2015-10-09 / Front Page

Toxic Dilemma

Six decades later, a partial nuclear meltdown at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory is still fueling fires
By Melissa Simon

Part one of a three-part series

The Santa Susana Field Laboratory, built in the southern hills of Simi Valley at the start of the Cold War in 1947, helped launch the nation into the space age. It also made history by aiding in the development of advanced rocket systems and weapons and by conducting nuclear experiments.

But a long-debated toxic cleanup is what’s keeping eyes on the all-but-abandoned facility.

Almost 60 years ago, the 2,850-acre property was the site of a partial nuclear meltdown that released radioactive contamination. Yet only in the last three decades, as cleanup gets underway and more neighboring residents report cancer diagnoses and other major health problems, has the field lab become a subject of intense public scrutiny.

North American Aviation, a major American private aerospace company, built the field lab as a nuclear test site as well as a research facility for the development of ballistic missiles, rockets and space shuttle equipment. Over the years, ownership of the site shifted. Today, the federal government owns about 20 percent, which is managed by NASA, while Boeing Co. owns 80 percent.

The field lab is no longer active. But many scientists, activists and neighbors of the SSFL say contamination left over from decades of rocket testing and the 1959 meltdown may still remain.


HISTORIC—The Coca testing area at the Santa Susana Field Lab pictured in 1974. Only one test stand in that area remains standing today. And while it is slated for demolition, razing has been deferred while the federal government considers a petition to turn the site into a national monument. 
Courtesy of NASA HISTORIC—The Coca testing area at the Santa Susana Field Lab pictured in 1974. Only one test stand in that area remains standing today. And while it is slated for demolition, razing has been deferred while the federal government considers a petition to turn the site into a national monument. Courtesy of NASA

NASA has found excess volumes of crude oil, dioxins and metals, like mercury, lead and silver, on its portion of the site, said Allen Elliott, NASA’s program coordinator at the field lab. Dioxins are chemical contaminants formed during the combustion process of waste incineration.

A joint investigation by NASA, Boeing and the U.S. Department of Energy has also identified trichloroethene, or TCE, as the primary groundwater contaminant. TCE is a clear, colorless liquid used as a solvent to remove grease from metal during the manufacturing process.

NASA’s groundwater tests are set to be completed in mid-2016, Elliott said.

Responsible parties

Cleanup on the federal government’s portion of the site began in 2010.


FROM UP ABOVE—A view of the Bravo testing area at the Santa Susana Field Lab overlooking Simi Valley, taken in 2009. 
Courtesy M. Fellows/NASA FROM UP ABOVE—A view of the Bravo testing area at the Santa Susana Field Lab overlooking Simi Valley, taken in 2009. Courtesy M. Fellows/NASA In a landmark agreement signed that year by the California Environmental Protection Agency, NASA and the DOE, the agencies agreed to clean up part of Area I and all of Areas II and IV of the field lab to background—a complete removal of any material that isn’t natural to the site.

NASA is in the process of demolishing about 40 buildings, including inactive rocket test stands in the Alfa, Bravo, Coca and Delta areas. These test areas supported the nation’s first unmanned space flights in 1961, aided in the development of the F-1 engines that boosted the Saturn V rocket during the Apollo programs in the 1960s and 1970s, and were used to test the space shuttle’s main engines in the 1970s and ’80s, among other accomplishments.

Demolition is scheduled to continue through 2017, Elliott said.


CONTAMINATED—Tarp covers part of Area IV at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory in August 2014, where the Sodium Reactor Experiment that had a partial nuclear meltdown in 1959 once stood. 
MIKE COONS/Acorn Newspapers CONTAMINATED—Tarp covers part of Area IV at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory in August 2014, where the Sodium Reactor Experiment that had a partial nuclear meltdown in 1959 once stood. MIKE COONS/Acorn Newspapers Boeing Co., which acquired its 80 percent of the field lab in 1996, did not sign the 2010 agreement. Boeing’s share of the site includes Area IV, where a power plant known as the Sodium Reactor Experiment experienced a partial nuclear meltdown in July 1959.

However, Boeing, NASA and the DOE signed a separate order with the Department of Toxic Substances Control in 2007 that requires the agencies to clean Boeing’s portion of the field lab to suburban residential, meaning homes could be built and people could live on-site without getting sick from contamination. The standard is in place despite Boeing’s plan to preserve the property as open space.

The DTSC is responsible for overseeing cleanup on the entire field lab.

Cleanup concerns

In March, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry accepted a petition from Woodland Hills resident Abraham Weitzberg to conduct a new study to determine whether any health risks are posed for residents who live near the site today. Created by Congress in 1980, the ATSDR is responsible for performing public health assessments, providing medical education, and establishing and maintaining toxicological databases.

Weitzberg, who tested nuclear reactors at SSFL from 1962 to 1965 as an employee of Atomics International, said that while a cleanup is necessary, he believes the 2010 requirements for NASA, Boeing and the DOE are too excessive.

“There’s nothing like the 2010 requirements anywhere in the world,” he said. “If ATSDR comes in and finds no health risk connections (to the contamination), it could change the level of cleanup needed on the site. I’d rather know it’s safe than walk around worried I might be at risk.”

But not everyone thinks a new ATSDR health study is needed.

Dan Hirsch, president of environmental group Committee to Bridge the Gap, one of many outspoken advocates of a full SSFL cleanup, said the field lab is the site of “tens of thousands of rocket tests that resulted in the release of a witches’ brew of hazardous materials and numerous other toxic and radioactive releases.”

“It is necessary for the health of the surrounding communities that those (2010) agreements be fully carried out,” he said. “(My biggest concern is) that Boeing’s power will result in the cleanup obligations being undone and the site (will) never be cleaned up.”

ATSDR is currently reevaluating whether to move forward with a new study, Weitzberg said.

On Oct. 6, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors voted to send a letter urging ATSDR to refrain from conducting a new study, thus keeping existing cleanup commitments in place.

In the meantime, Boeing continues to conduct only minor cleanup on the property.

Conservation efforts

In the midst of cleanup efforts, a group led by West Hills activist Christina Walsh is petitioning President Barack Obama to designate part of the field lab containing the historic rocket test stands as a national monument. The Santa Ynez band of Chumash Indians, which is responsible for monitoring and protecting tribal artifacts located on the SSFL property, is working with Walsh on the effort.

NASA’s Elliott said the petition asks Obama to protect objects of historic or scientific interest.

“While decisions about national monuments status are outside of NASA’s authority, (we share) . . . a desire to protect cultural and historical resources at Santa Susana,” he said, adding that NASA has deferred demolition of the test stands while the federal government considers the petition.

For now, Elliott said, NASA is focused on completing its soil and groundwater investigations, which will determine its course of cleanup. In addition, an environmental impact report by the DTSC, which will also identify cleanup needs, is set to come out by the end of this year,

Part two of the series will look at the major activist groups involved with the field lab, while part three will explore the health risks some say are caused by nuclear contamination on the site.

This story was updated 6:14 p.m., Oct. 12, 2015.

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