The United States government deliberately hid “the worst nuclear disaster in U.S. history,” according to experts and an in-depth investigation by NBC4 Southern California. Whistleblowers have also come forward to expose the little-known catastrophe, which occurred north of Los Angeles in 1959 and leaked over 300 times the allowable amount of radiation into surrounding neighborhoods. That contamination is now linked to up to a 60% increase in cancer in the area, but the government still refuses to acknowledge its colossal mistake.
The ongoing tragedy was driven by America’s darkest demons, from dogmatic militarism to aggressive corporatism, and ongoing government and corporate efforts to cover-up the disaster are nothing short of staggering.
In 1947 — two years after the United States dropped nuclear bombs on Japan — the North American Aviation corporation opened a 2,800 acre nuclear test site in Ventura County, just miles from the San Fernando and Simi Valleys — two adjacent valleys located north and northwest of the city of Los Angeles. North American Aviation amassed power during World War II, when it produced more aircraft than any other company and flexed its muscles as an early and powerful player in America’s emerging military-industrial complex. One of its expansions came in the form of building the Santa Susana Field Lab (SSFL), where researchers would perform top-secret nuclear tests involving rocket engineering, missiles, and nuclear energy and power.
“The Worst Nuclear Disaster in U.S. History”
For twelve years, things ran smoothly, but on July 1, high levels of radiation leaked from the Sodium Reactor Experiment (SRE). Workers initiated a contamination cleanup and started and stopped the reactor for two weeks. On July 13, however, the situation grew far more dire: a power surge occurred in one of the nuclear reactors and employees were unable to shut it down.
Whistleblower John Pace, now in his seventies, started working at the facility in January of 1959 and was present on the day of the partial meltdown. He says he has spoken out in recent years because of his guilty conscience. “The radiation in that building got so high, it went clear off the scale,” Pace recalled to NBC4. “They were not able to contain the radiation that was leaking from the reactor.” Blaming equipment failure, Pace said the men working at the facility had two choices: let the reactor explode, a nuclear detonation Pace says “would have been just like the Chernobyl reactor blowing up,” or open the reactor and let the radiation flow out into the atmosphere.
“Do we blow up with it or do we let [the radiation] go?” Pace recalled debating. He was 20 years old. Some workers expressed concerns the wind would blow the radiation directly into the nearby neighborhoods — where their families lived — but with heavy hearts (and upon orders), they opted to release the radiation to avoid a devastating explosion.
As NBC4 documents, “Pace says that dangerous radiation was released for weeks and went whichever direction the wind was blowing. Pace says the large door in the reactor was opened so they could vent the radiation from inside the building. He also remembers that the exhaust stack of the reactor was opened so that radiation could be released from inside the damaged reactor straight into the atmosphere.”
“Each time they started and stopped the reactor . . . radiation from the reactor was released,” he said in 2009 when he began to speak out about the disaster. Supervisors at the facility reportedly barred employees from wearing radiation-detecting film badges, knowing that if they were worn, they would detect radiation “higher than the allowable limit.”
Pace said he and all of the other workers were “sworn to secrecy” and his boss “[got] right in his face” to make it clear. He says he and his coworkers were “just following orders.” “Nobody knows the truth of what actually happened,” he added.
NBC4 reported that “Some experts believe the 1959 partial meltdown at SSFL could be the worst nuclear disaster in U.S. history, surpassing the radiation released during the Three Mile Island accident.” Three Mile Island involved the partial meltdown of a commercial nuclear reactor in Middletown, Pennsylvania in 1979 and was previously considered the worst nuclear accident in American history — even though the secret Santa Susana disaster occurred twenty years earlier.
North American Aviation Knew This Was a Possibility
In 1947, North American Aviation chose the land overlooking Simi Valley for its new field office partly because it was sparsely populated and thus allowed for secrecy, but mostly because it was close to local research universities — where many of the scientists who worked at the lab taught.
But it had a drawback: “Santa Susana ranked fifth out of the six sites because its weather patterns increased the risk of contaminated air and water flowing off-site. Despite these concerns, the company selected the Santa Susana location for the Field Lab,” NBC4 reported. The Atomic Energy Commission, the precursor to the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, oversaw construction and development.
