Thursday, August 07, 2014


Clean-up of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory

Those of you who know me well know that when I came to California in November of 1953 I was employed at North American Aviation in the Atomics International Division.  Subsequently I have also worked at the Rocketdyne Division of North American Aviation.  Atomics International operated several nuclear reactors at a site north-west of Los Angeles, the Santa Susana Field Laboratory.  There is now a belief among many people living near the site that a reactor accident in 1959 resulted in a massive release to the environment of radioactive fission products.  Some people have convinced some elected officials that the contamination is still present and will be for millennia unless a very severe effort is made to “clean up” the entire site.  In addition to the presumptive nuclear radiation contamination there is real (detectable) contamination of ground water from the cleaning and propulsion fluids used in the testing and development of rocket engines.
At present I am part of a committee of the Woodland Hills Neighborhood Council that is planning and arranging a public forum on the clean-up of the site. I have some rather strong feelings on the subject, largely because of my employment at Atomics International from 1955 until 1965 and at Rocketdyne thereafter until 1968. During part of my work experience I spent some time on "the hill" as we called it. I did not know of any disastrous contamination of the site, either by radioactive fission products or by carcinogenic carbon-chlorine compounds. At Rocketdyne I did an experiment with one of the C-Cl compounds in which I measured the sizes of droplets of the liquid in a spray. At age 91 I am still in good health and active.
I hope that revealing my own opinions does not cast some doubt on the objectivity and fairness of the planned forum. What appalls me is the story that there was a disastrous reactor meltdown at the SRE reactor in 1959 which contaminated the soil of the whole field laboratory so badly that the area will be contaminated for thousands of years unless a draconian clean-up is carried out. The proposal is to remove a foot or more of top soil from the entire area and replace it with presumably clean top soil.
This is a really bad idea. First, the reactor accident in 1959 was thoroughly reported in several unclassified documents. Nearly all, if not all, the fission products from the damaged fuel elements stayed in the sodium coolant and did not leave the reactor itself. The comparison with the accident at the Three Mile Island Reactor in Pennsylvania is wrong. Three-Mile's reactors were WATER COOLED. The heat boiled off the water and exposed the bare fuel elements The SRE was cooled by liquid SODIUM, which boils at some temperature around 1200 degrees F. I am convinced that the area was never seriously contaminated with fission products.
Second, even if some radiological contamination did happen, it happened more than 50 years ago and nearly all of it would be long gone by now. Radioactive nuclides do not last forever.
Third, the contamination that is now of real concern is the seepage of the various carcinogenic cleaners and rocket engine fuels into the ground water. Wells may be slightly contaminated with TCE and other carcinogens. Removing and replacing top soil won't solve this problem at all.
Hence, the proposed clean-up by removing and replacing more than a million cubic yards of soil is both unnecessary and ineffective in dealing with the existing pollution problem. It is also a horrible waste of taxpayers' money.

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