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The Santa Susana nuclear waste scandal

December 09, 2019 Caroline Reiser I grew up in Los Angeles and work on nuclear safety, but I just learned recently that a nuclear reactor melted down in our area. In a shocking reminder of the perils of nuclear energy, that radioactive release (and releases from other nuclear work and rocket engine tests at the site) has left behind a toxic legacy. Federally-funded studies have found that contaminants have migrated offsite and there are markedly elevated rates for key cancers associated with proximity to the site.

The Santa Susana Field Laboratory was established seventy years ago as a remote site for work too dangerous to conduct near communities. It’s situated on a rise on the north-west end of the Los Angeles Valley. What was once sparsely inhabited is now a packed community of 150,000 living within five miles of the site and more than half a million people living within 10 miles.

To the north, the community of Simi Valley. To the south-west, Thousand Oaks. And to the east, Chatsworth, Canoga Park, and West Hills. From these suburban streets, the hills around Santa Susana provide a beautiful backdrop of round sandstone and golden grass. But the picturesque view hides a secret—the fact that Santa Susana Field Laboratory is one of the most contaminated sites in California.

The site is no longer active; that doesn’t mean it’s benign. Over the years Santa Susana hosted a variety of activities, including ten nuclear reactors, a rocket engine testing facility, and multiple open-air “burn pits” where radioactively and chemically contaminated items were “disposed of” through burning. These activities left their mark. In 1959, one of the nuclear reactors partially melted down, an incident that scientists estimate may have released more radioactive iodine than Three Mile Island. And rocket-engine testing released toxic chemicals like TCE, dioxins, PCBs, and heavy metals. Wind and rain, and fires like the Woolsey Fire that burned 80 percent of the site in 2018, continue to carry contaminates from the site into the neighborhoods that have grown up around it.

All of this history is known, and really, none of these facts are in dispute. That’s why community members like Melissa Bumstead and Lauren Hammersley (both of whose daughters had rare forms of cancer), community organizations like Physicians for Social Responsibility–Los Angeles and Committee to Bridge the Gap, and celebrities like Kim and Kourtney Kardashian have all been advocating on this issue. The Santa Susana Laboratory must be cleaned up, and cleaned up quickly. But the Trump administration is trying to walk away from its commitments, and that’s a clear danger to nearby residents.

Today, responsibility for the site is shared by Boeing, the Department of Energy, and NASA. Back in 2010, the Energy Department and NASA both signed legally binding agreements with California setting strict levels of cleanup to “background levels.” Essentially, this means cleanup to the condition the site was in before all of the pollution. The agreements also require the federal agencies obtain approval from California for all aspects of the cleanup. This was the right deal to make; NRDC strongly supported the deal then, and still does to this day.

But now the Department of Energy and NASA seem to be trying to shirk their obligations.

First, the Energy Department issued a Final Environmental Impact Statement for remediation of the areas of the Field Lab it is responsible for. This is a legally required document designed to set forth the harms for the public, as well as the plan to mitigate those harms. In this document, the Department acknowledges that most of what it is considering violates its agreement with California, but it provides one-sided assurance that it will negotiate these points with California. Then in September, the Energy Department issued decisions to demolish multiple buildings without California’s consent, directly contradicting the cleanup obligations spelled out in the agreement.

NASA seems to be taking a similar course; in October it published a supplemental environmental impact statement proposing alternatives that would leave most of the contamination not cleaned up, in violation of its agreement with California. Absurdly, NASA argues that each of the alternatives it considers provides the same health benefits even though all but one of the alternatives would abandon in place most of the contaminated soil. It presented this information at “public meetings” in November but called the police when members of the public tried to share their concerns that NASA’s alternatives would breach the agreement to reach the required “background levels.” In short, NASA is setting itself up to violate the binding cleanup standards set by California and doesn’t seem to want the public to know that’s what it’s doing.

But under their agreements with California, and also under the primary hazardous waste law, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the Energy Department and NASA don’t have the authority to choose how much they must clean up and how much contamination they can abandon in place. This authority is California’s alone.

Luckily, the state of California is on top of it, closely monitoring the situation. Both the California EPA and the Department of Toxic Substances Control strongly reminded the Energy Department of its obligations and that the state would enforce the cleanup agreement. Should NASA follow through on any of the alternatives it has considered that would ignore its obligations, we are hopeful California stands ready again.

But enough is enough for all of this. The cleanup agreements are well thought out documents, have broad public support, and it’s readily apparent that the neighbors of Santa Susana Field Laboratory will continue to be at risk until the Department of Energy, NASA, and Boeing meet their full obligations to clean up the site. We stand beside California, local organizations, and community members to ensure that these toxic remnants will be removed and the site cleaned up so the nearby residents can live in safety and peace.