For twelve years, the secret site developed nuclear power for both military and civilian purposes. The site, divided into multiple “areas,” conducted over 30,000 rocket tests during its decades-long tenure (many of which were for NASA), as well as advanced weapons research. It also boasted the nation’s first civilian nuclear power plant, a feat it accomplished in 1957 with the SRE.
Though SSFL went on to operate for decades, during which time the area became more suburbanized and more densely populated, a modification to the facility in 1953 transferred partial ownership to the government. In that year, the Atomic Energy Commission supervised the addition of a new wing to the field office: Area IV.
The 209-acre section of the field lab was dedicated to the development and testing of experimental nuclear reactors, and “[o]ver the course of four decades, Area IV would be home to 10 reactors, a plutonium fuel fabrication facility, a uranium fuel facility and a ‘hot lab’ for remotely cutting up dangerous radioactive material.”
The 1959 nuclear disaster occurred in Area IV.
Excessive Cover-Up, Insufficient Clean Up
The Atomic Energy Commission reported to the public six weeks after the incident that a “fuel element failure” — a minor accident — had occurred but that no radiation had leaked to surrounding communities. This seemed inconsistent with the fact that when they restarted the reactor on the 15th of July, the radiation levels surpassed measurable amounts, denoting a second incidence of leaks that was even more concentrated. Citizens were unaware of these facts and the public announcement was accepted without suspicion.
“What they had written in that report is not even close to what actually happened,” Pace said. “To see our government talk that way and lie about those things that happened, it was very disappointing.”
Behind the scenes, high levels of radiation were found in and on the reactor, and by the 17th, radiation was still actively leaking. An internal government memo from July 17 not only admitted there had been intermittent leaks before the one on the 13th, but reported that as a result of that disaster, “concentration [was] 300 times the maximum permissible concentration in air for unidentified beta gamma emitters.” The memo recommended shutting down the area where the reactor was housed.
Dan Parks, a health physicist who worked at SFFL at the time — with the express purpose of monitoring radiation on site — says the spill was so bad he found radioactive material “lying on the pavement.” He says he also witnessed “Burn Pits,” where radioactive materials and other hazardous waste were burned, engulfing the facility in contaminated smoke. To this day, he is concerned about the remaining radiation: “I don’t want to lose my own life. We drink the water, we brush our teeth in the water,” he said.
While a small-scale cleanup occurred in the months following the leak, it was not thorough, nor did it clear the radiation that had seeped into the atmosphere and environment. The reactor was shut down for investigation on July 26. The reactor was cleaned and uranium, sodium, and other fuel materials were removed. In October, filmmakers came to the facility to document the “recovery” of the reactor, though presumably, no mention of the massive spill was made. The reactor was replaced by November, but the cleanup did not extend to the land surrounding it. Parks suspects the damages have not been remedied. “I know it’s out there — the contamination,” he said.
The truth was kept entirely secret until 1979, when UCLA students uncovered Atomic Energy Commission records documenting the accident and released them to the media. That same year, NBC4 broke the news that a partial meltdown had occurred in 1959, but reporters were unaware of the radiation. The news sparked concern and inspired concerned citizens to push for a full-scale clean up, which has yet to happen. By that time, two more nuclear accidents had transpired (one in 1963 and another in 1969).
60% Increased Rate of Cancer
The radiation released in 1959 (and the lack of sufficient cleanup) has not been without consequence. A 1989 Department of Energy study found radiation in the soil, groundwater, and bedrock on the hilltop — a finding made more troubling when considering North American Aviation’s initial concerns about the location: that the area’s weather patterns could carry contamination off-site.
A 1997 study found increased rates of cancer among SFFL employees. A 2009 study of the soil by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR, a division of the CDC) found “areas of concern” at the facility that had the potential to run off-site. That study, however, suggested it was not affecting the health of residents nearby (interestingly, the CDC grants compensation to people who worked at the SSFL before, during, and after the 1959 meltdown and developed cancer).
