The accident was not publicly acknowledged until five weeks later in an impenetrable AEC press release that stated “no release 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.”
UPDATE: On July 29, a Boeing official sent us a message answering our written questions from last week. In its answers, the company says that it will correct the mistakes that we noted in our LA Weekly article “Wrinkles in Runkle Canyon” though it doesn’t alter the company’s conclusions that state, in part, “The offsite sampling results are sufficient with no data gaps identified except in areas of ongoing investigation and cleanup. Offsite data will continue to be supplemented with ongoing sampling programs where appropriate. Onsite data gap analysis is continuing and may also result in additional offsite sampling recommendations.”
EnviroReporter.com Question: Why did [the Boeing report] say that SSFL and Runkle Canyon don’t share a boundary, when maps in that same report show SSFL bordering Runkle?
Boeing Answer: The figures/maps in the report are correct, however the statement is an error and will be corrected with an Errata sheet. This is an oversight and does not alter the conclusions of the 2007 Offsite Evaluation Data Report.
Question: Why did [the Boeing report] say that Boeing and NASA have done no environmental investigation, when on page 184, we discuss testing of TCE in the groundwater? DTSC didn’t do it and KB Homes didn’t do it so it must have been Boeing or NASA.
Answer: This statement is in error and will be corrected with an Errata sheet. Groundwater well (OS-21) is located on the Runkle Canyon property, right near the former Ahmanson Ranch property boundary, and has been sampled in the past by The Boeing Company. The results of the sampling have been routinely reported in prior quarterly and annual groundwater reports submitted to DTSC. This oversight does not alter the conclusions of the 2007 Offsite Evaluation Data Report.
Question: Is this the final off-site report? Or is Boeing planning on making updates to the report?
Answer: The 2007 Offsite Data Evaluation Report is not final and will not be final until DTSC comments are received and appropriately addressed. Additionally, the final report will correct the two errors noted above.
24 Years of Award-Winning SSFL/Rocketdyne Reporting
June 1998 – June 2022