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Taylor said the federal government accepts the stringent standards, and on Aug. 19 both the DOE and NASA (which along with Boeing were deemed the “responsible parties” for funding the cleanup) agreed to proceed on the cleanup – without Boeing.

“We’re pleased that the federal agencies (NASA and DOE) have committed to moving forward on a draft cleanup order that covers a significant portion of contamination (90% RAD and 50% other chemicals) in strict compliance with [the Kuehl legislation],” the acting director of the Department of Toxic Substances Control, Maziar Movassaghi, wrote on Aug. 19.

“Unfortunately we are not yet at a public review stage with Boeing as to their cleanup responsibilities, so we have decided to move forward with the responsible federal agency portion of the cleanup. We’re hopeful that the Boeing discussions will be similarly successful and have assigned project management to the executive level of the Department to lead those negotiations.”

Riley said before he was removed that Boeing is not yet on board with the existing cleanup standards. “If we are not able to reach an agreement with them, then there will be litigation. If [Boeing] is going to file a claim concerning constitutionality of the measure, it would have to get started soon. Boeing is not a company without means. They have some very good lawyers.”

Asked if Boeing indeed plans to initiate litigation, its spokeswoman Sams replied, “We are optimistic that a consensual agreement can be reached that allows us to proceed with an effective cleanup in a timely manner. Boeing will legally restrict future land use of our site to open space.”

Taylor, meanwhile, acknowledged that the DOE has created some of its own problems by moving forward without consulting the public.

“I know things have been done in the past that probably have not taken into consideration the people’s concerns around there, and we are doing our best to rectify that by working with the Department of Toxic Substances Control and working with EPA now. I appreciate these people who have followed this for 30 years, and I understand their frustration — but maybe some things aren’t as bad as they seem.”

The future of nuclear energy

As the Obama administration is developing a strategy for the nation’s energy needs, including a nuclear component, there are many environmentalists who see the struggle to clean up the SSFL as an object lesson.

“You know the old saying, ‘Those who cannot remember the lessons of the past are condemned to repeat them,” Hirsch said. “People today are not remembering what happened the last time we went deeply into nuclear power. We had meltdowns and horrible accidents that we are spending billions of dollars unsuccessfully trying to clean up.”

Proponents of a nuclear revival say it is part of the answer to reduce the nation’s carbon output. But Hirsch sees that path as a large step backwards. “It’s a tragedy because this could be the point where we really solve the global warming problem.”

The Nuclear Regulatory Agency has received applications from 14 companies to build new nuclear power plants. Financial problems in the form of cost overruns, delays and other problems had forced utilities to abandon earlier plans to build more nuclear power plants in the 1990s. The issue of terrorism has not yet been fully addressed. The federal government is anxious to solve the intractable problem of the disposal of nuclear waste. Today, most of the operating reactors simply have their spent fuel rods sitting temporarily but indefinitely in holding tanks. The U.S. still has no permanent facility for all of the country’s spent fuel rods and other nuclear waste.

Whether the SSFL will finally be cleaned up within the negotiated schedule remains an open question. Fifty years have passed since that first press release told the world about a close brush with disaster just outside Los Angeles. Today, radiation remains on and off the premises, outliving a generation of workers.

Joan Trossman Bien, a freelance reporter living in Southern California, has worked as a newswriter for nearly every TV station in Los Angeles and now contributes regularly to the Ventura County Reporter and Ventana Monthly. Michael Collins of EnviroReporter.com is an award-winning investigative journalist who has covered the Santa Susana Field Laboratory since 1998.

[SEE EnviroReporter.com‘s “Double Vision” for extended interviews, photographs and videos]

25 Years of Award-Winning SSFL/Rocketdyne Reporting

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