By Michael Collins
*Updated with new facts and developments
More than half a century since several partial meltdowns at the former Rocketdyne complex above Chatsworth and Simi Valley, astronomical amounts of radiation are still being unearthed at the site, according to a new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency PowerPoint dated February 22, 2012.
The presentation shows current radiation readings at the now-demolished Sodium Reactor Experiment, or SRE, at levels thousands of times above background.
“It is remarkable that a site of a partial meltdown is still contaminated, half a century after the event and after two prior cleanups that supposedly had cleaned the site up thoroughly,” said Dan Hirsch, president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, the organization that first exposed the meltdown in 1979.
The SRE was the site of an uncontained partial meltdown in 1959 that released hundreds of times more radiation into the environment than the Three Mile Island meltdowns did twenty years later.
“This confirms what we were worried about,” said Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Oak Park, a long-time leader in the fight to clean up the 2,850-acre Santa Susana Field Laboratory 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. “This begins to answer critical questions about what’s still up there, where, how much, and how bad?”
Brownley expressed disappointment that the site had been supposedly cleaned up twice before by lab owner Boeing and the Department of Energy which controls Area IV where all of Rocketdyne’s nuclear work was conducted. Partial meltdowns occurred there in at least two other reactors in 1964 and 1969.
“Data show exceedance levels ran as high as 1,000 times the “radiation trigger levels” (“RTLs”) agreed to by the Department of Energy and the California Department of Toxic Substances Control in a historic cleanup agreement signed in December 2010,” Brownley said referring to a bargain to clean up Rocketdyne to background levels of radiological and chemical contamination. “I call again on the Department of Energy to comply with the agreement that it signed, fully and unconditionally.”
That may be easier said than done. This latest U.S. EPA information appears to redefine what cleaning up to background actually is. Publically available documents show that the levels of radiation in this part of Area IV where the SRE once stood are actually many thousands of times more contaminated than previously thought.
“These results further validate that source removal is the only alternative,” said Rocketdyne activist William Preston Bowling who runs the Aerospace Contamination Museum of Education. “The EPA study was the most transparent and community driven document created and DTSC should use this as a guide.”
Bowling, like Brownley and other people fighting for a comprehensive cleanup of the sprawling outdoor laboratory, didn’t see the bait and switch and assumed the RTLs were accurate.
The radiation sampling results are even more astonishing than Brownley demonstrated especially when using the actual backgrounds, unlike the PowerPoint’s RTLs that have inexplicably raised the background levels by many multiples.
Soil sample #60540 was laced with cesium-137 which clocked in at 9,328 times its background as shown in a July 2011 U.S. EPA “Radiological Background Study Report” for Rocketdyne in Table 8.4. Yet the EPA’s RTL in the PowerPoint is over 25 times the same agency’s 2011 background study for subsurface samples of the cancer-causing radionuclide.
A shallow soil sample by the side of the road on the way to the SRE was sizzling with cesium-137 over a thousand times its background but perhaps as troubling, the EPA’s radiation trigger level for important radionuclides like Cs-137 and strontium-90 each were given an RTL that was the same for both surface and subsurface sampling.
In the arcane world radiochemistry, this is significant. The RTL given cesium-137 in the PowerPoint was nearly equal to the actual background level of Cs-137 at Rocketdyne on the surface. Dig a little deeper, literally, and the the Cs-137 RTL becomes 25.78 times its “background threshold value” or BTV.
This EPA sloppiness or bait and switch does nothing to comfort concerned taxpayers that, with the millions of dollars thrown at the lab to clean up its goo, the agency can not seem to keep its numbers straight. Or worse yet, never planned on using them.
An EnviroReporter.com analysis of the data shows that U.S. EPA has a single RTL level for bone-seeking radionuclide strontium-90 even though the same agency has two BTVs for it according to its own report.
On a scenic bluff overlooking Simi Valley next where the SRE once stood, leukemia-causing strontium-90, which has been found at high levels at Rocketdyne-adjacent Runkle Canyon where KB Home hopes to build hundreds of homes, soil sample #60446 was assigned an RTL 6.47 times Sr-90’s BTV and tested at 284 times background.
Soil sample #60200 inexplicably had a strontium-90 RTL over 37 times its BTV.The dirt came in at over 71 times background radiation in a sample dug out a foot to two feet below the surface. This suggests that even after two “cleanups” the area may be facing a huge excavation job in order to bring the environment back to a state where it isn’t riddled with radiation and chemical contamination.
The switch was done by the same agency that generated the data in the first place, the U.S. EPA. Make that switches.
Radioactive heavy water tritium had an EPA RTL nearly double its actual EPA-derived background and was found in soil 172 times what EPA had determined was normal background. So not only was it hot, it was measured using as a standard an RTL that made it look half as dangerous.
Fuzzy math also made its mark on the carbon-14, cobalt-60, neptunium-239 and europa-152 RTLs, all several multiples of their actual backgrounds.
At risk of interrupting the flow of this piece, but in the interest of folks and government officials complaining that they have trouble understanding this analysis, we’ve summed up what appears to be a pattern of Radiation Trigger Levels that exceed their respective Background Threshold Values when the two figures should be equal according to the purported goals of this very expensive cleanup. Not a single RTL was less than its BTV because every single one was higher, some by many times.
Cesium-134’s RTL was 2.88 times its BTV and was detected underground at 3.63 times its background. The RTL for Europium-152 was 3.35 times its BTV and found at 860% of background.
The EPA made cobalt-60’s RTL 5.04 times its BTV, a radionuclide found in one spot ionizing 8.6 times normal. Even higher were multiple readings of carbon-14 up to 22.80 times its background. EPA left C-14s BTV relatively alone assigning it an RTL just 17% about EPA’s background for the radionuclide.
Neptunium-239’s RTL was inexplicably raised by a factor of 3.26 times its official EPA background and was found in a sample decaying away at 4.52 times its BTV. Presence of this artificial element indicates plutonium-239 from which it decayed.
Nothing could be more worrisome than the manipulation of the levels determined for plutonium-239/240. The isotope is one of the most potent radioactive killers on the planet yet the EPA’s radiological trigger level was nearly twenty times its background. Exposure to even minute amounts of Pu-239/240 can give a person lung cancer.
Misleading and factually incorrect numbers not only reduce the radiation readings of overages at Rocketdyne, their use could lead to leaving large amounts of radiation in place once the cleanup, which has cost hundreds of millions, ends as soon as 2017. This could save Boeing and the government millions while making it appear that the Agreements on Consent were being adhered to.
When this article first appeared and created a furor, especially within a rump group of community dissenters against total cleanup of the site back to normal before it was degraded by multiple partial nuclear meltdowns, 30,000 rocket tests and extensive chemical contamination, one EPA official first dismissed the information and then conceded in an email to this reporter, “I do know what this issue is and there was no cover up or forgetfulness,” he wrote March 10. “I simply did not understand what you were talking about.”
The EPA official said that he would look into the issue.
The Agreements on Consent, or AOCs, that Brownley referred to was supposed to see the site cleaned up to background with a thorough radiological and chemical cleaning in the Department of Energy’s Area IV as well as NASA’s chemical pollution at Rocketdyne.
The wording of the AOCs seems pretty clear and that’s to clean every contaminant up to background, not multiples of it.
“Clean up radioactive contaminants to local background concentrations,” reads the DOE’s agreement with the state EPA’s DTSC which is in charge of the cleanup. “Confirmation Protocol – Residual concentrations ‘not to exceed’ local background concentrations.”
The AOCs with DOE and NASA explicitly say that contaminated soils must be removed, not be left in place or buried. Yet with these huge radiation readings and markedly lower cleanup standards that violate the agreements, the hot zone that is Rocketdyne just got a whole lot hotter.
With the government changing the radiation trigger levels, Rocketdyne may not turn out to be a very attractive location for a park after all, let alone houses.
“That place can never be a park until it’s cleaned up to background,” said Bowling. “I’ve been saying that for years and that’s what was agreed to.”
Even 53 years later, the site of the worst American nuclear reactor disaster still hasn’t been cleaned up though it sits in amidst millions of Southern Californians at the headwaters of the Los Angeles River.
“This is the area where a partial meltdown occurred, and it is significant that EPA is still finding extensive contamination there,” Hirsch told EnviroReporter.com. “These findings reinforce the need for DOE and NASA to rigorously carry out the cleanup agreements they signed in December 2010 and for Boeing to stop obstructing the cleanup of SSFL.”