FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Woolsey Fire Started at Santa Susana Field Lab — Site of “[fourth] largest release of iodine-131 in the history of nuclear power”

In my Nov. 16 column, I reported on potential radiation risks posed by California’s Woolsey wildfire having burned over parts or all of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory—south of Simi Valley, Calif., 30 miles outside Los Angeles—site of at least four partial or total nuclear reactor meltdowns.

The field laboratory operated 10 experimental reactors and conducted rocket engine tests. In his 2014 book Atomic Accidents, researcher James Mahaffey writes, “The cores in four experimental reactors on site … melted.” Reactor core melts always result in the release of large amounts of radioactive gases and particles. Clean up of the deeply contaminated site has not been conducted in spite of a 2010 agreement.

Los Angeles’s KABC-7 TV reported Nov. 13 that the Santa Susana lab site “appears to be the origin of the Woolsey Fire” which has torched over 96,000 acres. Southern Calif. Public Radio said, “According to Cal Fire, the Woolsey Fire started on the afternoon of Thursday, Nov. 8 … on the Santa Susana site.” (https://abc7.com/sce-substation-outage-occurred-before-woolsey-fire-reported/4675611/)

In my column I noted that Dr. Arjun Makhijani, President of the Institute for Energy & Environmental Research, estimated that the partial meltdown of the lab’s Sodium Reactor Experiment (SRE) in 1957, caused “the third largest release of iodine-131 in the history of nuclear power,” according to Gar Smith in his 2012 book Nuclear Roulette. But Makhijani was speaking in 2006, so now of course the SRE meltdown counts as the fourth largest radio-iodine release—after the triple meltdowns at Fukushima in Japan in 2011, Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986, and Windscale in England in 1957.

Santa Susana’s operators caused the destruction of the liquid sodium-cooled SRE on July 12, 1959—“showering the downwind hills and meadows of the 2,850-acre site with a fog of chromium and radioactive isotopes, including iodine-131,” according to Smith in Roulette. It was these hills and meadows that were burned so completely by the Woolsey wildfire.

“It [the fog of isotopes] likely spread to nearby communities such as Simi Valley, Chatsworth and Canoga Park,” according to Southern Calif. Public Radio’s Elina Shatkin (“What Happened at the Santa Susana Nuclear Site During the Woolsey Fire?” Nov. 13.) Makhijani calculated that fallout from the meltdown contained “80 to 100 times the amount of iodine-131 released at Three Mile Island” [in Harrisburg, Penn., in 1979], Smith reports in Roulette. Canoga Park Senior High School is one of four Red Cross evacuation centers for the Woolsey Fire.

During the two weeks after the partial meltdown of the SRE, workers tried to repair it. “When they couldn’t, they were ordered to open the reactor’s large door, releasing radiation into the air,” Shatkin reported for public radio.

Radioactive materials released by the meltdown were never accurately measured in part because monitors inside the SRE went off scale. Yet the melting of fuel didn’t cause the only releases of radiation from SRE—just the single largest. In his 2012 book Mad Science, Joe Mangano writes, “Every day, radioactive gases from holding tanks in the reactor building were released into the air—often at night … sometimes twice a day.” In Atomic Accidents, Mahaffey describes the same practice writing, “The fission gases were piped off and compressed into holding tanks for controlled release into the environment…”

After the July meltdown was halted, Atomics International, which ran the SRE, concocted a report for the Atomic Energy Commission on Aug. 29, 1957. The report falsely declared: “No release of radioactive materials to the plant or its environs occurred and operating personnel were not exposed to harmful conditions.”

However, conditions inside the reactor building were extremely dangerous for workers, and radiation levels are estimated to have reached between 10,000 and one million times greater than normal. According to one worker, staff radiation measuring badges were taken away. John Pace, a young trainee at the lab, “Before July 13, we wore film badges, and after then, at some point they [Atomics International] took them away, since they know that the levels would be really high.”

With 10 experimental reactors, radiation routinely released to the air, years of accidents, and four core meltdowns, the “downwind hills and meadows” can be considered permanently compromised with cancer-causing toxins. Dan Hirsch, president of Committee to Bridge the Gap, a nuclear policy organization told public radio that Santa Susana’s soil has, “a mix of radioactive materials like plutonium, strontium-90 and cesium-137” and perhaps 100 toxic chemicals “such as PCBs, dioxins, heavy metals like mercury and chromium-6 and volatile organic compounds like PCE.” In 2012, the US EPA reported that its soil tests found radioactive cesium-137 at 9,328 times ordinary background levels.

