The EnviroReporter.com interview – July 11, 2009
Michael Rose is a successful Los Angeles-based documentarian. His company, Michael Rose Productions, Inc., has produced over 200 documentaries for outlets in the US (PBS, The History Channel, the Travel Channel and others) that are seen in over 40 countries.
Rose is also the person who, in 1979 as a student at UCLA, unearthed news in an Another Mother for Peace pamphlet that would lead to revelations that the nation’s worst nuclear meltdown happened 30 miles northwest of downtown LA at something called the Sodium Reactor Experiment. Working on his Masters in the Motion Picture and Television Department, Rose ended up collaborating with Dan Hirsch of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, a nuclear watchdog group now based in Santa Cruz.
The year was 1979 and the meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania had shocked a nation. What Rose and Hirsch found in obscure documents would soon shake Southern California for decades to come.
EnviroReporter.com: How exactly did you find the SRE meltdown documents? What did that flyer say?
Michael Rose: The flyer had a little blurb about a meltdown at Atomics International. It was sitting in a pile of things in the Bridge the Gap office in [West Los Angeles]. It caught my eye because I was working on my Project One (initial film project) at the UCLA Film School about nuclear sites in Los Angeles. It was one of those “light bulb” going off moments.
What happened to your film? Is it available for viewing?
My film had the obligatory end of term screening and it was a major disappointment to me. I couldn’t make something that had any impact with Super 8 mm. I didn’t know enough technically to create a film that would have any impact and I didn’t have the money. I thought the program was a diversion to people who wanted to make a difference so I turned my attention to trying to package my research and feed it to the mainstream media and try to have an impact that way. I put the film away in a box and over a course of moves it’s been lost. It’s now sitting in a landfill somewhere but the research I started while producing this silly little project is still going strong.
Where did you find the specific documents? By mail? FOIA? In the Engineering Library?
Even though the film was a botch, I knew I had to find out more about all of this, especially the meltdown at Atomics International. Of course, I was given a cold shoulder by Atomics International but discovered that documents relating to that company were on file at all Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Repositories around the country. As luck would have it — UCLA was one of those repositories.
Unfortunately, most of the pertinent documents were on Micro Cards, a precursor to Microfiche, and the one machine in the library that could read those cards was busted and needed a hard to find special light bulb. The librarian took a shine to me and eventually found someone who could fix it and provide a new bulb. With that, I was off and running and that Micro Card readers literally started to shine a light on the troubled and dangerous history of the nuclear industry.
One of the first documents I discovered was the press release announcing the meltdown at the Sodium Reactor Experiment (SRE). It was for release on August 29 (1959) a little over a month after the melting had occurred on July 26.
I took in a pile of dimes and set to work copying document after document in the bowels of the engineering building.
Did you know what you had or did Dan [Hirsch] pull it out?
Like a puppy with a paper in its mouth I eagerly shared my findings with Dan. We both saw that this was a treasure trove and we began to make plans for its release. I also stumbled on a reference to a film that was made about the meltdown and the cleanup. A little more sleuthing put me on to the actual film and once I had that I transferred it on the film chain at the UCLA Film School. This would become the standard operating procedure as I dug up more government films. These films were used as part of the package we’d hand out to the media.
Our big coup was the first story that we gave to Warren Olney, who was at KNBC then, as an exclusive. He did a five part series (during sweeps week, course) about the meltdown and the coverup. It rated through the roof. The documents showing the melted fuel rods, the film of the clean up and a film I’d found that Edward R. Murrow had made about the opening of the reactor made great television.
We were on our way. The other media outlets played catch up to Warren’s story and as more people signed on to help with the research Bridge the Gap started to produce material for story after story. It was amazing. I guess you’d call it viral today.
Do you have any thoughts on the 50th anniversary of this meltdown and what it means to you to see all that has transpired regarding the lab since breaking this in 1979?
It’s really gratifying to see that something I had a hand in has made a difference but to be honest I never would have imagined that it would have gone this far. My only worry is that we as a society haven’t learned the lessons about the dangers of nuclear power and that we’re poised to take this route again. It’s nuclear déjà vu.
Who is responsible for you finding those documents?
Dan rented the office, housed the documents, Dorothy received information from a nuclear physicist about the accident and published it in her newsletter and I picked it up. Funny how life works.
One thing I’d like to clarify — that’s been somewhat garbled in the past, I was never Dan’s student. I was a student, when I met Dan and when we embarked on the nuclear information campaign but didn’t take any course under his tutelage.
Minor point but for the record.
In fact, I was assigned to supervise his organization as part of my duties as staff of the Community Services Commission at UCLA. I determined that the organization needed a focus and thought that this would help them in that regard. I think I was right.