Human error ignited a nuclear meltdown just outside Los Angeles, and now human iniquity has stopped promised cleanup as newly-exposed radiation and chemicals spread offsite
By Michael Collins and Joan Trossman Bien
On a hot July 12 night in 1959 an experimental sodium nuclear reactor started to overheat in the hills between the Simi and San Fernando valleys. Nothing major, really. Not yet.
That was the next day, July 13, 1959, when a power surge was barely contained. The Sodium Reactor Experiment (SRE) was on its way to becoming the worst partial nuclear meltdown in American history.
The SRE again surged out of control two weeks later, causing 13 of its 43 uranium fuel rods to rupture or melt. Radioactive gases spewed from the unfortified building releasing hundreds of times more radioactive iodine than Three Mile Island’s partial nuclear meltdown so infamously did in 1979.
Part I of this exposé focuses on the SRE meltdown in an extensive 2009 collaboration with Joan Trossman Bien, who died in 2018. This work comprehensively brings home the horror of the meltdown. It also illustrates the battles at the time to achieve a full cleanup of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL). (Multi-media materials supporting this extensive investigation are at our hub page Double Vision.)
Now, 60 years after the SRE meltdown, and nearly a decade after the state and federal agencies promised a cleanup to background levels of toxins for much of former Rocketdyne facility to be completed by 2017, little has been done. But toxic dust doesn’t sleep. Nor does polluted surface water, groundwater and wildfire smoke that continue to emanate from the 2,850-acre site year after year.
Part II breaks down the tortured path the last ten years have taken, with multiple EnviroReporter.com investigations of extraordinary levels of deadly contaminants plaguing SSFL as well as impacting bordering Brandeis-Bardin and Runkle Canyon.
Part III breaks all new news after years of multiple EnviroReporter.com investigations. Reports analyzed by EnviroReporter.com and alarming findings found in the field reveal new detections of even more noxious waste than previously reported over our 21 award-winning years of being first on the SSFL beat. These are some of the major discoveries:
• During the Woolsey Fire, Polonium-210, the Russian radioisotope of choice for assassinations and 250,000 times more poisonous than hydrogen cyanide, was detected by two separate Boeing sampling stations according to Boeing’s own report. The stations are in the Southern Buffer Zone (SBZ) next to a dirt road Boeing uses to let hundreds of hikers amble without face masks to deal with dust.
• Deadly Polonium-210 has been found in SSFL groundwater and soil before. Possibly released during experimental nuclear reactor accidents in the 1960s according to uncovered Atomics International report.
• Woolsey Fire smoke sampled by Boeing had radioactive Beryllium-7 at both stations as well as the radioisotope Thorium-232. Sampling Station #5 also detected Thorium-230 in the air during the fire period. In nuclear Area IV, which borders the SBZ, there existed an Advanced Epithermal Thorium Reactor according to the Department of Energy (DOE).
• EnviroReporter.com has found substantial evidence that SSFL appears to have failed to enforce strict Ventura County fire code with chaparral encroaching on roads, allowed to grow up against buildings, and brush clearance lacking throughout. Photos suggest that fire regulations seemed to have been ignored even though the lab has burned before.
• Readings of four times background radiation at the mountain juncture of SSFL Area IV, the SBZ, Ahmanson Ranch and Runkle Canyon at a 2,139-foot mountain top.
• Downhill from from the mountain top is what’s left of the Empire State Atomic Development Authority (ESADA) which EPA tests released in 2012 found Strontium-90 in the dirt at 192 times background. Dirt isn’t cleaned up yet site is declared safe enough.
• High Strontium-90 was detected in Area IV – 114 times background high – along a large area along the fence with KB Homes’ Arroyo Vista at the Woodlands development in Runkle Canyon. Developer refused DTSC’s request to let this adjacent property be tested yet it is slated for open space recreation for development residents and the public.
• DOE again admits that Area IV radiation has been found in bordering Jewish camp Brandeis-Bardin. “Due to the short radioactive half-lives of isotopes including cobalt-60, it is unlikely that they would be detected in these wells for the first time during 2018 considering that the source was shut down decades ago.” Admission suggests that the situation is exponentially worse than previously understood.
• DOE does about face and retests until results match their predetermined conclusions. “On 20 August 2018, wells RD-59A and RD-59C were resampled for Sr-90 (total and dissolved) to verify that these detections were in fact false positives.” Apparently DOE had forgotten its own 2015 report that already exposed these Brandeis-Bardin wells as being absolutely impacted by Area IV reactor-related isotopes.
• Massive groundwater contamination with trichloroethylene (TCE), PCE, perchlorate, radioactive tritium and chlorinated ethanes, ethenes and methanes have impacted about 732 acres underneath SSFL. TCE vapors are coming up through Area IV’s former Sodium Burn Pit due to massive groundwater concentrations of the carcinogenic rocket engine degreaser. Polluters making little effort to clean up the massive lab’s groundwater goo, declare that they will leave about 98 percent of SSFL’s radioactive and chemically-contaminated soil in place.
