Posted by: Jerry Garrett | November 13, 2018

What Started The Woolsey Fire? How About A Secret 1959 Nuclear Disaster?

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Area IV of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (Rocketdyne Cleanup Coalition)


On July 26, 1959, a worker at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, about 30 miles northwest of Los Angeles, was trying to remove nuclear fuel rods from a reactor in a secretive rocket research testing facility, when one of the volatile rods broke off. The broken rod dropped back into the reactor, starting a potentially deadly “China Syndrome” type accident. The blunder was compounded by other workers who, in their bumbling efforts to stop the runaway reaction, broke off another rod that also fell to the bottom of the reactor.

Crews barely managed to get the reactor shut down before an explosion occurred; a chain reaction that would have followed such an explosion likely would have detonated nine other reactors also operating at the clandestine site. The nuclear holocaust that would have resulted likely would have wiped out much of the greater Los Angeles area. As it was, an undisclosed – and unmeasured – amount of radiation leaked out and drifted back toward Los Angeles and many suburbs in between. It was, some claim, America’s worst nuclear disaster.

Although utter catastrophe was narrowly averted, the crisis wasn’t over, because the poorly trained workers struggled with how to close down the reactor site – and close it off. Their errors might be considered comedic, if they didn’t have such tragic consequences.

In the nearly 60 years since, the various owners of the still-secretive site – Atomics International, Rocketdyne, Boeing and others (including agencies of the state and federal governments) – have been flummoxed about what to do with it. And they haven’t been very forthcoming about what their solutions might entail. This much is known: The reactors were shut down (at least three others also experienced malfunctions) and the damaged fuel rods “temporarily” stored there; but the dangerous materials, still after six decades, haven’t gone anywhere, because the United States has no permanent place to store nuclear waste. So the site remains toxic, volatile, and a source of illness, danger and death (mostly from strange cancers) to the residents downwind.

In September 2005, an “event” at the Santa Susana facility was blamed for triggering the devastating Topanga Fire, which charred nearly 25,000 acres nearby, caused 31 injuries and cost tens of millions of dollars to extinguish. On November 8, 2018, the horrific Woolsey Fire also started on the grounds of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, fire officials confirmed in vague terms; to date, it has burned an area more than four times as large as the 2005 Topanga blaze. Hundreds of multimillion-dollar homes, including those of many celebrities, were incinerated. Some blame Southern California Edison, which reported a “disturbance” at its SSFL-area substation near the time the blaze was first reported; but what caused the substation to be “disturbed”? Hard to tell.

Even though the Woolsey fire consumed many acres of contaminated soil, brush and structures at the site, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control said it “believed” the noxious smoke from the fire contained no toxic or radioactive materials. It was a claim many found hard to believe.

“This is an agency that has repeatedly lied to us, minimized risk from the Santa Susana Field Lab and broken every promise ever made regarding the clean up,” community activist Melissa Bumstead wrote Nov. 11 in a article. “Why would we trust them when the lab is on fire – especially now that we know the fire actually began at Santa Susana?”

“The fire started near the same location, which is only about 1,000 yards from the site of the 1959 partial nuclear meltdown,” said Bradley Allen, a scientist, activist and former resident of the area, in a tweet Nov. 12. He added, “Decades of nuclear & rocket engine testing activity, including nuclear reactor accidents & other toxic spills & releases, have resulted in widespread contamination throughout SSFL’s 2,850 acre facility.”

The Physicians for Social Responsibility group also issued a statement that “strongly caution[s] anyone who [is] in or near areas impacted the #WoolseyFire to wear a mask or to stay away until smoke clears. The potential #health impacts are severe” despite statements by the DTSC and other government agencies minimizing any danger.

But why is there an experimental nuclear testing facility so close to Los Angeles, in the first place, and how was it that it came to be located there?

