Sodium Reactor Experiment Meltdown

The 50th anniversary of the worst nuclear reactor disaster in U.S. history happened just outside of Los Angeles July 13-26, 1959 and still resonates today.

Sodium Reactor Experiment before the meltdown

READ “Wrinkles in Runkle Canyon – 50 Years After a Santa Susana Nuclear Accident Holds Up Land Development” in the LA Weekly where‘s Michael Collins takes you in the Atomics International reactor for a front row seat to America’s first and worst nuclear reactor disaster, reveals which way the cancerous fallout fell across Southern California, and exposes how disaster still resonates today. Runkle Canyon borders the former nuclear area of the huge outdoor lab and is where KB Home hopes to build hundreds of homes but have been stymied since 2006 by a group called the “Radiation Rangers.”

READ “Meltdown Man”‘s John Pace Interview. Pace is the only known person alive today who was at the Sodium Reactor Experiment in 1959 during the meltdown.

READ “Ghost of a Rose”‘s Michael Rose Interview. Rose is the man who espied a political pamphlet in 1979 that made mention of the meltdown, the discovery of which led to the publicity of the meltdown in 1979 and all the subsequent coverage since.

READ “Very Dirty Laundry” – 2006 article about a state-funded study that found that the reactor meltdown caused cancer in 260 to 1,800 people within a 62-mile radius and released 459 times more of deadly iodine-131 and cesium-137 than the Three Mile Island meltdown did in 1979.

READ‘s investigation of Rocketdyne, as the Santa Susana Field Laboratory is oft-times called, begun in 1998 for Los Angeles magazine and the LA Weekly.

SEE eye-witness photographs of the reactor during this critical time including never-before published photos taken by John Pace of desperate days at the crippled core.

SEE 7 galleries of the reactor’s construction from Atomics International which show the reactor built without a containment dome. Demolition galleries are also included.

SEE 15 galleries of Area IV where most of the nuclear work was done at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory.

WATCH “Engineering Disasters” on The History Channel‘s Modern Marvels show about the meltdown. Available at right as well. Former worker John Pace is seen throughout this excellent documentary partially culled from films made at the time of the disaster in order to train other nuclear reactor crews what to do in similar situations.

WATCH construction of the reactor in an Atomic Energy Commission film from the mid 1950s. The SRE was built without a containment structure like the ones seen today at the nearby Diablo Canyon and San Onofre nuclear generating stations.

WATCH the SRE recovery film provided by the Department of Energy which owned the reactor. The reactor was shut down for 14 months with debris from the core taking 7 weeks to remove by a crew totaling 31 men.

WATCH the reactor decommissioning film called “Sodium Reactor Experiment” which begins with the host intoning “All things have their cycle of life, of usefulness. So it is with an experimental reactor.”

The following excerpts are from the cover story “HOT ZONE” published in the June 1998 issue of Los Angeles magazine.

ON A HOT JULY NIGHT IN 1959, on flickering RCAs and Philcos and DuMonts, the residents of Simi Valley watched as Nikita Khrushchev and Richard Nixon toured a Moscow exposition’s exhibit of a model American home. When the Soviet premier and the vice president paused in the kitchen, the televisions suddenly erupted with belligerent voices. “We have means at our disposal which can have very bad consequences,” Khrushchev bellowed through an interpreter. “We have too,” Nixon shot back. “Ours are better,” Khrushchev retorted.

The occupants of hundreds of tract house living rooms shifted uncomfortably in their BarcaLoungers. The image of Nixon and Khrushchev rattling nuclear sabers against a backdrop of American-made appliances—the fabled Kitchen Debate—brought home the Cold War with unnerving intimacy. But events unfolding on a hilltop five miles from town brought it even closer. On a 2,668-acre expanse littered with boulders and blanketed by chaparral lay Rocketdyne’s Santa Susana Field Laboratory, a sprawling, semisecret complex of concrete bunkers, rocket test pads and nuclear reactors. The Rocketdyne lab was a key supplier of America’s rapidly expanding arsenal of nuclear weapons and rocket engines for the coming space race. The work going on at the facility was one of the reasons Nixon could return Khrushchev’s salvos with impunity.