PART I – The Meltdown as we reported on the 50th anniversary in 2009
For Release Saturday A.M., August 29, 1959
CANOGA PARK, CA
“During an inspection of fuel elements on July 26 at the Sodium Reactor Experiment, operated for the Atomic Energy Commission at Santa Susana, California by Atomics International, a division of North American Aviation, Inc., a parted fuel element was observed.
The fuel element damage is not an indication of unsafe reactor conditions. No release of radioactive materials to the plant or its environs occurred and operating personnel were not exposed to harmful conditions…
In each case, all seven tubes of the fuel element remained in the core. This fuel loading, nearing the end of its useful life, was scheduled to be removed in the near future.”
This press release — issued five weeks after the end of the United States’ worst nuclear reactor meltdown — was the public’s first notification that something unusual had happened up on “The Hill.” For the next 20 years, it remained the only public notification about the accident at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory on a mountaintop in California’s eastern Ventura County, on the border with the San Fernando Valley.
In fact, from July 12 through July 26, 1959, an unknown amount of radioactive gases were intentionally vented to prevent the Sodium Reactor Experiment from overheating and exploding.
Unlike most conventional reactors that circulate water to be heated by the fuel rods in the core in order to turn steam turbines, the SRE used sodium because it could operate under lower pressure. Pure sodium — not to be confused with table salt, or sodium chloride — was a risky metal to use since it catches fire when exposed to air and explodes when mixed with water.
Due to the experimental nature of the SRE, it was built without a containment structure — the distinctive large dome associated with nuclear power plants — so any radiation vented hot out over the San Fernando Valley, which the city of Los Angeles was busily annexing. What exactly vented remains in contention.
“We know there was a fuel meltdown,” said William Taylor, the current spokesman for the U.S. Department of Energy. “We don’t know how much [radiation] or if any was released.”
According to an analysis of a five-year study by a panel of independent scientists convened years after the incident, the SRE accident spit out up to 459 times the amount of radiation released during the 1979 meltdown at Three Mile Island.
Fifty years later, the contaminated site has yet to be cleaned up, although this month two federal agencies promised to plow ahead without the site’s current owner, Boeing. And in March, the Department of Energy provided $38.3 million in funds to complete the radiologic survey of “Area IV” as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Unlike the then-remote hilltop it once was, now more than a half million people live within 10 miles of The Hill, and downtown Los Angeles is 30 miles away.
The Race to Conquer the Atom
The Santa Susana Field Laboratory was built on 2,850 acres in the mid-1940s. A portion of the facility was dedicated to nuclear research, while other portions were marked to develop powerful rocket engines such as the Delta II. The federal Atomic Energy Commission and the private Atomics International chose the land high in the hills above the farthest end of the west San Fernando Valley precisely because the work could be dangerous and the population sparse.
The site was owned by Atomics International, a division of North American Aviation. It was merged into Rocketdyne, which Boeing acquired when it bought Rockwell International in 1996. Four years ago, United Technologies bought the Rocketdyne unit from Boeing, but Boeing kept the contaminated site.
Santa Susana hosted other sensitive projects, which in turn left their own more-public toxic legacies. Three other main areas of the lab were devoted to rocket testing, which polluted the land and groundwater with the toxic rocket fuel oxidizer perchlorate and the engine solvent trichloroethylene. Perchlorate has been found in water wells circling the site, including in adjacent Simi Valley.
There are varying estimates of the amount of TCE in Rocketdyne’s groundwater from tens of thousands of rocket tests at the lab. Boeing’s groundwater remediation system, which consists of “air-stripping” towers that allow the TCE to evaporate into the open air, removed 10 gallons of the toxic goo from the water annually.
“Since acquiring our site in 1996, Boeing has made significant progress in our cleanup efforts,” Boeing spokesperson Kamara Sams said recently, although the company turned off the water-purifying system in 2001.
Meanwhile, the SRE was but one of 10 nuclear reactors at the site, plus a “hot lab” to cut apart and work on nuclear fuel for Santa Susana, Department of Energy and the Atomic Energy Commission facilities from around the country. The site also hosted a plutonium fabrication fuel facility which Dan Hirsch, president of the nonprofit anti-nuclear group the Committee to Bridge the Gap, called “perhaps the most dangerous facility they had on the property.”
Hirsch, who has been a key figure in investigating and publicizing the 1959 nuclear accident, said there also had been serious accidents in at least three of the other SSFL reactors, plus “numerous nuclear fires and spills and releases.”
And there were other dangerous practices on the site. “They had a sodium burn pit where they took radioactively contaminated components and illegally burned them in open pits in the open air,” Hirsch said.
Additionally, workers routinely disposed of barrels of highly toxic waste by blowing them up with shotguns and releasing the contents into the air. That practice was halted in 1994 when two workers were killed and one severely injured when the procedure went terribly wrong. One worker was blasted so forcefully into a rock that all that remained was a gruesome petroglyph.
