Double – August 25, 2009

Fifty years after America’s worst nuclear meltdown 30 miles northwest of Los Angeles at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory’s “Sodium Reactor Experiment,” the government’s just-sacked head of lab remediation says the new Rocketdyne cleanup law is too strict and that site owner Boeing is going to sue the State over the standards.

READ “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” by Joan Trossman Bien and Michael Collins in Pacific Standard. This investigative cover story digs deep into one of Southern California’s hottest secrets with an eyewitness account and interviews with the State EPA, Department of Energy, Boeing and the activist who has propelled the issue for three decades, Dan Hirsch.

Exclusive news that just-replaced Department of Toxic Substances Control lab cleanup honcho Norm Riley not only thinks historic cleanup agreement is a hindrance to remediation, he says lab owner Boeing is going to sue the State over constitutionality of law signed by Governor Schwarzenegger.

READ “Not the Norm” where DTSC’s Norm Riley says says in an exclusive interview that he considers the legislation to cleanup SSFL, State Senate Bill 990, to be a “hindrance” and “unnecessarily restrictive” and then lays out Boeing’s possible plan to sue the State over SB-990: “If we are not able to reach an agreement with them [Boeing] for the land pursuant to 990 standards, then there will be litigation.”

READ “Meltdowns and Horrible Accidents” where Committee to Bridge the Gap’s Daniel O. Hirsch describes the 1959 Sodium Reactor Experiment disaster in detail. Hirsch goes on to lay out the history of radiological and chemical contamination at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory.

READ “Things Need to be Cleaned Up” interview with the Department of Energy’s spokesman William Taylor who says that the most dangerous contamination at the former Rocketdyne lab is from the groundwater.

READ “The Vision We Share” where Joan Trossman Bien tries to pry answers out of Boeing but meets her match. An unidentified company representative pledges that whatever happens with the yet-to-be-signed Consent Agreement, the company will make sure that the lab property is eventually turned into open space with no development.

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.”

WATCH Warren Olney’s week-long series in 1979 break the news of the Sodium Reactor Experiment meltdown on KNBC-TV NewsCenter 4.

25 Years of Award-Winning SSFL/Rocketdyne Reporting


  1. When I interviewed Norm Riley, I asked innocuous questions which were mostly open ended. Mr. Riley chose the tone and content of the interview. He made it quite clear that SB 990 is an obstacle to Boeing’s intended clean up strategy. He also made it clear that he completely agrees with Boeing that the standard of clean up as required by SB 990 is not reasonable, not necessary, and conveyed the message that Boeing will do whatever is necessary to see that it is not going to be done. Although he warned me that I had better not say in the article that he said he was not going to do his job at DTSC, which is to follow the law of SB 990, he also was quite specific about the extreme nature of SB 990 and how the clean up was not going to be completed by 2017 or any specific date. I did not say that he was not going to follow the law and do his job. Those were his words, not mine.

    It mystifies me why anyone who has worked so hard for so long to achieve a clean up of the vast contamination at SSFL would want someone in charge of the project who is so obviously against it. It appears that Mr. Riley has agreed with Boeing’s strategy to stall and postpone, even to the point where he delivered to me their threat of litigation based on unconstitutionality. Boeing refused to deny they were planning to sue the state. These do not seem to be acts or words of cooperation or negotiation.

    Finally, someone picked up on Mr. Riley’s failure to represent the state with zeal and removed him from this key position. It seems to be an appropriate action and one which will finally unstick this process. Mr. Riley was apparently removed from his position for cause and Governor Schwarzenegger’s legacy will be one which only his actions in office will determine. SB 990 is the law. It only makes sense to have the point man for the state be someone who will move that law into action with all of their energy instead of being a messenger for Boeing’s opposition to the law.

    Don’t we want the LAND OWNER in the ORDER?,%208-2009.pdf
    for example, please read this section:
    1.3.3. Additional Statement of Authorities Related to DOE. In addition to the authorities cited in Section 1.3.2 above, DOE also enters into this Order pursuant to its authority and responsibilities under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, as amended (AEA), 42 U.S.C. 2011, et seq, the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974, 42 U.S.C. 5801, et seq., and the Department of Energy Organization Act of 1977, 42 U.S.C. 7101, et seq. It is DOE’s legal position that California does not have regulatory authority over DOE with respect to radioactive material. DOE and DTSC agree that the cleanup of the SSFL needs to move forward and wish to cooperate to achieve this end. DOE believes that its Santa Susana Field Laboratory, Simi Hills, Ventura County, California Consent Order for Response Action, Docket No. legal position is not an obstacle to achieving a cooperative and timely cleanup of the site, including the radioactive materials, in a manner consistent with SB990 due to factors unique to the site, including the fact that DOE is not the landowner. Without waiving its legal position or the rights reserved in this Order, and as an exercise of comity between DOE and the State of California, DOE agrees to cooperate with implementation of this amended Consent Order. Therefore, DOE agrees to comply with and be bound by the terms and conditions of this Order. If necessary, DTSC and DOE will engage in the dispute resolution process described in this Order, and, subject to that process, may also utilize such other informal dispute resolution procedures as the parties agree are appropriate in order to achieve the shared goal of moving the cleanup forward, and resolving any environmental or legal conflicts, without litigation.

    If you just read the first 15 pages or so, you will all have a much more clear understanding the challenges and things that need to be dealt with, while still moving somehow forward like we have been since the original consent order was signed in 2007. This is over a hundred pages of very dry material, and there are important issues sprinkled throughout. The above section is just one example where the need for clarity and context are particularly important. Please take the time to read the entire document, and really think about it, as you formulate your comments on the Order which we are being given a unique opportunity to really have a say. PLEASE USE YOUR VOICE NOW. NOW more than ever, we need you to state what is important to you. THE MOST PROTECTIVE CLEANUP WE CAN GET is what I really want, and part of the calculation to exposure to contaminants is TIME. …and we are so close…
    please read the order.,%208-2009.pdf
    we have a little less than a month. Really read it, talk about it, think about it, use your voice.
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