What almost nobody in Simi Valley knew that night was this: A primitive nuclear reactor at the lab was in the throes of a meltdown. The accident, which was not acknowledged until five weeks later, would presage the continuing problems the lab was to have handling radioactive and toxic materials. And 30 years later, those incidents would become a rallying point for San Fernando Valley and Simi Valley residents with little in common except for the fact that they had all lived near the lab and had all become very ill.


The handling of the incident is a telling example of the attitudes in the days of atomic energy’s infancy. On July 13, an experimental sodium-graphite reactor at the lab experienced a “power excursion” that caused its output to surge out of control. The reactor—part of an Atomic Energy Commission program to develop civilian nuclear-power sources—had been acting up for weeks, and the technicians moved swiftly to stop it.

“They tried to scram the reactor,” says Hirsch, “meaning jamming the control rods in to shut it down—basically putting the brakes on. But the power was still going up even as the control rods were being pushed in. They managed in the end to shut it down, miraculously. About an hour and a half later, after being unable to determine what caused the excursion, they started the reactor up again.” An AEC report later stated that “continuing to run {the reactor} in the face of a known tetralin leak, repeated scrams, equipment failures, rising radioactive releases and unexplained transient releases is difficult to justify.”

On July 26, the reactor again surged out of control, causing 13 of its 43 uranium fuel rods to rupture or melt. Radioactive gases spewed from the building. “It is incomprehensible to me that the radiation that was released stopped at the site boundary,” says Hirsch. “The meltdown occurred in a reactor that had no containment structure. When we think of reactors, we think of Diablo Canyon and San Onofre, with these huge concrete domes to protect against radioactivity being released. But the sodium-reactor experiment and all the other reactors that were on the property had no containment dome, so the radioactivity in the accident was released into the atmosphere and settled on the communities below the site. The question we cannot answer is how much that was and how much it affected people.”

Over the course of the following year, radioactive xenon and krypton gases were released as technicians struggled to clean up the reactor. “The radiation monitors went off the scale during the accident, so we have a very poor idea of how much stuff got out,” says Physicians for Social Responsibility’s Parfrey. “The company says that 10,000 curies of radioactive iodine were re¬leased. Radioactive iodine may cause thyroid cancers in people who inhale or ingest it.”

The accident was not publicly acknowledged until five weeks later in an impenetrable AEC press release that stated “no re¬lease of radioactive materials to the plant or its environs occurred, and operating personnel were not exposed to harmful conditions.” In fact, at the time, it was one of the worst nuclear accidents in history. “[Rocketdyne] never really got around to telling the public that the core melted and that this was a very serious nuclear accident,” says Hirsch.

In the meantime, the toxic mess had to be removed. In the film discovered by Hirsch’s student, workers crawl over the top of the reactor trying to extract the melted fuel. Another peers into the melted core using a periscope-like device called a boroscope. Others are shown grappling with huge wrenches and riding a truck carrying spent fuel. Although the workers wear protective suits, Hirsch contends that they surely received significant doses of radiation. Viewed in a post-Chernobyl/Three Mile Island context, the images are disturbing, reminiscent of the photos taken on the factory floors of the women in the ’20s who, innocent of the peril, painted luminescent numbers on watch faces with, radioactive radium.

Cleaning out the melted fuel from the reactor core would ultimately take more than a year and a half.

JIM GARNER WORKED IN THE LATE 70S for a company; called Brownyard Steel Fabrication, which was doing contract work for Rocketdyne at the Santa Susana lab. He recalls standing in a steel vault 60 feet underground, tearing out old ironwork and putting new pieces in. “I was down there with a cutting torch, a hard hat, a pair of burns glasses, gloves and a T-shirt. I kept hearing a funny noise; and looked around, and there were two gentlemen about ten feet away from me with full-on hazardous-material; fresh-air breathers and Geiger counters. I asked my foreman, ‘What’s going on? Who are these people?’ His reply was, ‘Don’t worry about it. They work for Rocketdyne. Just go back to work.’ Later; I find they’re taking radiation levels and that there was also al gamma radiation detector installed at the bottom of that vault. I also found out that they were taking helicopter readings on how hot that area was.”

Garner is utterly convinced his cancer was caused by Rocketdyne. “They put me in jeopardy, deliberately. They knew what was there. They did not protect me whatsoever. They did not care whether I lived or died.”