By Bennett Ramberg

Los Angeles Daily Journal – January 12, 2005

Dr. Bennett Ramberg - LA CityBeatAlthough the Cold War ended a decade ago, its environmental legacy lives on. How to resolve nuclear contamination risks at government sites across the United States has become a matter of contention. A precedent-setting standard may emerge from recent litigation initiated by the city of Los Angeles and two nuclear watchdog groups, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Committee to Bridge the Gap.

In question are competing federal government cleanup criteria to remediate a portion of the Boeing Co.’s 2,800-acre Santa Susana Field Laboratory in the hills separating the San Fernando and Simi valleys. Stricter standards advanced by the Environmental Protection Agency may add $100 million to the projected $260 million cleanup cost, which the Department of Energy has endorsed. The benefit may save future generations from additional fatal cancers.

The Santa Susana Field Laboratory is known today as a testing station for rocket engines. However, from the 1950s to 1990 the facility also housed an array of Department of Energy and predecessor agencies’ nuclear research facilities.

The 290-acre Area IV Department of Energy site included 10 small atomic reactors, a plutonium fuel fabrication facility, a “hot lab” to cut apart radioactive fuel and related storage and waste disposal facilities.

During the period, at least nine radiological incidents took place.

The most serious occurred in 1959, when one reactor suffered the country’s first nuclear meltdown – one-third of the core – a fact largely hidden from the public for two decades. The accident released hundreds of times more radiation than Three Mile Island.

The failure to contain emissions along with radioactive residues from normal operations resulted in nuclear contamination that spread to the adjacent Santa Susana site and off-site locations. Investigators also have detected high concentrations of trichloroethylene and other solvents and chemicals associated with the atomic program.

In 1979, the public revelation of the meltdown prompted the Committee to Bridge the Gap to initiate an evaluation of environmental consequences including health impacts. In time, former employees and residents came forward to demand that Santa Susana site officials account for apparent increases in community cancers.

In 1997, a government-funded UCLA health study of Santa Susana employees concluded that workers had succumbed to radiation-induced fatal cancers at a rate that exceeded expectations. This followed the Santa Susana lab’s settlement of a radiation contamination suit brought by the adjacent Brandeis-Bardin Institute, a Jewish religious retreat.

In 2002-03, journalist Michael Collins’ revelations that Santa Susana lab nuclear contamination had spread to the nearby Ahmanson Ranch contributed to Washington Mutual Bank’s cancellation of a large residential and commercial development. And, in 2004, testing established that radioactive tritium had migrated into the lab’s groundwater, threatening nearby supplies.

Such findings now beg the question: Is Area IV, which the Department of Energy hopes to release for unrestricted use, including residential development, safe for public use?

Competing federal standards generate a safety standard conundrum. The Environmental Protection Agency aspires to a 1-1 million fatality ratio per exposure to each radioactive element; the Department of Energy, a 3-10,000 standard. Such statistics understate the challenge posed by the Santa Susana lab pollution. Plaintiffs contend that cumulative radioactivity from numerous elements could result in a cancer risk as high as 1-50.

Absent characterization of the contamination, the Department of Energy will be unable to certify properly that it has met even its own standard.

Unfortunately, the Department of Energy, which repeatedly promised financial support for an Environmental Protection Agency evaluation, never untied the purse strings. This comes against the EPA’s contention that Department of Energy surveys were both too few and technologically inadequate. The Energy Department took umbrage.

The nuclear watchdogs take another view. They demand that Area IV be subject to an environmental impact statement that will define the risks, followed by application of EPA standards. This could require removal of 400,000 cubic meters of radioactive soil. To date, the Department of Energy has removed 5,500 cubic meters that it deems sufficient.

In its recent rebuttal to the lawsuit, the Department of Energy does not deny the plaintiffs’ environmental concerns. Rather, it attacks the plaintiffs’ standing, failure to state a claim for which relief can be granted and timeliness. The Department of Energy also argues that its failure to perform further remediation is discretionary.

The courts must resolve the issues. The precedent established will have broad implications for cleanup efforts at 100 contaminated Department of Energy sites across the country. The futures of generations yet unborn who will inhabit or work on these locations will be determined, as well.

Bennett Ramberg is a free-lance writer on nuclear issues.