration deal could allow as much as twenty times higher levels of contamination than permitted currently. CalEPA remains in secret negotiations with Boeing.
“Federally funded studies have previously confirmed that contamination [above] US EPA levels of concern has migrated off site, and that the incidence of key cancers in the neighboring communities increases with proximity to the site,” said Denise Duffield, associate director of Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles. “In addition, site owner Boeing has been fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for exceeding contamination limits in surface water runoff leaving the site over many years. Until [those] responsible for the pollution finally live up to their clean-up agreements, people living around the site will be at further risk to their health,” Duffield said.
“The bottom line is, if SSFL had been cleaned up by 2017 as required by the clean-up agreements, the community wouldn’t have had to worry about contamination released by the Woolsey Fire,” said Melissa Bumstead, co-founder of Parents vs. SSFL. “My daughter is a two-time cancer survivor, and no parent should have to worry that the SSFL might give their child cancer when there’s a fire on site, or when it rains or it’s windy.”