300 articles and commentaries that try to convince readers that the answer to this question must be yes. Dismantle all bombs and reactors before the centennial of the Trinity Nuclear Bomb Test on July 16, 1945. Sooner would be better, but since the human race loves centennials, this is one to put in your calendar.
I bet Alex Trebek never asked this question on Jeopardy
What nuclear accident on American soil is said to have released 459
times as much radiation as the Three Mile Island accident?
It is stunning to discover occasionally one of the many events in this
world that are known, and should be widely known, but which remain off the
record of the wider public consciousness of historical events. If you ask any
informed citizen to name three nuclear accidents in history, they will easily tell
you the big three: Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011),
with the last two being major catastrophes and the first being mostly a
catastrophe averted. Actually, Three Mile Island should be bumped down the list
to a lower ranking, but for many reasons the much worse accident in 1959 at the
Santa Susana Field Laboratory in Simi Valley, near Los Angeles, has fallen down
the memory hole.
The reasons for this lapse are that by 1979 the media, environmental
groups and government agencies had evolved enough to make a cover up
impossible. Twenty years earlier, it was still the early days of nuclear energy, the
Cold War was at its height, and the public still had little awareness of the
dangers posed by radiation. The IAEA had been established two years earlier,
but there was no IAEA report on this accident.
Since the accident at Fukushima Dai-ichi, many people have turned to the
Chernobyl accident to look for answers as to what the future effects will be.
The difficulty with this comparison is that there were so many cultural
differences between Ukraine of 1986 and Japan of 2011. Those who would like to
play down the effects of Chernobyl say that people in that area were poor, living under a dictatorship, and they
were forced by circumstances to eat food off the contaminated land. Meanwhile, the
government lacked funds to provide proper protection and health care.
For these reasons, the accident near Los Angeles might provide some
useful insights as to what is in store for Japan over the next few decades. The
Santa Susana meltdown was no doubt of a smaller scale than Chernobyl and
Fukushima, but it involved a heavy fallout over an urban area in a developed,
wealthy nation. Today, residents in the surrounding areas sometimes say they
are shocked by the number of people in their neighborhoods who have had cancer.
Scientific studies, as usual, reveal nothing conclusive because of the confounding
factors, but a study completed in recent years concluded there were 300 – 1800 extra
cancer deaths off site, while workers on the site suffered very high rates of
This number actually adds little to the total number of cancer cases in
the Los Angeles area over fifty years, and findings like this are often used to
assert that radiation is actually not something we need to worry about. What
remains unknown is what effect a nuclear meltdown would have on a population
that did not breathe a toxic soup of smog, did not smoke, did not drink alcohol,
did not eat junk, and did not consume a lifelong cocktail of legal and illegal
pharmaceuticals. Radiation gets off the hook only because other things kill us
first in most cases.
An excellent article on the meltdown at the Santa Susana Field
Laboratory appeared in the online magazine Miller-McCune
on August 24, 2009. Excerpts of this long report appear below, along with the
link to the full article.
Update, March 12, 2012
Information in the report below can be supplemented with a recent announcement of results of the latest soil testing on the Santa Susana site, reported this way in the Contra Costra Times:
"The results of the
radiological survey show that of the 437 samples collected, 75 [17%] exceeded
standards agreed upon by the DOE and the California Department of Toxic
Substances Control in a cleanup agreement signed in December 2010. Seven radioactive isotopes, including one known as cesium-137,
measured at levels between 100 to 1,000 times higher than the
standards. Other radionuclides that suggest nuclear presence include
strontium-90, tritium, plutonium, and carbon-14... 'People have been waiting
for this information for years,' said Dan Hirsch, president of the
activist group Committee to Bridge the Gap. 'All those years, we were told it was clean. This data prove
we're not just a bunch of unknowledgeable people, but that everyday
people are proven right.'" ___________
Human error helped worsen a nuclear meltdown just outside Los Angeles,
and now human inertia has stymied the radioactive cleanup for half a century.
By Joan Trossman Bien and Michael Collins
For Release Saturday A.M., August 29, 1959
CANOGA PARK, CA
“During an inspection of fuel elements on July 26 at the Sodium Reactor
Experiment, operated for the Atomic Energy Commission at Santa Susana,
California by Atomics International, a division of North American Aviation,
Inc., a parted fuel element was observed.
