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 24, 2011 at 07:39 AM
Dear Ms. Bien, Have you ever been to the Santa Susana Field Lab (SSFL)? I am there - in AREA IV - twice a week with the Federal EPA picking out places with them for them to sample for radiation. While I am there, I do not have to wear a dosimeter - a monitoring device for radiation. It is quite amazing - your stories pop up about the site. Yet I have never seen you at any Technical meetings. Yes, there are Technical meetings for the cleanup of this site. There are monthly EPA meetings, monthly DTSC meetings. And there are the Public Participation Group meetings for those who are truly involved in the site. Those people make a two year commitment to attend those meetings. I have already had 4 1/2 years invested in this project. There was no meltdown at the Santa Susana Field Lab. Your colleague has named me the "Meltdown Denier". I wear that title with honor. I, it seems unlike you, prefer to look for the truth. I havc read hundreds of technical documents on the Sodium Reactor Experiment. I have interviewed numerous nuclear physicists and nuclear engineers that worked on the project. Where were you on the day that the Department of Energy put on their 7 hour Expert Panel - including a nuclear physicist from the NRDC? There is absolutely no comparison between Three Mile Island (TMI)and the Sodium Reactor Experiment (SRE) - which you call the meltdown. The SRE was a sodium cooled graphite moderated 20 MW reactor that had 128 times less energy than TMI. Is this your backyard?
Joan Bien March 26, 2011 at 12:50 AM
Chris: Why don't you ask that question to the California State Legislature? Do you believe that they would have passed a state law requiring the cleanup of absolutely nothing? Why don't you challenge John Pace, an eyewitness to the actual event? You do a great disservice to the established facts and the public when you claim with absolute certainty that it never happened. This is not a "he said, she said" issue, despite your attempts to call me a liar and dismiss all of the established facts. The rest of the educated world prefers to adher to established scientific facts when forming conclusions. However, if you choose to deny the existence of an event that has been definitively established, go right ahead. I would like to add that you might consider taking to task the UCLA panel that issued the 2006 study which stated that the radiation vented from the SRE partial meltdown was hundreds of times greater than at TMI. As for using the federal Department of Energy as the final word in truth regarding whether there was any partial meltdown, why did they sign the December 6 agreement with NASA and the state to comply with SB990 if they did not accept the existence of a partial meltdown? I could continue, but you get the drift.
Chris Rowe March 26, 2011 at 04:24 AM
The federal EPA tried to see if this site would qualify as a federal Superfund site three times. The first time, they just evaluated the site for radiation, and it did not score. The second time, they evaluated it for chemicals – it still did not score. The third time, in 2007, the site was characterized for chemical and radiological contamination. It scored based upon the TCE and contaminants in the groundwater, not because of radiation. The State chose not to list the site as a Federal Superfund site because the EPA would not have to follow the State law SB 990. The EPA would have required clean up at the site based on risk to human health, to the biota, and based on future use. Today, the EPA is the lead for characterization of radiological contamination in AREA IV. DTSC, the lead agency, is working with the DOE and EPA to do chemical co located sampling in AREA IV. Hopefully the full characterization of AREA IV will be done and we will get the final sampling results for chemicals and radionuclides in the next couple of years for AREA IV only. NASA has a separate agreement. The Boeing Company is cleaning up based upon the 2007 Consent Order.
Dannielle Huxley March 26, 2011 at 04:58 AM
Wow, it sounds like you both have done extensive research on the Santa Susana Labs. I don't know who I side with yet -- but what you have done is raised my curiosity and spurred me on to do some further reading and I thank you both for that. I wonder if instead attacking each other (because, let's face it, you're probably not going to change one another's minds), would either/both of you have some good follow up sources to read for the rest of us who don't know nearly as much as you both do about the topic?
Joan Bien March 26, 2011 at 07:19 AM
There are many articles by many sources which have been written about this event. Again, it has been more than 50 years since the event and still no actual cleanup has been accomplished. If you want to read more, I suggest the actual legislation of SB990, which is available online. The definitive details are in Dan Hirsch's (Committee to Bridge the GAp) 2008 testimony to Congress which was based on the 2006 UCLA study, written and researched by a superlative panel of scientists. This is a settled issue. Only the Boeing Company, which is the primary polluter and therefore has the primary responsibility for cleaning up the area, has continued to question the validity of the facts. Boeing has a lot to gain by continuing this discussion indefinitely and planting false doubt in the public's mind. As I was warned by the former state agency director who was in charge of the cleanup, but who has since been relieved of his duties, Boeing has a lot of money and a lot of lawyers.