Summer of ‘59: Two long, hot weeks
John Pace had only been at the SSFL for four months 50 years ago this summer when the accident occurred. He was hired as a 20-year-old trainee to learn how to become an atomic reactor operator and mechanic in March 1959 (he was let go the following November). Due to his inexperience, Pace said he often was just an observer of many procedures at that time.
He is now the last surviving worker to have witnessed the 1959 meltdown and its immediate aftermath — an often chaotic attempt to prevent an even larger disaster as workers compromised their own safety to keep the SRE from overheating into a runaway meltdown.
They were only partially successful. Unknown to the workers, the coolant Tetralin had leaked into the sodium and gummed up the SRE, causing the fuel rods to overheat. When the reactor was finally shut down permanently after two weeks of starting and stopping the power and then venting the building radiation, one third of the fuel rods ruptured and had begun melting.
Pace said he arrived at work on July 13 for the shift immediately after the accident; he was told that the operators had noticed that something was not quite right. “They had little indications before that there was something a little edgy about the reactor, but they weren’t quite sure,” he said.
Hirsch said the accident actually began on July 12. “Radiation readings were very high,” he said. “They had a power excursion [an out-of-control nuclear reaction] on July 13 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 July 26. The radiation monitors went off scale. They were too hot to measure.”
Pace recalled that part of his job was to check which way the wind was blowing at the SSFL weather station. “A few hours after it happened, I found out that the reactor had run away from them and they had to release the gases. After leaking the gases, they discovered that the winds were headed toward the San Fernando Valley. All of our families lived [there] and all that radiation went over their homes.”
A 2006 report by David A. Lochbaum, the nuclear safety engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists, determined that up to 30 percent of the reactor’s radioiodine and cesium could have vaporized during the accident.
After the reactor was shut down two weeks later, Pace said the workers started cleaning up the immediate contamination so that they could reach the fuel rods and see what had happened. “We scrubbed it down with water and sponges,” Pace said. “We tried mops. They’d get contaminated real quick and that was getting pretty expensive, so we ended up using Kotex.”
All this was done without protective clothing beyond coveralls and cotton caps that read, “Your Safety is Our Business — Atomics International.” There were no fully-enclosed radiation suits with face masks that nuclear workers routinely use today, designed to be dissolved and disposed of after one use.
“This had never happened before,” Pace said, “so it was a learning experience of how to clean up contamination.”
As the workers removed the fuel rods, one broke off. The worker accidentally dropped the broken rod back into the reactor. “He realized what had happened and panicked,” Pace said. “All he could think of doing is run. And as he was running, he was pulling alarms and ran out of the building and got outside.”
Pace said the situation deteriorated from there. “Now you have the rod up out of the shield. They were realizing radiation was leaking out into the atmosphere. There was one more fuel rod in there. They pulled it out and it broke off and hit the reactor floor. Now you have two broken off in the reactor. I could tell from the looks on their faces something was wrong.”
Looking back with the benefit of 50 years experience, Pace realized that many mistakes were made. Experts, also with the benefit of hindsight, agreed.
In 1979 the Los Angeles Times reported that an Atomic Energy Commission-sponsored analysis determined there had been numerous indications that the SRE was malfunctioning. The report was critical that the operators continued to run the reactor for two weeks — and despite a power spike that didn’t abate even after operators pushed control rods into the reactor to slow the nuclear reaction.
“They never should have done what they had done at the time,” Pace said. “The reactor should have been closed down, but they did it anyway. You didn’t want to lose your job. If the reactor is gone, nobody’s got work.”
The end of 20 years of silence
None of what John Pace described was ever revealed publicly. Atomics International prepared an unclassified report — it was titled “SRE Fuel Element Damage” — on the accident and delivered it to the Atomic Energy Commission in 1961.
One of several findings in the report read, “In spite of the cladding failure to 13 fuel elements and the release to the primary coolant of several thousands of curies of fission product activity, no radiological hazard was presented to the reactor environs. Recovery operations were conducted by SRE operating crews, working within standard AEC regulations on radiation exposure.”
Two decades later, the 1979 accident and radiation release at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island nuclear power plant focused public attention on the dangers accompanying nuclear power. In that environment, a UCLA student named Michael Rose, now a successful documentarian, was researching his first film when an old flyer in the Westwood office of Committee to Bridge the Gap caught his attention.
“The flyer had a little blurb about a meltdown at Atomics International,” Rose said. “I knew I had to find out more about this. Of course, I was given the cold shoulder by Atomics International but discovered that documents relating to that company were on file at all Atomic Energy Commission repositories around the country. As luck would have it, UCLA was one of those repositories. One of the first documents that I discovered was the press release announcing the meltdown at the Sodium Reactor Experiment.”