The fuel element damage is not an indication of unsafe reactor
conditions. No release of radioactive materials to the plant or its environs
occurred and operating personnel were not exposed to harmful conditions…
In each case, all seven tubes of the fuel element remained in the core.
This fuel loading, nearing the end of its useful life, was scheduled to be
removed in the near future.”
This press release — issued five weeks after the end of the United
States’ worst nuclear reactor meltdown — was the public’s first notification
that something unusual had happened up on “The Hill.” For the next 20 years, it
remained the only public notification about the accident at the Santa Susana
Field Laboratory on a mountaintop in California’s eastern Ventura County, on
the border with the San Fernando Valley.
In fact, from July 12 through July 26, 1959, an unknown amount of
radioactive gases were intentionally vented to prevent the Sodium Reactor
Experiment from overheating and exploding.
…Due to the experimental nature of the SRE, it was built without a
containment structure — the distinctive large dome associated with nuclear
power plants — so any radiation vented hot out over the San Fernando Valley,
which the city of Los Angeles was busily annexing…
“We know there was a fuel meltdown,” said William Taylor, the current
spokesman for the U.S. Department of Energy. “We don’t know how much
[radiation] or if any was released.”
According to an analysis of a five-year study by a panel of independent
scientists convened years after the incident, the SRE accident spit out up to
459 times the amount of radiation released during the 1979 meltdown at Three
Fifty years later, the contaminated site has yet to be cleaned up…
…the SRE was but one of 10 nuclear reactors at the site, plus a “hot
lab” to cut apart and work on nuclear fuel for Santa Susana, Department of
Energy and the Atomic Energy Commission facilities from around the country. The
site also hosted a plutonium fabrication fuel facility
… workers routinely disposed of barrels of highly toxic waste by blowing
them up with shotguns and releasing the contents into the air. That practice
was halted in 1994 when two workers were killed and one severely injured when
the procedure went terribly wrong. One worker was blasted so forcefully into a
rock that all that remained was a gruesome petroglyph.
John Pace… is now the last surviving worker to have witnessed the 1959
meltdown and its immediate aftermath — an often chaotic attempt to prevent an
even larger disaster as workers compromised their own safety to keep the SRE
from overheating into a runaway meltdown…. They were only partially successful…
one third of the fuel rods ruptured and had begun melting.
“… The radiation monitors went off scale. They were too hot to measure… A
few hours after it happened, I found out that the reactor had run away from
them and they had to release the gases. After leaking the gases, they
discovered that the winds were headed toward the San Fernando Valley. All of
our families lived [there] and all that radiation went over their homes.”
A 2006 report by David A. Lochbaum, the nuclear safety engineer with the
Union of Concerned Scientists, determined that up to 30 percent of the
reactor’s radioiodine and cesium could have vaporized during the accident.
After the reactor was shut down two weeks later, Pace said the workers
started cleaning up the immediate contamination so that they could reach the
fuel rods and see what had happened. “We scrubbed it down with water and
sponges,” Pace said. “We tried mops. They’d get contaminated real quick and
that was getting pretty expensive, so we ended up using Kotex.”
… All this was done without protective clothing beyond coveralls and
cotton caps that read, “Your Safety is Our Business — Atomics International.”
There were no fully-enclosed radiation suits with face masks that nuclear
workers routinely use today, designed to be dissolved and disposed of after one
… As the workers removed the fuel rods, one broke off. The worker
accidentally dropped the broken rod back into the reactor. “He realized what
had happened and panicked,” Pace said. “All he could think of doing is run. And
as he was running, he was pulling alarms and ran out of the building and got
Pace said the situation deteriorated from there. “Now you have the rod
up out of the shield. They were realizing radiation was leaking out into the
atmosphere. There was one more fuel rod in there. They pulled it out and it
broke off and hit the reactor floor. Now you have two broken off in the
reactor. I could tell from the looks on their faces something was wrong.”
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.
“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
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.”
The area is prone to brushfires, such as the 2005 Topanga Canyon Fire,
which swept through the contaminated site.
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.