Incident at Santa Susana: A Meltdown, a Fire and a Cover-Up

The Santa Susana Field Laboratory in 1958, one year before it suffered a partial meltdown. (Photo: US Department of Energy).

When the United Nations Human Rights Council officially recognized access to “a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment” as a basic human right earlier last October, it was an acknowledgement fifty years in the making. It was backed by an international grassroots effort, with the journey to the final vote including the voices of more than 100,000 children around the world and multiple generations of allies pushing against powerful corporate opposition.

Just about the time that this half-century-long campaign to enshrine the right to a safe environment kicked off, a story about the horrific violation of this same human right and its cover-up emerged in a community near my own childhood home in Southern California. In 1979, a UCLA student named Michael Rose uncovered evidence of a partial nuclear meltdown at the Santa Susana Field Lab (SSFL) in the Simi Hills outside of Los Angeles. The SSFL, formerly known as Rocketdyne, played key government roles throughout the Cold War, developing and testing rocket engines and conducting experiments with nuclear reactors. Today, as the result of a recently published peer-reviewed study that represents the dogged efforts of both professional researchers and a team of specially trained citizens, we have solid evidence of the spread of dangerous contamination from that site.

Working with nuclear safety expert and then-UCLA professor Daniel Hirsch, Rose discovered documentation that the partial nuclear meltdown had occurred at SSFL twenty years earlier in 1959, releasing up to 459 times more radiation into the environment than the infamous meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania. Unlike the Three Mile Island facility, the SSFL reactors lacked containment structures—those tell-tale concrete domes that surround commercial nuclear power plants to prevent radiation spread in case of a nuclear accident.

In addition to the 1959 meltdown, at least three of the site’s other nuclear reactors experienced accidents (in 1957, 1964 and 1969), and radioactive and chemical wastes burned in open-air pits as a matter of practice. A “hot lab,” which may have been the nation’s largest, was also located at SSFL, and, in 1957, it burned and was known to have spread radioactivity throughout the site. A progress report from the period states, “Because such massive contamination was not anticipated, the planned logistics of cleanup were not adequate for the situation.”

The rest of this story is an object lesson in what happens when the right to a safe environment is not universally acknowledged and when secretive, long-forgotten toxic legacies of the Cold War meet the unpredictable chaos of the current climate crisis. Real people are harmed in ways that are not easily remediable—including, perhaps, members of my family.

The radioactive contamination of the surrounding environment caused by the partial nuclear meltdown at the 2,849-acre SSFL site was not cleaned up by the time of Rose’s revelation. Nor was the extensive toxic chemical contamination on site. It is still not cleaned up. Thus, when the climate chaos-fueled Woolsey Fire erupted at, and burned through, the SSFL in 2018, the flames served to spread the contamination even further. The fire quickly burned 80 percent of the SSFL property, and onward, all the way to the ocean. Pushed by high winds and uncontained for nearly two weeks, the Woolsey Fire killed three people outright and destroyed over 1,600 structures.

Today, public knowledge of the original disaster and its continued radioactive and toxic legacy is still patchy. The silence that surrounded the catastrophe in 1959 gave way to intermittent waves of focused media attention, celebrity involvement, and inquiry and outcry on the part of elected officials in the years since the 1979 expose. These have been followed by whistleblower accounts from former workers, and various forms of citizen activism. While occasional news of confidential legal settlements addressing illness and contamination breaks through, the Santa Susana disaster is hardly a household name—including among those of us who grew up in its shadow.

The suburbs on either side of the SSFL, in Ventura County and a western edge of Los Angeles County, are still expanding. More than 500,000 people currently live within about ten miles of the site. Parents vs. SSFL is the dynamic, parent-led group currently at the helm of public monitoring of, and demand for, a comprehensive cleanup. On their social media sites, one often sees public comments from nearby residents along the lines of why were we not told?

To be sure, the history of site ownership and responsibility is complex and makes redress of grievance vexing. Although Rocketdyne owned the facility at the time of the meltdown, most of the site is now owned by Boeing. However, some of the property is owned by NASA, who in turn leases parts of its property as SSFL to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), the lead regulatory agency for remediation, entered into a Consent Order with these “responsible parties,” in 2007. In 2010, stricter agreements were signed with DOE and NASA to clean up the properties for which they are responsible to “background levels.”

In 2017 a legally binding agreement deadline for completion of cleanup was blown by, with no meaningful cleanup begun. In 2018 the Woolsey Fire came roaring through. That fire is now documented to have redistributed radioactive materials and toxic chemicals in surrounding areas. Non-binding, confidential negotiations with Boeing were just announced early this year. It is a confounding and maddening journey to anyone attempting to follow.