Rose worked with Hirsch and informed, or re-informed, the media. Hirsch and Rose took their discovery to Warren Olney, then of KNBC NewsCenter 4 in Los Angeles (he now hosts the National Public Radio news program To the Point). Olney produced a weeklong television series on the meltdown.
“There was a flurry of activity for a couple of years,” Hirsch said. “A group called Alliance for Survival then intervened in the re-licensing of the Atomics International facility, getting a reduction in licensed amounts of nuclear material but no shutdown.” Despite the activity, progress toward a cleanup was slow.
“Then things went quiescent,” he continued, “until the Department of Energy study in 1989 finding widespread contamination at the site was made public in the Los Angeles Daily News, triggering a new round of interventions in licensing proceedings, which did succeed in shutting [the reactor] down.” Hirsch said the study also sparked several other epidemiological studies.
Urban sprawl added pressure. Over time, Southern California’s population grew dramatically, and what primarily had been walnut orchards and sprawling ranches encasing Santa Susana became suburban tracts filled with families.
Once the widespread nature of contamination was known, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was brought in to aid in the cleanup. One focus of concern was the level of contamination in the actual power plant buildings.
“The EPA demanded that they be able to inspect the buildings themselves before they were torn down to make sure they had been cleaned up,” Hirsch said. “When the EPA arrived on the appointed day, three of the five buildings they were supposed to study had been already torn down, including the SRE. And some of the debris from those buildings was taken to regular municipal trash facilities. Radioactive metals went to a metal recycler and got melted into metal products.”
The official health studies
In the early 1990s, local legislators established the Santa Susana Field Laboratory Advisory Panel, a quasi-governmental organization composed of academics and activists who studied worker health issues resulting from the overall contamination issues at Santa Susana. The panel, co-chaired by Hirsch, enlisted the UCLA School of Public Health to conduct the study.
“They 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,” Hirsch said. “That then led our panel to study the offsite population. We needed to know the wind data. And Boeing (now the owner of the site) refused to release it. So we had to draw more general conclusions.”
Those conclusions were released in October 2006 and they were stunning. Based on the ratios of volitive radionuclides found in the coolant, the panel estimated that the release of radiation in 1959 was hundreds of times the amount of radiation that was released at Three Mile Island — and that radiation was estimated to have caused between 300-1,800 cancer deaths.
Bonnie Klea of the San Fernando Valley suburb of West Hills worked at SSFL from 1963 to 1971. She has survived a 1995 episode of bladder cancer, which she is convinced was caused by the contamination that lingers on the site. “I have uranium in my body that is seven times the normal,” she said. “The bladder cancer in the workers is abnormally high. Every single house in my neighborhood had a cancer death.”
PART II – Decade of Deceit 2009 to 2019
Joan Trossman Bien’s and my coverage of the 50th anniversary of the SRE meltdown included numerous interviews, photographs and videos as Double Vision attests. The terrifying eyewitness accounts reveal a sordid side of Southern California whose environmental effects are still felt today.
Soon after the 50th anniversary of the SRE meltdown, business got back to its dubious normal when Norman E. Riley was canned but soon exacted Riley’s Revenge. The former DTSC honcho overseeing the non-cleanup of Rocketdyne returned in 2012 to Simi Valley at the behest of real estate giant KB Home to testify in support of its Runkle Canyon development now called Arroyo Vista at the Woodlands.
As reported in 2010’s Backgrounded, DTSC brought together DOE and NASA to agree to a cleanup to background with full remediation completed by 2017. Two years and $41.5 million later, an Obama EPA study of Area IV was completed in 2012 and the results were shocking as we reported in Radiation Readings Soar at Rocketdyne. Cesium-137 clocked in at 9,328 times its background while Strontium-90 was assessed at 284 times normal.
EnviroReporter.com‘s 2012 five-part exposé Boeing’s Meltdown Makeover began with former Los Angeles Times reporter Gary Polakovic’s plan to change the “narrative” of SSFL from “a site with a sordid past to one with potential.” The sordid present was shown in Dirty Deeds with exclusive footage of sloppy Boeing demolition work sending clouds of dust into the San Fernando Valley from a polluted part of lab.
Operation Astroturf documented how Boeing greenwashed Rocketdyne by pushing for and offering to fund an “astroturf” Community Advisory Group (CAG). The tiny CAG still claims that cleaning up Rocketdyne is more dangerous than leaving it alone, parroting the primary polluters’ propaganda.
The 2014 China Syndrome Town four-part exposé uncovered even more greed, corruption, and malfeasance. Major polluter, casino owners and astroturf allies furthered their greenwashing of Rocketdyne with help from corrupted government agencies.
EnviroReporter.com exposed a new twist on these plots that would keep the Santa Susana Field Laboratory radioactive and chemically contaminated, saving polluters hundreds of millions. Toxic land could become Glow in the Dark Park or a new Chumash gambling casino.