The lab was built in the mid-1940s, to study nuclear weaponry, test chemicals and their interaction, and to develop powerful rocket engines such as the Navaho and Delta II. The federal Atomic Energy Commission and the private company, Atomics International, chose the location because then it seemed a safe distance from Los Angeles. And, on the western fringes, of the then-sparsely populated San Fernando Valley. The AEC and AI knew the work could be dangerous. They just didn’t know how dangerous. And since the research was experimental, workers didn’t know exactly what they were getting themselves into.

Atomics International, a division of North American Aviation, was merged into Rocketdyne in the mid-1950s (Boeing acquired Rocketdyne when it bought Rockwell International in 1996. Nine years later, United Technologies bought the Rocketdyne unit, but Boeing retained the contaminated SSFL site.)

The fateful 1959 accident actually began two weeks before the near-meltdown. An out-of-control nuclear reaction led to a Sodium Reactor Experiment (SRE) being shutdown. Workers couldn’t understand what happened, so they started it back up again. It ran until the radiation monitors pegged the meters on July 26.

Workers quickly realized the reactor had “run away” from them, and radioactive gases were vented into the atmosphere. That heightened the sense of panic, as the workers realized most of their families lived downwind in the San Fernando Valley.

Weeks after that, the workers thought the glowing-hot accident site had cooled enough to reach the fuel rods. But first they had to clean up the immediate contamination. No safety protocols existed then, so they began to scrub everything down with water and sponges. Mops didn’t hold up well, so the crews ultimately switched to using feminine napkins (Kotex), according to a report that came to light years later.

The workers had no protective clothing – just coveralls and cotton caps that read, “Your Safety is Our Business — Atomics International.” Fully enclosed radiation suits with face masks are used by nuclear workers today; each are single-use suits to disposed of after one use.

AI had prepared an unclassified report for the AEC in 1961 entitled “SRE Fuel Element Damage”, but little was known publicly about what had happened at the SSFL until a 1979 Los Angeles Times report that an AEC-sponsored analysis determined there had been numerous indications of malfunctions at the SRE. The report was critical that the operators continued to run the reactor after the initial run-away.

That’s about the time the 1979 accident and radiation release at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island nuclear power plant heightened public interest in such dangers.

But the most significant discovery of information occurred some time after that when UCLA film students stumbled upon a classified report with important additional details.

A flurry of public outrage helped to finally get nuclear work at the SSFL shut down, but not until 1989. A 2006 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, determined that up to 30 percent of the reactor’s radio-iodine and cesium could have vaporized during the accident.

Despite those details coming to light, progress toward a cleanup was glacial.

Urban sprawl exacerbated the problem; the San Fernando Valley’s population grew rapidly. What primarily had been walnut orchards and sprawling ranches surround Santa Susana became suburban housing developments filled with families.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency eventually entered the picture, to help facilitate what shaped up as one of America’s most problematic cleanup projects. The site’s operators weren’t very transparent; an EPA inspection found three of the five buildings they were supposed to study had been recently torn down – including the SRE – and some of the debris from those buildings had been taken to regular municipal trash dumps. Radioactive metals went to a recycler who unwittingly melted them down, and re-purposed and sold them as new metal products!

Subsequent studies found workers involved in the original accident – all dead now – had died from lung cancer, cancers of the lymph and blood systems, and other rare cancers. Despite an alleged lack of cooperation from current owner Boeing, a further study on downwind cancer rates was published in 2006. It concluded the 1959 radiation release – hundreds of times the amount of radiation released at TMI – had caused an estimated 300-1,800 cancer deaths.

That led to a pledge by the EPA, DTSC and others to clean up the site by 2017. But it never happened (check out the Rocketdyne Cleanup Coalition website for lots of historic photos). The site remained toxic, radioactive and volatile – and apparently ripe for another event like the mysterious ones that are blamed for triggering the 2005 Topanga and 2018 Woolsey fires.

Jerry Garrett

November 12, 2018




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