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 cancer.

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.'"

August 24, 2009
Human error helped worsen a nuclear meltdown just outside Los Angeles, and now human inertia has stymied the radioactive cleanup for half a century.

For Release Saturday A.M., August 29, 1959
“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 Mile Island.
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 use.

… 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 outside.”

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 conclusions.”
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.

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