Monster in Our Backyard

Events in Japan bring thoughts of nearby nuclear incidents to mind.

Like everyone, I am having trouble comprehending the biblical proportions of the cataclysm that has landed squarely on top of Japan. The largest earthquake ever felt in the quake-prone country, a tsunami that still has yet to fully enter my brain, and the slow-motion and unimaginable horror that is unfolding at four nuclear power plants.  

As a girl, my number one terror was fallout from a nuclear attack. Bomb drills at school were as regular as recess and our grade school was a hop, skip and a jump away from a Nike missile site. That meant we were a target. The occasional fire or police siren made my blood freeze. Beginning with the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis when I was in second grade, I kept my fears to myself because I was unpersuaded by adults telling me that a nuclear attack could not happen. If that were true, then why all the bomb drills? 

I was in fifth grade when JFK was assassinated. We went home for lunch and I was watching Bozo’s Circus when the bulletin came on: the president has been shot and is in critical condition. I ran upstairs and told my mother. Back at school, I told my teacher who, to my amazement, was still unaware of the crisis. She sent me to tell the principal, who was also ignorant of what was happening. After a quick assembly, we were sent home.  

I knew in my bones that our country was now more vulnerable to attack than it had been the day before. Again, the adults assured me that we were completely safe. And again, I wondered why nothing else was on television for four entire days if the assasination did not affect our safety.  I saw a lot of grown-ups crying like babies and I figured some of them were just plain scared. 

While I was safely in Chicago, a truly dangerous event had occurred on the West Coast.  In July of 1959, the summer that I turned 6years old, there was a partial nuclear meltdown at the Rocketdyne facility above Simi Valley. For two weeks, unknown amounts of radiation were secretly vented out over the west San Fernando Valley and beyond.  

Rocketdyne was quietly experimenting with nuclear reactors at the Santa Susana Field Lab. One of the 10 reactors had been acting up. Unknown to the plant operators at the time was the fact that fuel rods had begun to melt when the cooling system failed. Ignorant of the cause, those operators made some very bad decisions. When the sodium reactor experiment would suddenly get very hot, they would shut it down, vent the accumulating radiation, let the core cool off, and then restart the reactor. This was repeated for two full weeks. 

This reckless and hidden release of radiation was finally revealed  to the public in 1979, when UCLA researchers stumbled upon a press release about the event which claimed that no radiation had been released and the public was in no danger at any time.    

In the ensuing decades, experiments and weapons testing spewed hazardous materials across the field lab. This included not only radioactive contaminents but also a witch’s brew of toxic chemicals and heavy metals. To this day, none of the hazardous stew has been cleaned up. Instead, the toxins have permeated the soil and rocks and found their way onto nearby properties. They have contaminated the ground water, the wells and the creeks. They have been burned into cinders by wildfires and dispersed by the Santa Anas over the Valley and Ventura County. 

It has been 51 years since the partial meltdown and still the parties that fouled the Santa Susana Field Lab have yet to begin any meaningful clean up. The Department of Energy, NASA and the State of California signed an agreement to abide by the state law (SB 990) requiring them to scrub the area clean. But the main culprit, Rocketdyne, has been absorbed by the Boeing Company and instead of cleaning up their own galactic-sized toxic mess, Boeing chose instead to sue over the state law. Boeing claims that the law violates its constitutional rights.  

So here we are, still downwind and downstream from the worst nuclear accident in our country’s history. It was estimated that hundreds of times more radiation was released during the 1959 meltdown than was released during the 1979 Three Mile Island near-disaster. 

If this is not alright with you, if you understand how much harm has been visited on innocent residents for two generations, if you want some answers and some action, then write to your elected representatives. Tell Boeing that it is unacceptable. Yell at the tops of your lungs and demand better treatment by your government and your society.   

And as you learn more about what happened right here in our backyard in 1959 and what still remains a dangerous presence in 2011, you get a glimpse of the enormity of the disaster unfolding in Japan. If we can’t clean up our own very old mess, what could their future possibly hold?