Citizens living in the vicinity of Santa Susana have become harshly critical of the site’s early operators—Boeing, Atomic International and Rocketdyne—who for years burned toxic and radioactive wastes in open pits, endangering all the downwinders. In 2005, Boeing paid $30 million to compensate nearby residents for early mortalities and a range of rare diseases.

More articles by:

John LaForge is a Co-director of Nukewatch, a peace and environmental justice group in Wisconsin, and edits its newsletter.

August 06, 2020
H. Bruce Franklin
How the Fascists Won World War II
Robert Jacobs – Ran Zwigenberg
The American Narrative of Hiroshima is a Statue that Must be Toppled
Howie Hawkins - Madelyn Hoffman
Reverse the New Nuclear Arms Race
Brian Kelly
Ireland and Slavery: Debating the ‘Irish Slaves Myth’
Talli Nauman
Native Americans Win Historic Victories in U.S. High Court Rulings
David Mattson
“Man Attacks Grizzly” and Other Leading Bleeding Stories
Jack Rasmus
US GDP Collapses and Economic Rebound Fades
John Kendall Hawkins
Suffrage: The Myth of Sisterphus
George Ochenski
An Unbelievably Disastrous State of Affairs
George Wuerthner
Trouble in Paradise Valley
Binoy Kampmark
State of Pandemic Disaster: Melbourne Moves to Stage Four
Howard Lisnoff
The ACLU Has Never Done a Damn Thing for Me
Priyanka Singh – Sujeet Singh
Time to Empower the Invisibles: India Awaits a Mental Health Revolution
CounterPunch News Service
Conservationists to Federal Agencies: Restore Protections for Imperiled Wildlife in the Flathead National Forest
August 05, 2020
Roy Eidelson
Black Lives Matter: Resisting the Propaganda of Status Quo Defenders
Melvin Goodman
The Department of Homeland Security: the Ideal Authoritarian Tool
Paul Street
Misleaders at a Funeral: Bill Clinton and Barack Obama Eulogizing Racial Justice in the Name of John Lewis
Seiji Yamada
Hiroshima, Technique, and Bioweapons
Vijay Prashad
How Trump Managed to Lead the World with the Worst Response to the COVID Pandemic
Richard C. Gross
Trump’s Alternative
Jonas Ecke
The Worst Hunger Season Yet to Come: Global Moral Failure in the Time of Covid-19
Rafiq Kathwari
The Battle for Kashmir
Kenneth Surin
Malaysia’s Arch-Kleptocrat is Found Guilty
Medea Benjamin - Nicolas J. S. Davies
U.S. Cold War China Policy Will Isolate the U.S, Not China
Lee Camp
Why Housing Is a Human Right
Sam Pizzigati
For Egalitarians, a Sudden Sense of Possibility
Jonathan Cook
Can Israelis Broaden Their Protests Beyond Netanyahu?
Thomas Knapp
Ten Years After Lieberman’s “Internet Kill Switch,” the War on Freedom Rages On
Binoy Kampmark
Staying on Message: Australia, the US and the AUSMIN Talks
Elliot Sperber
The View From Saturn 
August 04, 2020
John Pilger
Another Hiroshima is Coming…Unless We Stop It Now
Dave Lindorff
Unsung Heroes of Los Alamos: Rethinking Manhattan Project Spies and the Cold War
Kenneth Good
Escalating State Repression and Covid-19: Their Impact on the Poor in Kenya
Dean Baker
We Need an Economic Survival Package Not Another Stimulus
David Rosen
Globalization and the End of the American Dream
John Feffer
The Pandemic Reveals a Europe More United Than the United States
Patrick Cockburn
The Government’s Failed Track-and-Trace System is a Disaster for England
Ramzy Baroud
‘Optimism of the Will’: Palestinian Freedom is Possible Now
CounterPunch News Service
Statement From Yale Faculty on Hydroxychloroquine and Its Use in COVID-19
Manuel García, Jr.
Ocean Heat: From the Tropics to the Poles
Sonali Kolhatkar
Why the Idea of Jobless Benefits Scares the Conservative Mind
Greta Anderson
Framing Wolves in New Mexico?
Binoy Kampmark
Pulling Out of Germany: Trump Adjusts the Military Furniture
Shawn Fremstad – Nicole Rodgers
COVID Stimulus Checks Shouldn’t Penalize One-Parent Households
Adam Shah
The 1 Percent’s Attack on Unemployment Benefits is a Sign of Our Broken Democracy
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail