Lots of questions, few answers at the latest meeting on Rocketdyne cleanup

By Michael Collins

Ventura County Reporter – December 19, 2002

Radioactive and chemical pollution was on everyone’s mind when more than 60 folks attended the quarterly meeting of the Environmental Protection Agency-sponsored Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) Workgroup meeting Dec. 11 at the Grande Vista Hotel in Simi Valley. The Workgroup, which oversees the multi-million-dollar cleanup of Rocketdyne’s 2,668 acre lab high in the hills over the eastern Ventura County city, is comprised of 18 members who represented such government agencies as the California Department of Health Services (DHS), the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) and the Department of Energy (DOE). Community representatives included Jonathan Parfrey, the Los Angeles director of the public health organization Physicians for Social Responsibility, and Dr. Sheldon Plotkin of the Southern California Federation of Scientists.

DOE honcho Mike Lopez began the meeting with a summary of past and present cleanup activities on the 90 acre “Area IV” site where Rocketdyne conducted its nuclear research over the last half-century. As noted in a recent Reporter cover story (“Rocketdyne Ranch,” Dec. 12), that part of Rocketdyne’s field lab experienced numerous radiological mishaps, including partial meltdowns of experimental reactors in 1959 and 1964. Lopez explained that Area IV originally had 28 nuclear facilities and that 25 of them had been cleaned up; many, he added, had been decontaminated and demolished. The last three remaining structures, including a Space Nuclear Auxiliary Power (SNAP) reactor, were due to be remediated within the “next five years, somewhat depending on funding,” Lopez told the audience.

Lopez described the cleanup of the heavily polluted sodium burn pit, a six-acre site where Rocketdyne disposed of massive amounts of radioactive waste. The modus operandi included chucking barrels of radioactive sodium into the sludgy pond and firing a gun at the canisters, which would then explode, releasing radioactive contaminants into the air. Lopez said that the pit has now been excavated ten to 12 feet down to the bedrock, resulting in the removal of 22,000 cubic yards of soil.

The discussion soon turned to the cleanup of Building 19, an old SNAP reactor that the EPA tested for remaining radioactivity in January 2000. “The building is pretty much a rectangular building except there is a big steel plate in the middle,” Plotkin said. “The steel plate is about 12 to 15 feet in diameter. Under that plate is a pit that goes down into the ground to something like 35 feet. When I asked what that was for [I was told] ‘that was where the reactor was when [Rocketdyne] did the testing,’” Plotkin continued. “The EPA, at the time [in 2000], with their subcontractor, was meticulously going over every square foot of wall and a number of floor samples were being taken, concrete cores being taken, et cetera. I asked ‘What are you doing at the bottom of the pit?’” Plotkin paraphrased one EPA inspector’s answer: “‘Well, nothing. Rocketdyne had already done it. They said it was OK so we are not doing that.’ Well, the one place in the building that might have radioactive contamination would be the bottom of the pit. In fact, if the pit was clean, there was no need to do the rest of the building, because that’s where the reactor was. That’s where the source of the radioactive contamination would have been. I did the best I could to encourage them to monitor, take samples, et cetera, at the bottom of that pit. I was told, for various reasons that I won’t go into, but they didn’t do it, wouldn’t do it,” Plotkin continued. “As far as I know, they haven’t done it. The question I have is, if that’s what happened in the one place that I got to look at, how about all these buildings that have been decommissioned already? You saw that 89 percent of the buildings are said to be clean and ready for unrestricted use. I’m not so sure that they are really that clean and [that] things have been cleaned up properly.”

Back in 1999, this reporter was informed by a Rocketdyne official that I wouldn’t be allowed to visit the field laboratory due to a series of articles I had penned that were critical of the Boeing-owned company’s history of pollution and apparent obfuscation of such problems at the site. Rocketdyne later relented and allowed me to watch the EPA conduct its inspection of Building 19, the last of three site inspections for residual radioactivity in the reactor. Donning a hardhat, I descended into the vault with Rocketdyne media liaison Dan Beck and Rocketdyne environmental scientist Phil Rutherford. The place was abuzz with personnel inspecting the reactor under the glare of kleig lights, their radiation readings written in chalk by the bore holes they were testing. I had brought my own nuclear radiation monitor, the Radalert Inspector. “That looks like an expensive toy,” remarked Rutherford.

Using the Inspector, Rutherford and I checked previously tested bore samples, and indeed, the readings were the same. After a few pointers on radiation testing by the Rocketdyne scientist, I was left to my own devices as the EPA continued its final inspection of the reactor. Toward the back of the vault, I saw a raised part of the floor covered by the steel plate that Plotkin described. When I paused over the plate to take a reading, my Inspector began to click furiously — indicating radiation emanating either from the steel plate or what was laying below it. “Hey guys, check this out,” I called out above the clamor. “This plate is hotter than anything else in here. Why aren’t you folks testing this area?”

An EPA gent smiled as he looked at my nuclear radiation monitor. “So let me get this straight,” he said. “There have been three surveys of this reactor, including Rocketdyne’s and the EPA’s. And now we have a fourth inspection by a reporter?” A crowd gathered, including Daniel Hirsch, SSFL Workgroup chairman and president of Committee to Bridge the Gap, the nuclear watchdog group that first brought to light revelations of the 1959 meltdown in the Sodium Reactor Experiment more than 20 years ago. “What do you make of this, Dan?” I asked as Hirsch glowered at my monitor. “That we’ve been testing in all the wrong places,” he said softly.

When the Reporter asked if the SNAP reactor in question still has that radioactive plate in place, an official admitted the building is still intact, along with the hot plate. “Nobody goes near that,” an official stated to the crowd.

The Dec. 11 Workgroup meeting continued and soon a debate erupted over the carcinogenic rocket fuel oxidizer perchlorate that has been found in dangerous concentrations in Ahmanson Ranch groundwater and in some Simi Valley wells. Gerard Abrams of the DTSC told the crowd that his agency didn’t see any connection between heavy perchlorate pollution at SSFL and the findings of perchlorate found offsite. “We weren’t able to find any connection to the activities at Rocketdyne,” Abrams said. “If surface release was the source of contamination, there would have been an awful lot of perchlorate that moved down the drainage, and it’s not there today. I don’t see how that can be.”

Jonathan Parfrey then questioned the DTSC to find out if they had tested the water found with perchlorate for nitrate. The DTSC said that it hadn’t but would check into it. “If there are high levels of nitrate, like in the range of 40 to 60 parts per million, then it indicates that it may come from fertilizer,” Parfrey told the Reporter. “But if you’re getting anything below that, the likely suspect is going to be rocket fuel. I asked the DTSC’s Gerard Abrams if they had also sampled for nitrates. And his answer was no. Though fertilizer contamination is a possibility, there has yet to be any documented case of perchlorate pollution yet attributed to fertilizer in the United States. Perchlorate is a nationwide problem. It has contaminated the Colorado River and has closed dozens of Southern California drinking water wells.

This is true across the nation. Basically, wherever there has been rocket fuel, there has been the necessity for a cleanup. Considering that Ahmanson Ranch and Simi Valley water has been contaminated by this stuff, Rocketdyne has to be considered the primary candidate for the source of this pollution.”