For more information on this event: 


*Joan Trossman Bien has written about the Santa Susana Field Lab nuclear meltdown for Miller McCune Research Center and ChinaDialogue, an international environmental Web site. Enviroreporter.com is the Web site of Michael Collins, Joan's Miller McCune writing partner, who has been writing award-winning articles about the subject since 1997.

Chris Rowe March 27, 2011 at 05:16 AM
Thanks Michael. That story keeps on giving! See Dr. Beyea's comments: "Jan Beyea says: September 16, 2009 at 5:51 pm Because statements are made in a comment on the EnviroReporter website about my analysis of the SRE accident, I thought I should post what I currently state on my own website: “A June 2007 draft revision was prepared for review, but was made moot by Boeing’s release of previously withheld wind data. Analysis of that data is awaiting completion of other projects. In the June, 2007 Revision, I tried to clarify issues, and to answer questions raised by Boeing and its consultants. I also made quantitative changes to the report that resulted from adding additional Boeing consultants to the set of experts used to develop a likelihood distribution for the release magnitude. When these changes were combined with newly identified soil measurements, the quantitative scoping calculations I made of projected health effects had to be adjusted. The upper 95%-confidence value dropped by about a factor of 4. Subsequent to preparation of the 2007 revision, Boeing released 1959 meteorological (met) data.
Chris Rowe March 27, 2011 at 05:18 AM
Dr. Jan Beyea's comments continued: "Preliminary review of the met data suggests that the upper 95%-confidence value will drop still further, when met data is incorporated. Revisions to expert assessments is likely to reduce the upper 95%-confidence value still more, although the possibility of a second (earlier?) accident has been raised to account for excess strontium found in the coolant— a possibility that will complicate the analysis.” See:http://www.cipi.com/artclnuk.shtml for responses to Boeing and others. I also should make it clear that my original report had a range starting at zero health effects, but that lower number got lost in the original reporting and presentation by others. I never referred to the SRE accident as a meltdown, which has a pejorative connotation"
Michael Collins March 27, 2011 at 05:55 AM
The Rocketdyne community is well aware of Rowe's role as a provocateur and her endless yatter. She is a time sink and she knows it and loves it. She could put a meth freak to sleep with her "I'm this" and "I'm that" nonsense. Read my article about this woman who has no problem making up hooey and trying to pass it as fact. I'm not wasting any more time on this person who is a polluter's dream.
Chris Rowe March 27, 2011 at 06:12 AM
From the Ventura County Star - Teresa Rochester's story: Data fuzzy on severity of two U.S. accidents Read more: http://www.vcstar.com/news/2009/jul/12/data-fuzzy-on-severity-of-two-us-accidents/#ixzz1HmFSv0wj - vcstar.com “It’s very speculative, and there’s a very wide range of possibilities, and there is disagreement about what is the best estimate of what was released,” said physicist Jan Beyea, who specializes in modeling atmospheric releases of radioactivity from nuclear reactor accidents. "Speaking of the SRE partial meltdown, Beyea said, “Yes, it is possible that more than 15 curies were released of iodine-131,” but he said it probably wouldn’t have produced a widespread effect on health, either." "Beyea was among a team of researchers who published the 2006 Santa Susana Field Laboratory Panel report, based on a five-year study that concluded that the meltdown and subsequent contamination of nearby water wells probably had caused about 260 cancers in a 60-mile radius. The 2006 report was officially rebutted by the lab owner, Boeing Co." "For the 2006 report, Beyea conducted his models without the benefit of weather data from the Field Lab. The weather records were released by Boeing the following year. While comparisons of the Field Lab and Three Mile Island accidents stir debate among researchers, neither event begins to compare to the catastrophe 23 years ago at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine, according to scientists."
Rebecca Whitnall April 28, 2011 at 04:11 PM
For those of you following the Santa Susana clean up debate, The Ventura County Star reported "A federal judge found a landmark state law setting strict cleanup standards at a polluted former rocket engine and nuclear test site south of Simi Valley unconstitutional this week" in an article today. Moorpark Patch will not be reporting on this because it's not in Moorpark, but if you want to read the Star's article, you can find it here: http://lb.vg/614EN


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