Those polluter astroturfing allies figured prominently in 2016’s Critics question safety of Boeing’s Santa Susana Field Lab hikes which exposed what hundreds of waiver-signing hikers in SSFL’s Southern Buffer Zone were walking through. Massive chemical and radiation contamination not yet cleaned up included Radium-226, Plutonium-239/240, TCE, dioxins, PCBs, and perchlorate. Protesters at the SSFL entrance signaled regeneration in the struggle to clean up the lab and its contaminated offsite environment.
EnviroReporter.com broke the later 2016 story Dept. of Energy secretly funding front group to sabotage its own Santa Susana Field Lab cleanup that saw tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars thrown at the CAG astroturf group. Its stonewalling of the cleanup has kept hundreds of millions in the polluters’ pockets of unspent remediation funds to this day.
Brandeis-Bardin’s Toxic Denial was exposed for the first time in 2017. The Jewish camp below Santa Susana Field Lab, aided by DTSC, denied toxins had migrated to its property despite decades of evidence to the contrary as shown on Brandeis-Bardin’s Toxic Denial Investigation.
A 2015 DOE report revealed that two radionuclides found in Brandeis-Bardin well water were related to Area IV operations, one of the most explicit admissions as of that date. “Cadmium-113m neutron activation of Cadmium-112 used in reactor control rods – possibly site process related,” the report said. “Tin-126 is a fission product and is possibly site process related.”
Despite the mountain of evidence unearthed and produced by EnviroReporter.com, all with sources directly backed up online, 2017 saw us publish State toxics department white papers over Brandeis-Bardin contamination which was backed up by our 2017 DTSC Brandeis-Bardin ‘White Paper’ Analysis and 1991-2017 Brandeis-Bardin Reports Analysis.
A week later in 2017 we published Boeing aborts cleanup of Santa Susana Field Laboratory where the troubled company reversed its own promises in defying State-ordered remediation. Three months later, EnviroReporter.com posted Toxics agency buries Santa Susana Field Laboratory cleanup which showed just how much the Department of Toxic Substances Control betrayed the public it is charged with protecting around Rocketdyne.
Things continued downhill with DTSC in 2018. In Until We’re Dead and Gone, the department deceives the public about the SSFL cleanup, denies a petition from a burgeoning new public movement of mothers insisting on complete remediation, and falsely claims no SSFL goo has gotten offsite.
Outdoing even themselves, DTSC finished 2018 covering up the released radiation and chemicals in the 43,272 tons of SSFL-tainted vegetation that went up in smoke as shown in Smoke Screen – Woolsey Fire Contamination Cover-up.
“The fact that DTSC was announcing, while the fire was still burning, that there was no threat posed by the immolation of a toxic waste site, suggests we can’t count on DTSC even to be honest about the threat level,” attorney and Malibu resident Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said in the March/April 2019 Malibu Magazine issue. Kennedy is part of a team of attorneys that filed a suit February 5, 2019 over the Woolsey Fire placing the blame on Southern California Edison and “Their own site assessment found 18 tons per acre of oozing goo composed of a witch’s brew of deadly and radioactive poisons covering almost all 2,000 acres where the fire started.”
Now, after eight months of further investigation, EnviroReporter.com has found out some of what was in that smoke and a whole lot more, based on miles of hiking, radiation detecting and combing thousands of pages of scientific reports to more fully understand the ongoing environmental and public health disaster that is the Santa Susana Field Laboratory
PART III – More Hot Zones and Radioactive Smoke
During the Woolsey Fire, Boeing took samples “from Stations #4 and #5 Bounding the Fire Period,” according to its Technical Memorandum – Boeing’s Radiological Air Monitoring Data Associated with the Woolsey Fire released by Boeing January 11, 2019.
“Only naturally-occurring radioactive material (NORM) was detected in the samples collected,” said Boeing flack Kamara Sams in a cover letter with the 87-page report. “The levels of NORM were well below regulatory standards for airborne radionuclides and well below general background levels in the United States, which are considered safe by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).”
Full stop. Both stations #4 and #5, which are in the Southern Buffer Zone where Boeing leads hundreds of hikers near both stations on a dusty road, detected Polonium-210 (Po-210) which is one of the deadliest radionuclides known. Minute quantities of it are found “naturally-occurring” in uranium-ore which does not exist around SSFL.
Polonium-210 is so poisonous that it is the Russian radioisotope of choice for assassinations. Po-210 is 250,000 times more poisonous than hydrogen cyanide. And Boeing found it in Woolsey Fire smoke in both its detectors that weren’t even in nuclear Area IV but instead in the SBZ next to dirt roads Boeing uses to let hundreds of hikers amble through without face masks. In fact, stations #4 and #5 were over 1.5 miles from even the nearest SBZ border with Area IV suggesting that the readings could be even higher.
That’s not even all the radionuclides Boeing detected. Woolsey Fire smoke sampled by Boeing had radioactive Beryllium-7 at both stations like the Po-210 as well as the radioisotope Thorium-232. Sampling Station #5 also detected Thorium-230 in the air during the fire period. In nuclear Area IV, which borders the SBZ, there existed an Advanced Epithermal Thorium Reactor according to DOE which could explain the presence of radioactive thorium isotopes.
