The Science of Sustainability

California's Historical Nuclear Meltdown

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The Santa Susana Field Laboratory.

Japan’s nuclear power crisis has planted indelible memories worldwide and revived doubts about the health and safety of nuclear power. It may unsettle many to discover that California, too, experienced a partial nuclear meltdown. The accident, which occurred in 1959, is claimed to have released more radiation than Three Mile Island. The severity of health impacts from this incident on site workers, and to the surrounding community, is still being debated to this day.

Listen to the QUEST radio story Nuclear's Future in the U.S.

Don’t remember hearing about the accident? Not many do. Located in Ventura County, California, The Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) was a testing site for rockets and nuclear work during the dawn of the Cold War. As such, there was an experimental attitude and secrecy associated with this site as these technologies were being developed. The events at SSFL essentially lay hidden from the public for twenty years. It wasn’t until scares from the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979 ignited UCLA and reporters to unearth the nuclear accident at SSFL that the public first learned about the immensity of this meltdown.

The Sodium Reactor Experiment (SRE) was the first U.S. commercial nuclear power plant, and as such, was subject to untested “glitches” in operation. On July 13th, 1959, power within the SRE reactor rose uncontrollably, nearly tripling in less than eight seconds. Radiation monitors went off scale. After a difficult shutdown and inability to find the cause of the problems, workers restarted the damaged reactor and ran it for two more weeks before discovering that 13 of 43 fuel rods had partially melted. Workers determined that a blockage from a contaminating fluid in the coolant system caused the melting.

Fortunately, this reactor was only 1/100 the size of the Three Mile Island reactor. However, it’s been reported to have released up to 240 times more radiation than the 1979 disaster. How can this be? The answer: the experimental reactor did not have a concrete containment structure. Thus, any radiation that escaped the venting system entered the atmosphere.

When the Department of Energy came out in 1989 with the statement that the SSFL site was still contaminated, community concern began to grow. A study showing increased levels of bladder cancer nearby the site showed up. Then there was the follow up report by UCLA that SRE plant workers who had been exposed to the highest levels of radiation had triple the amount of cancer death rates then those not exposed.

Today, the nuclear plant is gone, but years of work cleaning up the site remain. In 2007, the EPA declared SSFL a Superfund site. After numerous lawsuits that ended with a large settlement to nearby residents, as well as community workshops and ongoing epidemiological studies, the jury is still out on just how much contamination from the SSFL site is attributable to the 1959 SRE accident. Because the types of radiation released can remain at dangerously high levels for centuries, the decisions made at Santa Susanna during the ’50s and ’60s may continue to affect residents for generations to come.

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Kim Vincent

About the Author ()

Kim Vincent is the QUEST Content Intern for the 2011 winter / spring term. Kim is a substitute teacher for Fremont Union High School District specializing in biology and physiology education. She has a degree in biochemistry from UC Davis as well as a M.S. in molecular, cellular, and integrative physiology from UC Davis. Currently, Kim is taking courses at De Anza College in film and electronic media. As an active member of her community, Kim has performed volunteer research with the Hopkins Marine Lab, UC Santa Cruz, and the Cal Academy of Sciences. Kim also coaches junior volleyball and enjoys hiking along the south and mid-peninsula.
  • RRRigor

    As a boy in 1955 to 1957, I lived with my family in Las Vegas Nevada. At that time, atomic bombs were being tested at Yucca Flats. On several occasions, we witnessed these tests from afar. As per local safety advisories, it was necessary to cover our eyes at the moment of the blast, until the flash had occurred.

    I remember sitting with my father, in the back yard, behind a fence in the dark of the early morning, and waiting. After the flash and the concussion, I climbed the fence to watch the mushroom cloud ascend.

    I attended elementary school in North Las Vegas. There was nothing much out there beyond the school at that time, and we could observe the open desert and the mushroom cloud gradually passing across it all day.

    During the school day on every testing occasion, I recall unidentified officials in white uniforms entering each classroom early in the morning and passing out radiation detector patches which we were required to wear all day. At the end of the school day, they were collected before we were allowed to leave school. I have always wondered what happened to those radiation detectors, and whether I was exposed as a test subject to the aftermath of those tests.

    While I have had many instances of skin cancer, both of my parents died from cancer, and I have wondered if it was as a result of radiation contamination there.

    • http://www.facebook.com/jon.adams.121 Jon Adams

      You have to wonder? Wow you are just so brainwashed it is absolutely incredible..

      • JALee

        The likelihood that his cancers are due to exposure to nuclear testing are substantially elevated, but proving 100% linkage is just about impossible. Some of the people who were exposed to the bomb blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not get cancer (although many did, and clearly exposure to neutron and gamma there did, in fact, cause a lot of cancer). The incidence of cancer due to radiation exposure behaves in accordance with standard statistical models. Sort of like smoking – if you smoke, odds are you will die younger/get emphysema-lung cancer-cardiovascular disease . . . but it's not certain, and it's certainly not predictable for any one individual.

  • SMHead

    @RRRigor: Have you read Terry Tempest Williams's book "Refuge"? I think you would relate.

  • Kim Vincent

    @RRRigor: Thanks for sharing your story – I bet that radiation data is available if you were interested – you'd just need to dig for it. The Atomic Energy Commission archived extensive documentation, video, and images of all of their testing from Santa Susana. There are sources I know of who could probably help you if you haven't come across them already.

  • Pamela DuVall

    As a child born in 58 in LA county I remember getting x-rayed in elementary school. A van came by, set up in the school yard and we would go into the van and get x-rayed. Does anyone else remember this? Why did they do this?

    • DCP the Lesser

      I seem to remember that it was tuberculosis screening that was at least one of the reasons for it. I seem to remember that it was because of positive reactions to Tuberculin testing, many of which were false positives as can happen in individuals who have had several tests over time.

  • Rene Vietto

    Certainly this was an important incident, but you make at least one misleading statement: "A study showing increased levels of bladder cancer nearby the site showed up." The study you link goes through several different cancer rates, but concludes that "These follow-up analyses suggest that people living near the SSFL are not at increased risk for
    developing cancers associated with radiation exposure." There are a MANY reasons for varying cancer rates in a region besides a partial nuclear meltdown.

  • Jock Doubleday

    Fortunately, Ann Coulter says that radiation is good for you.

  • Dark Penguin

    I just read about this facility in my 1960 World Book Encyclopedia which I keep around for reasons of nostalgia. Although I have lived most of my life in L.A., I'd never heard of this until yesterday. I grew up through the 1960s and 70s, and it's remarkable how this incident was hushed up for so many decades. Nobody ever talked about it, and I never saw it mentioned in the science oriented books I enjoyed reading as a kid.

    The encyclopedia describes it as a commercial nuclear power station currently in operation, although from the article here it seems that it was already out of operation by the time the encyclopedia went to press.