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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 volative 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.”

“After the study came out,” Hirsch said, “members of the state Legislature became upset that the [wind] data had been suppressed, intervened with the Department of Energy and Boeing, and when the data were discovered to actually exist, they demanded that it be handed over. But by that time, our funding was over.”

Meanwhile, more than 600 former SSFL workers had applied for compensation for their illnesses they attributed to working at the lab, but aside from a few dozen, most claims were denied because proof of exposure was required. As Sen. Dianne Feinstein said on the floor of the Senate in March, “Some records show only estimated levels of exposure for workers, and are imprecise. In other cases, if records were kept, they cannot be found today.”

Feinstein and Sen. Barbara Boxer, both California Democrats, and Rep. Elton Gallegly, a House Republican, this year introduced legislation to compensate SSFL workers or their families for workplace illnesses not covered by earlier laws covering so-called “energy employees.” The legislation, which is still in committee in both houses, would allow those workers whose claims have been rejected to reapply for compensation.

The big clean: target deadline 2017

Despite all this, the site remains toxic, radioactive and dangerous, and will continue to be so until the cleanup is completed. And it’s still a workplace for scientists and technicians: Although the go-go years of the Cold War are gone, when three shifts of 6,000 people each were working on the site, fewer than 200 remain today doing laser research and other defense industry work.

After lawsuits, several studies and attempts to force Boeing to clean the site, California state Sen. Sheila Kuehl introduced legislation that mandated that the site be cleaned to the highest standard before any other use of the land would be permitted. In addition to the radiation contamination, the bill includes the perchlorate and other dangerous chemicals that were spewed out during the rocket engine testing and other pursuits. Boeing opposed the bill, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed it into law in early 2008 and a final date for completion of the cleanup was slated for 2017.

Norman Riley, who works for the state EPA’s Department of Toxic Substances Control and was in charge of the cleanup until Aug. 19, said the project is riddled with potential difficulties. “This is roughly 3,000 acres of extremely complicated geology, highly fractured bedrock on top of a mountain in an arid environment.”

The area is prone to brushfires, such as the 2005 Topanga Canyon Fire, which swept through the contaminated site. “Fire will change the chemical composition, it will alter chemically on constituents that are at or near the surface, and it would add to the constituents,” Riley said. “Dioxins, for example, are a common combustion product.”

He doesn’t consider size, complexity and potential natural disasters to be “insurmountable,” but said political issues may be. “Being able to hit 2017 means being able to adhere to a schedule that is already pretty tight. One has to begin with a characterization of the site, which we expect to be finished in 2012.”

(Riley was replaced on the project by 25-year DTSC veteran Rick Brausch, best known previously as the agency’s policy and legislative director.)

Taylor at the DOE is doubtful that the original target dates can be met. “I don’t know if 2017 still is in play since we are going to wait … to get the results of the survey.”

But that doesn’t mean nothing is happening, he insisted. The DOE has been monitoring the site regularly, he said. “The impression that nothing has been done is not exactly correct. There’s been an environmental report every year.”

Then there is the ongoing unprecedented financial crisis devouring California. “The state’s financial situation has already affected [the schedule],” Riley said. “People that work for me and myself are furloughed three days a month. That means no one is reviewing the data; no one is inspecting activities that are going on at the site.”

However, the real delay may be just around the corner. “The entities responsible for meeting the standards [of the SSFL cleanup law] have resisted those standards, which they consider to be unreasonable,” Riley said, referring apparently to Boeing. “I think that the standards are unnecessarily restrictive. We certainly will enforce the law because that is our job. But here’s a fact: When this clean up is done, this is going to be the cleanest land in Southern California.”

The standards mandated by Kuehl’s legislation dictate that there be no more than one chance in a million of getting cancer from any radionuclide in a rural agricultural setting, which has the most restrictive limits. In comparison, the damaged reactor at Three Mile Island, though defueled and decontaminated to a large degree, remains closed as the radiation continues to decay.

Taylor said that although there is a possibility of a walk-away clause, where the EPA decides to just fence off the site as was done at Three Mile Island, that alternative is not acceptable to the DOE. “We considered taking down the remaining structures. Basically, people are nervous about that.”

“The public gave us, DOE, the indication to wait for the EPA surveys so we’re not going to fight that. In any scenario, those buildings are still going to come down.”

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