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A Nuclear Incident "Worse Than Three Mile Island"

Air Date: Week of

The Former Sodium Reactor Experiment Containment Building where the 1959 meltdown occurred. (Courtesy of DOE)

In 1959 a partial meltdown occurred at the Boeing-Rocketdyne nuclear testing facility, about 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. The incident released the third greatest amount of radioactive iodine in nuclear history. But no one really heard about it until Boeing recently settled a class-action suit filed by local residents. The plaintiffs complained of nuclear-related cancers and thyroid abnormalities caused by proximity to the facility. Host Steve Curwood talks with Dr. Arjun Makhijani, who provided scientific testimony for the case, and Bonnie Klea, who was a secretary at the Boeing facility for eleven years following the 1959 accident.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

Nuclear power plant accidents. Chernobyl in the Ukraine, Windscale in the UK, and… the Santa Susana Field Lab in California. Those incidents are the top three releasers of radioactive iodine in nuclear power history. But number three slipped largely under the radar.

The Boeing-Rocketdyne Nuclear Facility, also referred to as the Santa Susana Field Lab, is located about 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, near the Simi Valley area. And in 1959, a clogged coolant channel in a 20-megawatt nuclear reactor lead to the melting of 30 percent of the fuel elements in the reactor core.

The Former Sodium Reactor Experiment Containment Building where the 1959 meltdown occurred. (Courtesy of DOE)

Iodine-131 – that is, radioactive iodine – was released in doses estimated up to 100 times that of Three Mile Island, enough to cause various types of cancers and thyroid abnormalities, particularly in children under the age of 15. And while radioactive iodine only has an eight day half life, that’s more than enough time to get into the local dairy cows and contaminate the milk supply.

The facility also released many other radioactive materials, as well as other toxic chemicals, over a period of years. After an eight-year-long court battle, more than 100 local residents reached a settlement with Boeing-Rocketdyne.

Dr. Arjun Makhijani provided scientific testimony for the plaintiffs. He’s the president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research and a former advisor to the EPA on nuclear matters. Hello, sir.


CURWOOD: So, tell me the story of what happened in California. Now why is it that nobody ever heard about this?

MAKHIJANI: Well, it was a sodium-cooled reactor that had had a problem that had been detected in terms of contamination in the core, and they ran the reactor anyway. And then, in the middle of July, they had a partial meltdown and there was a release of radiation. The iodine-131 releases were between, I estimate, somewhere between 80 and 100 times bigger than the iodine-131 releases from Three Mile Island.

And there had been a reactor accident at Windscale in Britain two years prior which had an even larger release of iodine from there. And after attempting to sort of cover it up, or hide the consequences, in a day or two the British authorities decided to go largely public. They collected milk from a 200-square-mile area – I believe half a million gallons, if I remember the number correctly – and they dumped it. So they actually went and sampled the milk, collected it.

And I felt that at the time of the Rocketdyne accident, in 1959, that that example was available to the authorities. And yet, despite that public health example, they did not follow a sound procedure. And then the officials concluded that, “ah, well, although we don’t really understand the accident, we don’t think anything was released;” and that became the accepted theory for 45 years.

So, essentially, people were led to believe that there were no serious releases of radioactivity, especially in terms of iodine, from this accident. And so the subsidiary questions as to who was hurt, whether somebody got thyroid cancer, and so on, were not really raised until this lawsuit was filed.

CURWOOD: Just briefly explain the science of why iodine-131 would be of interest involving people’s health.

MAKHIJANI: Yes. Now, iodine-131 is a radioactive form of iodine – very radioactive – that’s produced in nuclear reactors when uranium is split and we generate energy. It’s the same as iodine in terms of how the body recognizes it, chemistry, so it goes to the thyroid. But when it gets to the thyroid, the radiation damages the thyroid – increases risk of cancer, and, at certain levels, increases risk of hypothyroidism, because part of the thyroid gets destroyed in children. It can have developmental effects.

CURWOOD: Now, you were brought in as an expert witness on the nuclear questions here. What was the lawsuit all about?

MAKHIJANI: Well the lawsuit was filed by neighbors of this plant, essentially alleging that the plant’s operation had caused a variety of health effects, especially cancers. Radioactivity wasn’t the only type of thing that was emitted from the site. They had chemicals, they had chromium, they had heavy metals, and so on. So it was a complicated case.

My own involvement as an expert involved primarily the radioactivity at the site, and estimating how much was released. The facility itself was quite complex. They had a huge number of activities. And I did report that if they wanted me to study everything it would take years and cost millions, and, of course, there were not the years available, nor the millions, to do it.

CURWOOD: Now, going back over the records that were kept by Boeing, apparently there’s some large gaps in those records. Can you fill in any of those parts for us of what might be found?

MAKHIJANI: Well, that’s partly what we did in arriving at the estimates of how much iodine was released. Our best estimate was about 1,300 curies. That would make it the third largest release of iodine-131 in a reactor accident in the history of nuclear power. First there was Chernobyl; then Windscale in England in 1957; and the third-worst would be this sodium-reactor experiment in Simi Valley. Because the records were incomplete, and the investigations were incomplete, it was like solving a mystery with partial information. And so essentially we filled in the gaps through scientific analysis.