As Melissa Bumstead, co-founder of Parents vs SSFL, said in a Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles press release about the new study: “The bottom line is, if SSFL had been cleaned up by 2017 as required by the cleanup agreements, the community wouldn’t have had to worry about contamination released by the Woolsey Fire.”

There have been many unheeded independent and government agency studiesinvestigating SSFL-related radioactive releases, occupational and community cancers and deaths, and offsite surface and subsurface soil and water contamination. Onsite land and water contamination indisputably includes the rocket fuel oxidizer perchlorate, the engine solvent trichloroethylene, PCBs, dioxins, heavy metals, VOCs, PAHs, as well as various forms of radionuclides, including strontium 90, cesium 137, and plutonium 239. As the fiercely wind-driven fire burned through the site in 2018, it did not take more than common curiosity—or fear—to wonder what the smoke and ash might have been lifting and depositing on the surrounding lands and communities.

Indeed, DTSC clearly thought of this potential problem quickly, as evidenced by their declaration, released a mere nine hours after the Woolsey fire began, that their scientists and toxicologists “do not believe that the fire caused any releases of hazardous materials that would pose a risk to people exposed to the smoke.” One month later, the agency said in an interim study that “data from sampling and measurements did not detect the release of chemical or radiological contaminants from SSFL,” and concluded the same in its final report in December 2020.

Condemnation of these and other official statements and conclusions swiftly followed. Among them was a critique by Daniel Hirsch, who recently retired as the Director for UC Santa Cruz’s Program on Environmental and Nuclear Policy and currently serves as the president of the nuclear watchdog group Committee to Bridge the Gap. Writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, Hirsch called the assertions “extraordinary” and outlined the superficiality of DTSC’s methods and conclusions. UCLA professor of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences Suzanne E. Paulson also weighed in. Speaking to a reporter the next year, Paulson explained,

Assuming that radioactive material was in the soil [and] vegetation burned, it is reasonable that it traveled 30 miles downwind, and some of it got deposited in downwind areas… When soil and vegetation burn, the material in them, including metals [and] soil minerals, end up in the aerosol particles that make smoke look dark and hazy. They are small enough that they can remain in the atmosphere for up to a week and as a result can be widely dispersed.

At the end of 2018, just weeks after the Woolsey Fire was finally extinguished, work commenced on the independent study that was ultimately published online in early October and would appear in the December 2021 issue of the Journal of Environmental Radioactivity. This paper represents the work of community-volunteer citizen scientists who were trained to collect dust and ash samples in a 9-mile radius throughout the rural, urban, suburban, and undeveloped mountainous area around the SSFL. Their data collection was followed by the slow and careful work of scientific analysis. In a society whose governmental structures and policies decidedly are not guided by the Precautionary Principle today, and where there are no efficient mechanisms by which to correct past regulatory errors—no matter how grave—these volunteers and their three research leaders have provided powerful, incriminating evidence with which the community and its allies will push forward for the cleanup.

View of the Woolsey Fire in the Simi Hills, November 9, 2018. Photo by David Orenstein.

Their findings, which stand in stark contrast to the DTSC claim of no significant contamination, documented the presence of radioactivity linked with the fire at SSFL as far as nine miles away and as high as 19 times that of background level. While most of the 360 samples of household dust, surface soils, and ash from 150 homes and other sample sites, collected from December 2018 through February 2019, were at background levels, those that were elevated show that “Woolsey Fire ash did, in fact, spread SSFL-related radioactive microparticles.” The authors also wrote, “Excessive alpha radiation in small particles is of particular interest because of the relatively high risk of inhalation-related long-term biological damage from internal alpha emitters compared to external radiation.”

I read these words as both a public health researcher and one who grew up within that study zone. I was raised about seven miles from SSFL as the bird flies, from age two in 1966. The Simi Hills, part of the central Transverse Ranges, were the far western edge of my beloved view from our backyard, its lower areas grassland and oaks, rising to chapparal shrubland and woodlands and rockier zones.

I cannot help but wonder what it means to the lives of those of us who grew up in the surrounding communities, that we played in the dirt, or out in the autumn Santa Ana winds, or in the then-typical winter rains, in proximity to such contamination. The sonic booms of the site’s tens of thousands of rocket engine tests were a frequent feature of our time outdoors. With each boom, we would pause for a moment and say, “Rocketdyne,” but our parents could not have been expected to know more than that.