A 2007 University of Michigan study — commissioned two years earlier by the very same ATSDR that found there was no risk in 2009 — found rates of cancer increased as much as 60% in areas surrounding the SSFL. NBC4 identified countless residents stricken with cancer who are convinced their proximity to SSFL has led to serious health problems throughout their lives:
- The Selzer family, which has no history of cancer, has been devastated by the disease:
- Three of three sisters have struggled with various cancers for years and recently lost their mother to cancer. The daughters played in, swam in, and drank the water running down the hills from SSFL.
- Bonnie Klea, who worked at the facility as a lab secretary from 1963 to 1971, developed bladder cancer and says people in 14 of 15 homes on her street also developed cancer.
- Krista Slack suffers from “triple-negative” breast cancer, a rare condition linked to people of African-American and Jewish descent. Slack is neither and her doctor suspects her illness is due to the fact that she grew up in Simi Valley. Her mother died of cancer last year.
- Arline Mathews lost her son to a rare brain cancer linked to exposure to radiation. When he was in high school, he ran through the Santa Susana hills while training for cross country. Arline Mathews’ grandson now has leukemia, a condition linked to parents with damaged genetic material.
- Ralph Powell worked as a security guard at SFFL and remembers being covered in flames at the Burn Pits. “I saw clouds of smoke that was[sic] engulfing my friends, that[sic] are dying now,” Powell said. He also worries he carried radioactive material into his home that caused his son to develop leukemia. He died at the age of eleven.
There are more cases like these, but officials continue to downplay the health dangers.
Moreover, studies have found more than just radiation leaked into the environment. As NBC4 explains,
“In addition to the radiation, dozens of toxic chemicals, including TCE and Perchlorate, were also released into the air and dumped on the soil and into ground and surface water from thousands of rocket tests conducted at the Santa Susana Field lab from the 1950s to 80s. The tests were conducted by NASA, and by Rocketdyne, a government aerospace contractor.
According to a federally funded study obtained by the I-Team, ‘emissions associated with rocket engine testing’ could have been inhaled by residents of ‘West Hills, Bell Canyon, Dayton Canyon, Simi Valley, Canoga Park, Chatsworth, Woodland Hills, and Hidden Hills.’”
Worse still, some analyses suggests the radiation is still exponentially higher than government agencies are willing to admit.
The Adjacent Children’s Summer Camp
SSFL is located directly next to the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, a Jewish cultural and community center that has been in Simi Valley since 1947 — the same year SSFL was built. The establishment also runs a children’s summer camp that hosts 30,000 children every year. In 1993, an EPA-supervised study found “radioactive elements” in a limited number of soil samples from the Brandeis property, leading Brandeis-Bardin to file a legal complaint against several entities in December of 1995.
The Brandeis-Bardin complaint implicated every company that came to be involved in the facility throughout the years (due to acquisitions and mergers): North American Aviation, Atomics International, North American Rockwell Corporation, Rockwell International Systems, and Rocketdyne. Boeing would take ownership of SSFL in 1996 when it purchased Rocketdyne — after this suit was filed. The Brandeis-Bardin complaint explicitly acknowledged the extent of the spill, noting it “released mercury, vinyl chloride, polychlorinated biphenyls, radioactive tritium, cesium, [and] strontium” into “the soil, air, and groundwater” and that these elements “seeped” into the environment.
The complaint alleged the 1959 disaster caused “irreparable harm” to the Brandeis property. Brandeis eventually settled with Rocketdyne in 1997 and now claims the land is safe. It told NBC4 in a written statement it regularly tests the land with optimal results but declined to provide any documentation. Instead, it claimed the EPA certified the premises as safe in 1995 — the same year Brandeis sued for indisputable contamination on the property. “Extensive tests have been undertaken for more than 20 years to verify the ongoing safety of the property,” the institute’s statement to NBC4 said.
Though the Brandeis-Bardin complaint was resolved, the Boeing Company’s acquisition of the facility when it purchased Rocketdyne proved cataclysmic for any effort to fully investigate or clean up the still-secret radiation. To read more about how Boeing evaded the truth, manipulated research, and paid off government officials to avoid resolving the disaster decades after it happened, read Part 2.