Chris Rowe March 26, 2011 at 08:40 AM
I recommend reading only the documents put out by the agency leaders and responsible parties. The Department of Toxic Substances Control is the lead agency for this site. Their link is here: http://www.dtsc.ca.gov/SiteCleanup/Santa_Susana_Field_Lab/index.cfm The Santa Susana Field Lab is under continuous monitoring by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board. The documents that are sent to them on ground water and surface water quality are here: http://www.boeing.com/aboutus/environment/santa_susana/index.html - look under the words Santa Susana where it says Environmental Programs The EPA website is seems to be down - but just search for EPA and Santa Susana Field Laboratory. The DOE website is here: http://www.boeing.com/aboutus/environment/santa_susana/index.html The page on the Sodium reactor Experiment is here: http://www.etec.energy.gov/history/Major-Operations/SRE.html The Radiological Operations Timeline for the site is here: http://www.etec.energy.gov/history/Major-Operations/RadTimeline.html The historic videos - which are really cool - are here: http://www.etec.energy.gov/Reading-Room/Video/Video_index.html Sodium Reactor Experiment (SRE) Public Workshop August 29, 2009 - this was a 7 hour meeting that was very balanced. There were three nuclear physicists - one from Sandia Labs, one from Ohio State, and one from the NRDC. http://www.etec.energy.gov/History/Major-Operations/SRE-Workshop-2009.html NASA: http://ssfl.msfc.nasa.gov/news/default.aspx
Chris Rowe March 26, 2011 at 09:40 AM
The Sodium Reactor Experiment (SRE) was the first nuclear reactor designed for commercial use. It was designed for the Eisenhower Atoms for Peace Program. The scientists that created this reactor were the pioneers of the peaceful use of nuclear energy. http://www.nuclearfiles.org/menu/key-issues/nuclear-energy/history/atoms-for-peace-address-eisenhower_1953-12-08.htm The SRE went online in 1957. There was a serious accident in 1959. The following year, a second core was inserted as planned. It went back online for three more years. The SRE was a 20 MW sodium cooled graphite moderated reactor. Sodium was used as a coolant at the SRE to prevent the explosions that you see in the Japanese reactors. There were no explosions at the SRE like you see in Japan - there only was a release of the gases Xenon and Krypton. The Sodium Reactor Experiment reactor and facility have been removed. There are no nuclear reactors at Santa Susana any longer. The reactors in Japan are roughly 400 MW to 1000 MW. There are six of them. They are water boiler reactors. Again, read the conclusions of the Expert Panel that reviewed about 80 technical documents here: http://www.etec.energy.gov/History/Major-Operations/SRE-Workshop-2009.html A quick overview of the SRE accident here: http://www.etec.energy.gov/History/Major-Operations/Workshop-Materials-2009/Sandia%20Poster%202%20pages.pdf
Joan Bien March 26, 2011 at 09:26 PM
Here is the actual transcript of the 2008 Congressional Oversight Committee testimony from Dan Hirsch. He is an eloquent speaker and has a stunning command of the thousands of facts. This will be one of the most revealing passages you will ever read. http://epw.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=Files.View&FileStore_id=35d2751e-13d6-4801-8e94-3cf1486c10f5 (just copy and paste into your browser) Be very aware of any website that belongs to Boeing, the Dept of Energy, etc. because they are part of the public relations program, not scientific explanations. This is a very good summary of the 2006 UCLA panel five-year, federally-funded study. http://articles.latimes.com/print/2006/oct/06/local/me-rocketdyne6 The facts which were uncovered are unnerving. The specifics will sometimes astound you. Read the impartial experts and you will learn what has been going on and what is not happening.
Chris Rowe March 26, 2011 at 10:09 PM
This is the EPA website link. http://yosemite.epa.gov/r9/sfund/r9sfdocw.nsf/7508188dd3c99a2a8825742600743735/27aebc3de0dac08888257515005dbdef!OpenDocument The Federal EPA did a Background Study for clean soil. They used locations which are in the same geological formations - about 5 - 10 miles from the SSFL site. They also did sampling at Distance Test Locations. In the final paragraph on the report to Congress, reference is made to Gregg Dempsey of the federal EPA. Gregg has been deeply involved with the sampling both for the Radiological Background locations, as well as involved at with the sampling for AREA IV. You can find all of the health studies that were done on former employees on the DOE site. All of the community health studies are there. See this link for the former worker health studies: http://www.etec.energy.gov/health-and-safety/Worker.html See this link for the community health studies: http://www.etec.energy.gov/health-and-safety/Community.html This is the most recent community health study: http://www.etec.energy.gov/health-and-safety/UOMStudy.html I believe in reading primary source information. I have had to correct the LA Times and the Daily News on Santa Susana related issues several times. Your best resource for this site if you are concerned about it is to contact DTSC: http://www.dtsc.ca.gov/SiteCleanup/Santa_Susana_Field_Lab/ssfl_contacts.cfm - I would start your questions with Yvette LaDuke - the current Public Participation Specialist.
Michael Collins March 27, 2011 at 03:54 AM
I'm glad that Chris Rowe is honored by the term "Meltdown Denier" because it resonates much louder and clearer since the tragic multiple meltdowns occurring in Japan right now. But to really get to know this tiresome person, read what I wrote about her in "Meltdown Denier" and you be the judge of how credible this person is: http://www.enviroreporter.com/2009/07/meltdown-denier/
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 (Editor) 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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