Polonium-210 was detected at least three times in SSFL groundwater and once in soil in 1989. It is amazing that this virulent radionuclide can be detected at all considering its short half-life of 138.4 days but sources for it existed at Area IV.
Po-210 was used in Building 4028 which was an Experimental Shield Test Facility. It housed a Shield Test & Irradiation Reactor and a Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactor. A 1963 Atomics International report obtained by EnviroReporter.com explained how Po-210 could be released during a nuclear accident. “Radioactive polonium-210 (Po-210) would also be present in the coolant if a break should occur in the aluminum plate covering the bismuth window separating the thermal column from the reactor core.”
Yet the Po-210 is called “natural” and buried in the report along with other radionuclides Boeing found in the smoke. Believing Boeing’s ‘all’s safe here’ assertions are made much harder by the company’s seeming utter disregard for following fire regulations for brush clearance which may have added to the intensity of the blaze and made access to it along roads on fire more difficult.
EnviroReporter.com has found evidence that SSFL may have failed to enforce strict fire code which the “requirements are 100-feet of vegetation clearance from structures and 10-feet for road access,” according to the Ventura County Fire Code. Site-wide disregard for this common sense brush requirement seems to have eluded Boeing and DOE as a concerted imagery search shows.
Photographs show vegetation and dry grasses bordering Area IV roads, growing up against buildings, and brush clearance lacking throughout property. Fire regulations have been ignored before and after the Woolsey Fire even though the lab has burned before. SSFL used to have a fire department because a site that large covered in chemically and radioactively-infused vegetation would do well to have one. It hasn’t had a dedicated fire department for some time (since 2006 according to one source which EnviroReporter.com could not entirely confirm.)
Ironically, evidence of these substantial violations comes from the violators themselves, including Boeing and the Department of Energy. DOE’s November 21, 2018 Community Updates included three photos, two of which show what appear to be brush clearance violations. Several photographs in a late 2017 EnviroReporter.com article indicate unchecked brush growing up against rocket test stands.
Boeing’s 2019 Santa Susana Calendar features a photograph of a coyote trotting through an Area IV three-way intersection of dirt roads crowded with thick grasses and chaparral with none of the 10-foot-wide mandated brush removal. Instead the viewer is treated to a lovely shot of a beast more at risk of dying horribly in a wildfire when major corporations blow off fire laws like those so blatantly flouted at SSFL.
Boeing’s website also shows people walking in the contaminated Southern Buffer Zone where brush is growing next to a SBZ fire road. Fire clearance documentation showing SSFL to be in compliance with the Fire Hazard Reduction Program was issued July 4, 2019, a mere 239 days after the Woolsey Fire had swept through 80 percent of the lab with Boeing’s firefighting response virtually invisible according to local firefighters on the scene, as noted in a January 2019 Los Angeles Times article.
One of the highest readings of radiation ever recorded on the lab perimeter was taken on top of a 2,139 mountain at the intersection of SSFL’s Area IV and Southern Buffer Zone with Ahmanson Ranch and Runkle Canyon. The measurement was taken June 22, 2013 by this reporter in the company of Radiation Ranger “Wild Bill” Bowling who videotaped the event.
EnviroReporter.com‘s Inspector Nuclear Radiation Monitor, capable of detecting alpha, beta and gamma emissions, has helped this reporter take thousands of radiation tests in multi-media as evidenced by our extensive testing catalogue on this online news organization’s website. Our multiple Inspectors have been used throughout our Runkle Canyon, Rocketdyne, West LA Veterans Administration dump and Fukushima meltdowns investigations.
We measured radiation at four times background over the Runkle Canyon side of the border. The California Highway Patrol considers radioactive toxic substances radiating at three times background or above to be its Hazardous Materials event threshold. This measurement far exceeded that Haz-Mat tripwire yet sits atop a prominence that has been prosaically named Milk Vetch Hill.
Downhill is what’s left of the Empire State Atomic Development Authority (ESADA) which EPA tests released in 2012 after finding huge alpha and beta readings in the dirt. Leukemia-causing Strontium-90 riddled the ESADA with widespread contamination with the deadly isotope topping 191.6 times its own already considerable Area IV Sr-90 background.
That level of Sr-90 is 64 times the CHP’s Haz-Mat level. Yet according to a 2013 report, no dirt was removed during the ESADA’s final demolition meaning the extensive Strontium-90 contamination will be there for unwarned future recreationalists. But, that doesn’t mean it will stay in place. EnviroReporter.com found in 2009 that the ESADA sits astride the Burro Flats Fault which leads down into Runkle Canyon. That could explain the high heavy metal concentrations found there by the Radiation Rangers in 2007.