What did all the fathers who worked there (not mine, thankfully) know and feel about what they were bringing home to their children, and what were they not allowed to say?

The same year Rose and Hirsch embarked on their campaign to bring attention to the SSFL partial nuclear meltdown, my older brother was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor at age 17, which he, thankfully, survived. The ongoing repercussions of his experience inform my professional and activist commitments.

Hence, I feel a special bond with Melissa Bumstead, an area resident who lives with her family three miles from the site. Bumstead became an “accidental activist,” tirelessly working for the complete, legally binding SSFL cleanup after her four-year-old daughter was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of leukemia in 2014. Her daughter survived.

While her child was in treatment, Bumstead met other parents nursing children through various cancer diagnoses including Rhabdomyoscaroma, Ewing Sarcoma, and Optic Pathway Hypothalamic Glioma (eye-brain) cancer, neuroblastoma, and others. Some of those children were ultimately not as fortunate as her daughter. Bumstead maintains a community cancer map, a shocking graphic. There are various, limited analyses of childhood cancer in the region. However, many lack statistical power, which means there are too few cases to analyze incidence in individual neighborhoods, a common problem of cancer cluster studies. Funding to conduct expensive cohort or case-control studies, is not forthcoming. The DTSC’s “Summary of Cancer Study and Exposure Assessment Activities related to the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (Rocketdyne) Site” page contains this undated statement:

A more in-depth evaluation of cancer data should be conducted that addresses environmental exposures from the SSFL, possible confounding exposures from other nearby contaminant release sources, and residential histories.

And, of course, no such study has yet been conducted. In its absence, Bumstead and her fellow activists living on the periphery of SSFL are entirely justified in their concern that radioactive and other carcinogenic contamination originating at SSFL, now well-documented to be capable of considerable transport, played a role in their children’s cancers.

Bumstead believes, as does the U.N Human Rights Council, that the right to live in an uncontaminated environment is a basic fundamental human right that has clearly been violated in the communities around SSFL for generations and by multiple perpetrators. This right has been violated by a wealthy state, by the federal agencies of a wealthy nation, and by a thriving corporation with $152.136 billion in assets (Boeing in 2020). These are all entities with obvious and stark responsibilities for this violation.

There are additional violations of rights at play. Aside from offsite contamination of air, water, and land, the SSFL site itself (Location II of the NASA-owned portion) contains sacred Indigenous sites, including the Burro Flats Painted Cave. A campaign page for the nomination of the Burro Flats Cultural District to the National Register of Historic Places states:

We fully support cleanup of the site first, and want to make sure these unique sacred sites are protected so future generations of Chumash, Fernandeño/Tataviam, Kizh/Gabrieleño peoples can learn about this cultural journey going back thousands of years.

The Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians has expressed interest in ultimately acquiring the site, but such an arrangement may not be subject to the federal cleanup agreements, were the cleanup not completed beforehand. Scientists and activists have expressed concern that NASA would be able to evade a background-level cleanup—one that includes groundwater and soil, not just the removal of contaminated buildings—through such a transfer.

Indeed, the Los Angeles City Council approved a resolution to oppose any legislation or administrative action that would transfer SSFL property administered by NASA, until the property is fully cleaned up. Clauses in the 2010 cleanup agreement specifically state that the Burro Flats cave, as well as any other officially recognized cultural artifacts onsite, be completely protected during the cleanup. Still, the wary Indigenous peoples worry that the cleanup could potentially harm the ancient cultural sites and native environments during remediation. In other words, the harms and potential harms of this mid-20th century nuclear research facility extend back countless generations as well as forward into future generations.

How did the entities with knowledge and power continue to delay and obstruct while the population boomed and crept up the hillsides near the SSFL, knowing full well that powerful human health hazards were there to meet the communities, new and old? The statement by DTSC proclaiming that no contaminants were carried, while the Woolsey Fire was still burning, smacks of the most brazen regulatory capture.

David Boyd, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Environment said that for him, the approval of the historical resolution declaring a “safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment” to be a basic human right was a “paradoxical” moment: “There was this incredible sense of accomplishment and also at the exact same time a sense of how much work remains to be done to take these beautiful words and translate them into changes that will make people’s lives better and make our society more sustainable.”

Now 62 years out from the 1959 nuclear disaster at SSFL, multiple generations out from this catastrophe, we former and current residents of the region push forward, translating beautiful words into change, with every tool we have.

This article is republished from the The Science and Environmental Health Network website, © Copyright 2018 SEHN. Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License. Source: Beyond Nuclear.

Carmi Orenstein is Program Director at Concerned Heath Professionals of New York.