“MELTDOWNS AND HORRIBLE ACCIDENTS”
(Bien conducted this interview as part of our co-bylined August 24, 2009 Miller-McCune article “50 Years After America’s Worst Nuclear Meltdown – Human error helped worsen a nuclear meltdown just outside Los Angeles, and now human inertia has stymied the radioactive cleanup for half a century.”)
Daniel O. Hirsch has been the president of the Santa Cruz-based Committee to Bridge the Gap (CBG) for the last 39 years. The nuclear watchdog organization has been instrumental in the uncovering and addressing contamination at Boeing’s 2,850-acre Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) in the hills between the Simi and San Fernando valleys.
“We have been exposing this cozy relationship between government and polluter, in the process creating significant public pressure to alter the associated policies that place the public’s health at a very low priority,” the CBG’s website says. “Our method of operation is to identify “force multipliers,” so that we (and those who support us) get as much “bang for the buck” as is humanly possible, given the powerful and well-funded forces we oppose.”
In 1979, a UCLA student was assigned to supervise Hirsch’s organization as part of his duties as staff of the Community Services Commission at UCLA. That student, Michael Rose, espied an activist pamphlet in CBG’s then-Los Angeles office that made mention of the meltdown. Rose’s discovery would change Hirsch’s life and the nuclear history of Southern California.
Bien spoke with Hirsch on July 8, 2009 about the 1959 meltdown of the Sodium Reactor Experiment (SRE) and other issues related to the sprawling lab. Following are excerpts of Hirsch’s account:
“After Boeing denied and denied that the data (wind data) existed [for the SRE in July 1959], and then said if it did exist they wouldn’t release it because they claimed it was proprietary, a trade secret, which is pretty hard to imagine that which way the wind blew is a trade secret.
“The local legislators established something called the Santa Susana Field Lab Advisory Panel in the early 1990s to do health studies related to the field lab contamination. The study that was done initially was of the field workers on the premise that the workers had higher exposure than the public so if the workers were okay, then the public could breath a sigh of relief and if the workers were not okay, then we would try to study the offsite population. So workers wore radiation badges so it was easier to do epidemiological studies than it is for the public which don’t wear radiation badges.
“The panel contracted with a team from the school of public health at UCLA and they studied the workers and found that the workers had increased death rates from key cancers like lung cancer, cancers of the lymph and blood systems, than did workers at the same facility that had lower exposure to the radiation. They found the same thing for the rocket test workers. Those who had more exposure to the rocket tests had more cancers than those who had less exposure.
“That then led to our panel who [sic] had funding from the state legislature to study the offsite population. In that set of studies, we needed to know the wind data. And Boeing refused to release it. So we did the study and the study had to draw more general conclusions, saying if the wind was blowing this way we might have this number of cancers, if it was blowing that way it might be this, producing a range of estimates without being able to specify in more detail.
“After the study came out, members of the state legislature became upset that those data had been suppressed, intervened with Boeing and the DOE, and when the data were discovered to actually exist and demanded that they hand it over. But by that time, our funding was over and we have not now been able to use the data although I’m not sure that it would answer the questions as much as we would wish because the actions occurred over two weeks and therefore you have to know pretty precisely when in that two week period the big releases of radiation occurred. Then you had to figure out when the wind was blowing and the data are not good enough now to know when they were releasing and what they were releasing. So there are still some big unknowns.
“I was teaching at UCLA in 1979 right after the Three Mile Island accident and students wanted to research nuclear activity in Los Angeles to see if there was any nuclear facilities and whether they had had any problems. The students, relatively quickly, found a reference in a study done by another group in the mid-70s that had a few notes referring to a fuel damage episode at the Santa Susana facility.
“So I sent the students in to the annex to the UCLA engineering library and they found a series of technical reports that had been prepared for the Atomic Energy Commission by the firm that ran the fuel lab at that time called Atomics International. The reason for this is the man who founded Atomics International and then taught at UCLA arranged for UCLA to get a collection of the technical reports from Atomics International.
“And in those technical reports were a series of reports about the accident. They tell you day by day what happened. So you know that the accident run began on July 12, on the 13th they had a power excursion and barely were able to shut the reactor down, spent a couple of hours trying to figure out what happened and couldn’t figure out what happened, and started it up again. And inexplicably ran it until the 26th of July.