The Strontium-90 hot zone stretches along a long Area IV chain-link fence bordering Runkle Canyon to the west where KB Home has gifted the city of Simi Valley a large block of untested land for use as an open space part. The Sr-90 hot zone on the SSFL side of the fence has at least one super-hot spot about 220 feet from the border of Runkle Canyon: 114 times background.
EnviroReporter.com‘s 2017 Brandeis-Bardin Investigation unearthed a Pandora’s Box of Area IV poisons impacting Brandeis-Bardin. Now, DOE has again admitted that it’s Area IV radiation has been found in the bordering Jewish camp. “Due to the short radioactive half-lives of isotopes including cobalt-60, it is unlikely that they would be detected in these wells for the first time during 2018 considering that the source was shut down decades ago,” DOE’s 2018 annual groundwater report said when released in April 2019.
The admission suggests that the situation in Brandeis-Bardin is exponentially worse than previously understood yet American Jewish University, which owns the massive property, has not commented on any of EnviroReporter.com‘s revelations but still continues to do brisk business hosting kids and adults in its camp. That silence ensures that DOE will never be called to task cleaning up its offsite radiation and chemical contamination. Ironically, the Sodium Reactor Experiment, dark star of the 1959 partial nuclear meltdown, drains down into Brandeis-Bardin and is exceptionally contaminated.
DOE’s own Brandeis-Bardin findings shocked the department but instead of planning to remedy the Brandeis-Bardin radiation problem, the department instead decided to retest the results away. “On 20 August 2018, wells RD-59A and RD-59C were resampled for Sr-90 (total and dissolved) to verify that these detections were in fact false positives.”
Apparently DOE had forgotten its own 2015 report that already exposed these Brandeis-Bardin wells as being impacted by Area IV reactor-related isotopes.
SSFL still has massive groundwater contamination with trichloroethylene (TCE), PCE, perchlorate, radioactive tritium and chlorinated ethanes, ethenes and methanes that have impacted about 732 acres of subterranean water. TCE vapors are coming up through Area IV’s former Sodium Burn Pit due to groundwater concentrations of the carcinogenic rocket engine degreaser being still so high.
The estimated amount of killer TCE in SSFL’ aquifer is between 500,000 to 800,000 gallons. Until 2006, Boeing had been “air stripping” the volatile organic compound out of the water at a rate of 10 gallons a year. At that rate, it will take 50,000 to 80,000 years to remediate the precious liquid.
However, now that the filtering system was discontinued, with no notice or explanation made to the public, the groundwater will remain foul and continue to water plants with poisons which will periodically catch fire and spread toxic smoke wherever the wind may blow.
The cruel irony of not cleaning up SSFL is that the last legacy of the site isn’t just building Saturn rockets that powered the Space Shuttle, but a massive environmental disaster that has sickened and killed workers plus the public possibly including an inordinately large number of the most vulnerable to chemicals and radiation: children.
Through these fetid winds, however, blows the breezes of hope powered by a new generation of Southern Californians determined to get SSFL completely cleaned up according to agreements already made. Celebrity power in the potent form of the Kardashian sisters has also helped give the SSFL saga national attention. The A-list stars learned about SSFL after the Woolsey Fire which burned near their homes.
Hot radioactive winds blowing throughout the toniest country properties in Southern California could be the region’s continued future as long as SSFL remains unremediated.
Armed with the facts presented here, and alit with the passion of outraged mothers and unstoppable stars, the meltdown genie of 1959 just might yet be stuffed back into its atomic bottle.
On Saturday, July 13, 2019 community members who live near the Santa Susana Field Laboratory will hold an event to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the site’s partial nuclear meltdown and to rally in support of its long overdue cleanup. The event will take place from 10 a.m. – 12 p.m. at Rancho Tapo Community Park, 3700 Avenida Simi, Simi Valley, CA at the pavilions near the ballpark. More information at Rocketdyne Cleanup Coalition.
Cover photo: Department of Energy air sampling station in SSFL Area IV, late 2018.
25 Years of Award-Winning SSFL/Rocketdyne Reporting
1998 – 2023
On issues of the radioactive and toxic legacy of what went on at the Santa Susana Field Lab (aka Rocketdyne) Enviroreporter is not just a reporter. He’s a historian and truth teller, whose voice will not be silenced.
When the truth about what happened at “Rocketdyne” started to be public, Enviroreporter mentioned that the fuel rods in the SRE reactor had broken and melted down. Years later the then-owner of the land where the reactor was located had the damaged fuel rods removed. I wondered at the time “Where were they disposed of”.
Years later, on local television station’s news story about “Rocketdyne”, the anchor man casually mentioned that the damaged fuels rods had been disposed of in Beatty, Nevada. I hadn’t heard of a high level nuclear waste disposal facility there.
During Thanksgiving weekend in 2002, my husband, kids and I drove through Beatty on the way to a rockhounding expedition. We stopped at a gas station in Beatty, and I went inside to buy something to drink. I was stunned to see gigantic piles of bottled water, piles bigger than I would expect a gas station to sell. I asked the clerk why the gas station stocked so much water. The clerk said “Beatty’s well water is contaminated with toxic waste.”