CURWOOD: Arjun Makhijani is president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. Thank you, sir.

MAKHIJANI: Thank you very much, Steve.

Aerial view of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, which includes both the developed land (facilities and buildings) and undeveloped land (buffer zone) shown in the picture. (Courtesy of DOE)

CURWOOD: The 1959 nuclear power accident is one of a series of chemical contaminations, radiological mishaps, and partial nuclear meltdowns that occurred at Boeing’s Santa Susana Lab over decades. And while Boeing compensated inhabitants of surrounding areas with $30 million this past September, a number of Boeing employees, those closest to the radioactivity, have yet to succeed with worker’s compensation claims.

Bonnie Klea worked for Boeing at the Santa Susana Field Lab right after the 1959 meltdown. She lives in West Hills, California, a town about two miles from the facility, and joins us on the phone. Ms. Klea, thanks for speaking with us.

KLEA: And thank you for calling.

CURWOOD: Now you’ve been active in raising awareness about Boeing’s nuclear facility since you were diagnosed with cancer, what, in 1995?

KLEA: Yes. I worked up at the facility in 1963 until 1971, and in 1995 I was diagnosed with bladder cancer. And my doctors asked me where I worked, because generally it’s an environmental cancer, or it’s a smoker’s cancer, and I was not a smoker. So I told my doctors where I worked in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and they said, oh my gosh, we’re treating a lot of employees for cancer from that facility. Not just the scientists, but the janitors and the secretaries. And one of my doctors said we’ve even gone so far as to write the company a letter to ask them what are they doing to their employees.

CURWOOD: So you weren’t there for the ’59 meltdown though?

KLEA: No, I was there in ’63. That happened ’59, but we had another meltdown in ’64, which is just becoming public now, as far as I know. They had 80 percent of the cladding on the fuel rods melt down. And it was immediately shut down when they found that out, and decommissioned in 1965. And that’s been kept secret for a very long time.

CURWOOD: As a former employee of Boeing, you weren’t a plaintiff in the class action lawsuit where Dr. Makhijani made his statement?

KLEA: That’s correct. Don’t forget, when you’re working for a company, and that company causes you harm, you’re only recourse is through worker’s compensation, which I filed in 1996. And eventually, I lost my case. Their doctor that they sent me to wrote a six-page letter, and he said it was work-related. And then the company’s health physicist found out; he went to the doctor and made him change his letter, so I had a little one paragraph that said it wasn’t work-related, and I consequently lost my case.

CURWOOD: You say you attended a meeting this past July where Boeing-Rocketdyne addressed a group of ex-Boeing employees. Would you tell us about what happened at that meeting, and describe the scene for us?

KLEA: Yes. You know, we had a big workers’ study done at UCLA, and their conclusion was that we had six to eight times the death that they ever expected from exposure to radiation. So after that study was done the Boeing company commissioned their own doctors, they brought in four doctors from all over the country, to do their own workers’ study. And so they had a little meeting at the recreation center to tell the employees that their work did not cause them extra death or any harm.

And one of the employees stood up and said, now look, my son died of leukemia, my husband died of leukemia, and I have leukemia, and we were all employees. And, you know, they just said, well, we don’t know about that. And another stood up, he says, I have lung cancer, and he says I had a beryllium test, and he says I can’t get the results of my test back from the company. And so here they are telling a roomful of workers that the job did not make them sick, and most of us were sick or survivors.

CURWOOD: As I understand it, Boeing stopped the nuclear aspects of its work there in Ventura County, what, back in the late ‘80s, ’89. But have they cleaned everything up there?

KLEA: No, they haven’t cleaned anything up. In fact, I’m part of a group right now that is monitoring the cleanup. We want it cleaned up to EPA standards, which is a very, very tight standard that they use for the Superfund sites, and the reason we can’t use the EPA standards is because ther’re currently no residents living on Santa Susana mountains. But they propose to release it for unrestricted use. Potentially we could have schools and homes and children living on nuclear land. And believe me, those of us who are getting involved, our group is growing. And we’re just not going to let them do that.

CURWOOD: How do you feel about all this?

KLEA: I’m pretty upset. And I’m more upset at what they’re doing today, and they’re still denying it, they’re still fighting our worker claims, they’re still fighting worker’s compensation, they’re still lying to the employees, telling them that their jobs didn’t give them cancer when we’re all sick and some of us are dead. And that upsets me more than anything.

CURWOOD: Bonnie Klea, speaking from her home in West Hills, California. The Boeing Corporation declined to be interviewed, or comment on the settlement, but did provide a written statement regarding workers compensation. Boeing says, quote:

"There is no evidence that working conditions caused increased mortality in the Rocketdyne workforce."

And as for the partial meltdown in 1959, Boeing writes:

“The 1959 Sodium Reactor Experiment (SRE) incident was not a ‘meltdown.’ Measurements and data taken at the time determined that releases were contained and controlled in accordance with regulatory guidelines. The SRE facility has since been properly decommissioned and cleaned up and has not adversely impacted the surrounding communities.”



DOE info on Santa Susana Field Laboratory


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