Nukewatch Quarterly Fall 2013
The partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor in 1959 at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) in southern California put the 2,850-acre site on the list of environmental “dead zones.” Decontaminating the soil and groundwater in the area, which borders the Simi Valley community 30 miles north of Los Angeles, could take centuries. Groundwater could remain radioactive in perpetuity.
Santa Susana began operating in the 1940s and 10 small nuclear reactors and a plutonium production factory were put to use. Fires in 1957 and 2005 resulted in massive radiation releases. Another fire in 1971 involved highly radioactive primary reactor coolant. At least four reactors, none with containment structures, had malfunctions that intensified radioactive saturation of the grounds. Radioactive sodium-contaminated components were burned in open pits. Barrels of volatile toxic materials were exploded using gunfire.
The DOE covered up the July 12, 1959 meltdown of the Sodium Reactor Experiment, but University of California students uncovered the secret two decades later. Secrecy and poor record keeping still hamper the search for information. The destroyed reactor was dismantled although thousands of pounds of radioactive sodium coolant have never been recovered. Researchers estimate that 500,000 gallons of trichloroethylene, a cancer causing solvent, lie beneath the surface and dioxin, perchlorate, tritium, plutonium-238, plutonium-239, iodine-131, strontium-90, cesium-137, cobalt-60, thorium-228 and uranium-235 contaminate the soil and water. If high cleanup standards are maintained, 126,421 truckloads of waste will be taken somewhere else.
Prior to its purchase by Boeing Corp., Rocketdyne, Inc. conducted research and development for the space program, rocket engines, liquid metals and nuclear reactors. SSFL did work for the SNAP-10A, the only nuclear reactor ever launched into low orbit above the Earth.
Boeing is responsible for clean-up, but by 2006 had violated toxic discharge permits more than 80 times. The corporation allowed chromium, dioxin, lead, mercury and other toxins to pollute Bell Creek and the Los Angeles River. Environmental groups have filed suit in an attempt to halt Boeing’s dumping of demolished buildings into unlicensed area landfills. Some 4,888 tons of radioactive debris have gone to dumps and recyclers. On-site operations include removing 50,000 cubic yards of tainted soil and junk. More than 400 monitoring wells on and off site have been installed. In October 2007, Boeing turned over 2,400 acres to the state for park land earmarked for “limited use.”
The EPA claims no radiation migrated off property, but American Jewish University sits along the property line on the northeast and in 2012 its well water tested positive for radioactivity. The Santa Susana Advisory Panel concluded that up to 1,600 deaths may be attributable to radiation exposure from the site.
In 2005, Boeing paid restitution to 100 families affected with cancer. A study released in November 2012 shows a 10 to 20 percent increase in cancer among nearby women compared to the rest of California’s female population.
More than 150,000 people live within five miles of SSFL, and half a million within 10 miles. — BLU