Fast forward to October 18, 2015 when I was sitting in the Las Vegas home of my grown up son, who we still call “the Simi Boy” once in a while. A news flash came on the local television station saying that explosions were occurring at the “low level nuclear waste dump” in Beatty. I immediately thought of that L.A. news man who had said, many years ago, that the damaged fuel rods from the SRE reactor accident had been disposed of in a low level nuclear waste dump in Beatty. I said to myself “Fuel rods and radioactively contaminated sulphur coolant from nuclear reactors are NOT low level nuclear waste.” I immediately realized that the sloppiness of the remediation of the radioactive wasted generated by the accident at the SRE reactor was not limited to the grounds of “Rocketdyne”, but that it extended to bootleg dumping of high level nuclear waste in Nevada NOT on the grounds of Area 51. I told my son to keep my grandchildren inside the house.
The TV news anchors in Las Vegas reported that the Federal government had told the press that residents of Las Vegas were not at risk from the explosions in Beatty. (A week or so later the Las Vegas newspaper reported that a cloud of radiation had passed over Las Vegas on October 18th.)
One year after the radioactive explosions in Beatty. on October 23, 2015, southern Nevada’s “newspaper of record”, the Review Journal, published a story dated October 26, 2016 written by reporter Keith Rogers, explaining the explosions at the low level nuclear waste dump in Beatty. After several days of very heavy rain, water breached the earthen cap of Trench 14, one of 22 waste burial trenches on the site. The rain water reached corroded barrels of metallic sodium. The rain water reacted with the metallic sodium, and a witness described the first explosion as being as loud as a sonic boom. He saw black clouds of smoke arising from the dump site. He and another witness saw that orange-red flames were coming from a crater created by the first explosion. Additional but less intense explosions occurred. The witnesses discovered that the explosions had hurled 11 barrels of radioactive waste from their graves in the trench, including 2 which traveled over the facility’s fence and onto a neighboring property. The managers of that dump site decided to let the radioactive fire burn itself out because pumping water on it could have caused more explosions. The State of Nevada closed 140 miles of Hwy 95 to keep the public away from the smoke and fire. School classes in Beatty were cancelled for the next day.
Investigation by Keith Rogers and others on the Review Journal’s staff unearthed the fact that 7 million cubic feet of toxic and nuclear waste were disposed of at the Beatty site during the 30 years it operated, closing in 1992. The dump had been operated by U.S. Ecology, but ownership and the duty to deal with the consequences of what was disposed of there passed to the State of Nevada, in return for a political deal that the Federal government would not approve the creation of more toxic and nuclear waste dumps in Nevada outside of Yucca Mountain, which Congress and the U.S. Dept. of Energy want(ed) to open as the disposal site for high level nuclear waste.
Keith Rogers also reported at length about the 47 pounds of plutonium and uranium isotopes which were disposed of on the site, but without anyone having a clear idea which of the waste disposal trenches it is in. The State of Nevada’s 305 page report on the October 2015 explosion didn’t say where the plutonium came from. Reporter Keith Rogers read the report and wrote that there is no mention of whether the plutonium was in Trench 14.
Rogers also reported that the Nevada National Guard members who “specialize” in nuclear responses were terrified by what they saw at the “low level” nuclear waste dump in Beatty.
The point in telling this story is that the disastrous nuclear experiments in the 1950’s at “Rocketdyne” have public health and safety consequences both in and outside of the L.A. area even today.
Kim and Kourtney Kardasian attended the 60th anniversary commemoration July 13, 2019 of the Sodium Reactor Experiment two-week-long meltdown in 1959. Kim’s home is ten miles downwind of SSFL and was in the brunt of the smoke from the Woolsey Fire that we have documented here in horrifying clarity.
Over 100 people attended this milestone event at Tapo Park in Simi Valley and the Kardasians were keenly interested in what happened up on The Hill and why no cleanup has commenced. Luckily, they were guided to the venerable Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks to learn what is going on.
The Kardasians are a force of nature in and of themselves as the excited reaction to their arrival attested. This no mere pose. There will be much more news on what these sisters do about the failed cleanup of SSFL coming up and you will read it here first.
Photos courtesy of William Preston Bowling
Thank you Michael Collins for continuing to be on the pulse of this issue.
I understand the comment below, it’s a lot to comprehend and it sounds like Science Fiction, but it’s not.
It’s Science Fact…Michael is attacking the polluter with their Own Data. This data was brought forth by top scientists that were paid thousands of dollars by the polluters and guess what they found…Still Toxic.
I’m still digesting all this, but it’s frankly horrifying. We’re killing the planet and ourselves in the name of “shareowner value.” The slash-and-burn behavior of corporations like Boeing has become old hat — but the feckless complacency of our environmental “watchdogs” is a fresh shock. Our regulators have truly been captured.
Great job Michael. You have still got it.