In 1959 a partial nuclear meltdown occurred at Santa Susana Field Laboratory in the hills near Simi Valley—and it was kept secret from the public for 20 years.
Less than 30 miles from Malibu, the nearly 3,000-acre site had been used since the late ’40s for the development of rocket engines. In the ’50s, Atomics International began to use the SSFL for the development of nuclear reactors. Professor Dan Hirsch knew more about the SSFL than anyone in the world. In 1979, Hirsch and his UCLA students discovered evidence of the 1959 meltdown, which experts estimate released hundreds of times more radionuclides than the meltdown at Three Mile Island. Thirteen of the SSFL nuclear plant’s 43 fuel rods experienced melting. The reactor didn’t have a containment dome and wasn’t shut down until 13 days after the first signs of trouble. Radioactive materials were intentionally vented into the atmosphere to prevent the reactor from exploding, releasing nuclear radiation into the skies above Los Angeles. In addition to the partial meltdown in 1959, there were three smaller accidents at other reactors at the site. Employees were given Bactine to clean off the walls. They used Kotex pads, because they were so absorbent, for the floors and were ordered to tell no one, including their spouses. Because the SSFL had once been owned by Rocketdyne, a rocket and engine design company, the site had also seen over 30,000 rocket engine tests.
UCLA professor and nuclear safety expert Dan Hirsch called the Santa Susana Field Lab “the most contaminated site in the United States.”
Today Hirsch leads the Committee to Bridge the Gap, a nonprofit nuclear policy organization that focuses on issues of nuclear safety, waste disposal, proliferation, and disarmament. He is also the director of the Program on Environmental and Nuclear Policy at the University of California Santa Cruz, and a former director of the Adlai Stevenson Program on Nuclear Policy there.
Hirsch has called the SSFL “the most contaminated site in the United States” and has described a witch’s brew of more than 100 different toxins, including PCBs, mercury, tritium, and perchlorate as well as cesium-137, strontium-90, and plutonium-239. A study released in 2006 estimated that between 300 and 1,800 people developed cancer as a result of the 1959 meltdown. Those numbers didn’t include cancers from the other nuclear accidents or the 30,000 rocket engine tests.
A $41 million Environmental Protection Agency study in 2012 showed astronomical levels of radiation in the area. The presence of strontium-90 tested 284 times higher than normal; cesium-137, 9,328 times higher; plutonium-239, 92 times higher—24 feet below the soil surface. The U.S. Department of Energy had committed in 2010 to clean up the site by 2017; Boeing, which took over the site in 1996, signed a similar order in 2007. Yet, as of November 2018, the cleanup had yet to commence.
At 2:22 p.m. on November 8, 2018, Southern California Edison reported a circuit outage on the SSFL site. Two minutes later flames were seen in Woolsey Canyon near that location. Stu Mundel, a reporter for KCAL 9, was overhead in a helicopter and took a picture just after the fire broke out. But because Boeing had dismantled much of the complex’s fire-suppression system, it was impossible to fight fires, even small ones, at the site. L.A. County Deputy Fire Chief Vince Pena would later say the moment to have stopped the Woolsey fire was on the SSFL site. Asked what his thoughts were when he first heard about the Woolsey blaze, Hirsch said: “It should have been put out right away. The fire was very small.”
Using Google Earth images, Hirsch estimated that the fire started less than 1,000 feet from the site of the ’59 meltdown, which means that toxic radioactive materials in the soil and in the burned vegetation were blown by the winds and landed elsewhere. After the fire my neighbor showed me a melted lawn mower on his property. When I didn’t seem especially impressed, he said, “You don’t get it. It’s not my lawn mower.” The winds had blown it from someone else’s house.
When I called Hirsch to discuss the ramifications of a wildfire starting on the SSFL site, he spoke rapidly, bandying “cesium-137,” “strontium-90,” and “plutonium-239,” some of the deadliest substances on Earth. Hirsch said the entire region was “dusted with contaminants.” By one estimate, the fire released more than 40,000 tons of ash loaded with radiation and chemicals.
I wanted to know if—or how many of—those toxins reached Malibu on the day of the Woolsey fire, driven by the relentless 70-mph Santa Ana winds.
The SSFL site sits high atop a hill, which makes the migration of toxins easier. Following the Woolsey fire, an El Niño weather pattern brought heavy rains, likely further spreading the toxins.
Hirsch worried that the surrounding areas, which included a cattle farm, would also be contaminated. The Simi area still is host to lots of agriculture; the SSFL site was originally a farm. Who would want to drink the milk or eat the meat of animals grazing on land packed with radioactive and chemical poisons? Would the public even be told its milk or meat came from the area around the SSFL?
Studies released in 1997, 1999, and 2006 show that those who worked at or lived closest to the SSFL site were at the greatest risk, but with the fire, the winds, and the rain, “close” is a relative term. Pena said embers from a eucalyptus tree can travel 25 miles. Malibu is about that distance from the SSFL. How far can one speck of radioactive material go?
“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,” says Suzanne E. Paulson, a professor at UCLA’s Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences. She adds, “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.”
Ten hours after the fire started, authorities claimed no danger to the public existed despite the fact that they hadn’t had time to run tests, let alone obtain the results. Indeed, approximately two months before the fire, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control was supposed to have released a “decision document,” which would have delineated its cleanup plan for the site. Now those toxins were being driven by winds and a fire burning contaminated vegetation and brush all the way to the beach.
More than 10 percent of postfire samples collected near the SSFL site show elevated levels of radioactive elements.
Touring the fire damage, Governor Jerry Brown said the fire should “wake everyone up” about the need to clean up the SSFL and that he was skeptical of assurances denying risk to the public. When I asked Malibu City Manager Reva Feldman whether the city had tested for radioactive materials, she told me everyone she’d heard from—the EPA, the Air Quality Management District—said there was no reason for concern. I reached out to Greg Ramirez, city manager of Agoura Hills, another city downwind of the site. He also had done no testing, explaining that the L.A. Fire Department and California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection had told him there was nothing to worry about.
Stepping up to do the testing is a tiny private organization, Fairewinds Energy Education, and a group of “citizen scientists.” With more than 45 years of nuclear power experience, Arnie Gundersen is the chief engineer for Fairewinds. In 2017 he worked with Japanese citizen scientists to test the areas around Fukushima to see how far radioactive materials had spread—and to ensure athletes in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics would be safe.
After the Woolsey fire, Gundersen and his volunteers collected random samples from around the SSFL. Dr. Marco Kaltofen of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s nuclear science program, who was also in Fukushima, is working with Gundersen on the project. Both men are donating their time. “It’s a disconcerting way to address a major health issue,” Kaltofen says.
Kaltofen says that so far more than 10 percent of the samples that Fairewinds has collected have shown elevated levels of radioactive materials, including radium-227, uranium, and thorium. “If I had to come into contact with either cesium-137 or radium-227, I’d pick cesium,” he says. “It’s far less toxic.”
Homeowners have invited sampling teams inside their homes to test ceiling fans and the contents of vacuum cleaner bags. It will be months before the complete results are known, but, even then, the effects on the population can take years, often a decade or more, to manifest themselves.
Vegetation has already starting to regrow at the SSFL site. Without remediation the brush could simply wait for another fire to again spread its poisons. With no plan in place for a cleanup, a proposal was made for something else on the site: a park. It even has a name, unofficial though it may be: The Glow in the Dark Park.