Tuesday, January 27, 2015


Santa Susana

What is the meaning of "Santa Susana?"  To me it's part of the company that I worked for between 1955 and 1968.  It was one of the aerospace companies and went through several names and changes of ownership.  In November 1955 I came with my wife and child to Canoga Park, California to start working for North American Aviation in the new Atomics International Division.  I came to the company at the time that there were not many employees.  However, the management structure was already in place and it turned out that there was little room for advancement to positions of higher authority and salary.

How does Santa Susana figure in this story?  Rocketdyne was developing and testing huge rocket propulsion engines to put objects into orbit around the earth.  The objects might be instrumented satellites for exploring other planets and small objects in the solar system.  They might also be nuclear weapons to be aimed at population centers in Russia (Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Vladivostok, etc.).  Atomics International was developing and testing prototypes of nuclear power reactors for civilian and military use.  All the testing and operation ha to be carried out in a remote location.  A; tract of wild land in the Simi Hills or Santa Susana Mountains was purchased for that use.  North American Aviation had title to most of the land. The National Astronautics and Space Administration (NASA) had title to about 400 acres.  I have no information about who put up the money to buy the property.  From what I know about Dutch Kindelberger, it wasn't North American Aviation.  His company worked on projects for the US Government.  The Government paid for the tools, the special laboratories, the special facilities needed for the work.  Dutch would pay for the desks, chairs, stationery, pencils, etc.  However, even these costs were part of the overhead in running the business.  Government contracts paid for the overhead.

Testing rocket engines and nuclear reactors can be a dirty business.  Rocket engines need exotic fuels and exotic solvents for cleaning.  Nuclear reactors require uranium and generate radioactive waste products.  Some of this mix of toxic material was spilled or deliberately dumped.  It was known at the time that radioactive material could cause cancer in people exposed to the radiation, and so the engineers and technicians working with the reactors were careful, for the most part, not to spill any of the material on the ground.  The cancer-causing effects of the fuels and solvents used in the rocket engine testing were not as well-known.  Waste fuel and solvents were often put into burn pits and burned.  No one paid any attention to the effects of the combustion products.

Today there is an effort to "clean up" the toxic materials left over from the operations in the Santa Susana Field Laboratory.  There is disagreement as to how much cleaning up is needed.  Any nuclear radiation is mostly gone by now.  Radioactive materials have half-lives and do not last forever.  Any toxic radiation could be dealt with by waiting and keeping people away.  The toxic chemicals are a different story.  They have no half-life.  They are liquid and migrate downward through the soil and get into the ground water and well water.  One solution is to pump groundwater into equipment that will remove or neutralize the carcinogens, then pump the clean water back into the ground.

Aside from cleaning or filtering the ground water, it's not clear what else can be done.  The radioactive material can be completely removed by taking away about half a meter of top soil from the entire field laboratory.  This would involve removing several million cubic yards of soil at great expense.  The agencies involved in the clean-up do not money budgeted tor such an expensive undertaking.  I suspect that in the end, the only clean-up that can be done is the work already under way to clean up the ground water.
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