December 10, 2019 - Posted by | USA, wastes


  1. There will be major reactor explosion and meltdown soon in america. I doubt it will top these morons. They usually go on till they get cancer or die

    Comment by dt | December 10, 2019 | Reply

  2. This does not sound like a prell mixed dynamite explosion. As a former uranium mine workedi can tell you that prell does not generate a high enough velocity explosion to cause a mushroom cloud or shock wave, like this this lady describes this test. Prell and dynamite go off with a thud. Prell is ammonium nitrate soaked in diesel fuel. It enhances the explosive capability of dynamite so that more ore can be extracted in mining.
    I found this on the webpage of a deceased reporter, who worked for the Grand Junction Paper, The Daily Sentinal, in the seventies in and eighties. This was archived in her site. It sounds like they were testing tactical nuclear weapons. More nuclear atrocities on americans by the government and corporations that few knew about, or if they did they did not understand the significance.

    More Nuclear Tests in Murica U never heard of Probably small tactical nuke test recorded by grand junction paper reporter Kathy Jordan

    1972 nuclear tests on Glade Park shook up earth, residents
    The explosion of 500 tons of TNT on Nov. 13, 1972, on Glade Park, as witnessed from the
    observation area. Robert Grant photo collection
    By Kathy Jordan
    Operation Mixed Company sounds like a title for a movie .
    It was not a movie but the name the Nuclear Defense Agency had given a series of eight nuclear
    blasts scheduled to begin Thursday, June 1, 1972, at 11 a.m.
    Grand Junction had been buzzing with talk about the nuclear test scheduled to take place on
    Glade Park about 18 miles southwest of town.
    According to a news report in The Daily Sentinel, the blast went off at exactly on schedule, and
    within four seconds “a mushroom­shaped, charcoal­colored cloud ascended against the blue sky
    as the sound and a slight air blast were felt.

    This blast was the first of eight scheduled by NDA to learn its effects on the sandstone
    geological formations and a variety of structures that had been constructed at the site on Glade

    .December 10, 2019 at 8:02 PM
    People were curious, and most likely somewhat concerned about what effects a 20­ton blast of
    TNT would have on homes and businesses. While those in town waited to learn about after­effects, about 50 people had gathered at an
    observation area more than one mile from the blast site.
    Some folks in the valley said they felt their houses shake a little, but, for the most part, no one
    reported hearing or feeling anything.
    The last of eight tests was done on Monday, Nov. 13. It was a 500­ton blast. It left a crater 14
    feet deep and 160 feet wide , which the military assured the landowner would be refilled with
    dirt and planted with grass.
    According to The Sentinel news story, various military equipment was included in this test to
    gauge the air blast and ground­shock affects.
    Targets included parked helicopters, a remotely controlled flying helicopter, parked tanks and
    personnel carriers, bunkers, an aircraft shelter and foxholes. The NDA was also quick to assure
    the public that nearby water wells and springs would be checked for adverse affects.
    There were reports of broken windows in the five­to­six­mile range from ground zero, but these
    repairs were quickly dealt with, according to military spokesmen. Some Glade Park residents
    reported feeling the ground shake from the blast.
    A friend of ours, who asked that I not use his name, watched the preparation for the tests from its
    He said that the last blast was the most interesting because it was the one in which they set off
    500 tons of explosives. Watching the blast from the observation area, he said that as the shock
    wave came across to the observation area, the sagebrush appeared to be rolling. As the shock
    wave got to the observation area it felt like it was rolling through his body.
    He said there had been three large concrete re­enforced hangars built at the site and that the
    plutonium trigger had been placed on a large tower in the middle of the hangars.
    Before the blast, the hangars were filled with airplanes and helicopters to test the impact on
    equipment. When the blast went off, the equipment was destroyed and the steel doors blew off
    one hangar but the other two remained intact.
    A new Army tank was placed at the blast site, and it was blown two and one­half miles from
    ground zero.

    Our friend helped with the cleanup and said that at the end of each day a Geiger counter was
    passed over the participants to test for radioactive exposure. After one such test he was told not
    to have an X­ray for five years.
    Several of us working at the Sentinel on both mornings couldn’t contain our curiosity and
    stepped outside hoping that we would see something of the blast. And we did. We could see the
    dark mushroom­shaped cloud as it appeared on the horizon in back of the monument. The cloud
    from the last blast was somewhat larger than the cloud from the first one.
    At the time it was an eerie feeling to me, as I stood there looking at the mushroom cloud. I had
    visions of hiding under our desks in grade school as we went through the drill on what we were
    supposed to do in case of a nuclear attack. I also remember thinking that I hoped we wouldn’t die
    from exposure to radiation from that cloud.
    I didn’t feel the earth move under my feet, but I did hear a noise like that of a sonic boom, and I
    got to witness some Western Slope history.

    Comment by Ken | December 11, 2019 | Reply

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