In 1959, a nuclear accident occurred at a research facility near Simi Valley, and according to a new study, the radioactive contamination from it was far worse than was revealed at the time, and may have resulted in hundreds of cancers in surrounding communities. The study also provided evidence for chemical contamination from testing rocket engines which threatens to pollute soil and groundwater in the surrounds of Rocketdyne's Santa Susana Field Laboratory. The nuclear meltdown was almost unknown to the public before 1979, but is thought to have caused anywhere between 260 and 1,800 cases of cancer during the intervening decades.
The five-year study was conducted by an independent team of scientists and health experts, for which the advisory panel said they could not offer more specific details about potential public exposure to carcinogens because the Department of Energy and Rocketdyne's owner, Boeing Co., did not provide key information. "This lack of candor … makes characterization of the potential health impacts of past accidents and releases extremely difficult," the panel concluded. Boeing officials strenuously disputed the findings, which they claimed were based on miscalculations and faulty information. The Boeing report contradicted findings from an earlier UCLA study that found elevated cancer deaths among workers exposed to high levels of radiation. "The pattern of secrecy and misrepresentation that began at the time of the accident continues to this day, where sloppy practices are done under a cover of darkness," said physicist Dan Hirsch, who is co-chairman of the advisory panel.
The lab was opened in 1948 on a craggy plateau on a 2,850 acre site, in Ventura County. It was originally operated by North American Rockwell, and conducted nuclear research for the federal government before ceasing those operations in the late 1980s. It has also been the site of more than 30,000 rocket engine tests. The advisory panel was created by local legislators in the early 1990s to oversee some of the studies. Its new report specifically focuses on how the lab's operations, which included decades of rocket engine testing, may have affected the health of local residents.
As reported by Amanda Covarruvius of the LA Times:
• As much as 30% of the most worrisome compounds associated with nuclear testing at the lab, iodine-131 and cesium-137, may have been released into the air. But Boeing's Rutherford said data from the site's own airborne monitoring system refutes that claim.
• Unable to obtain weather data from Boeing, scientists made calculations based on varying assumptions about wind speed and direction and estimated the number of potential cancers at 260, with the rare possibility that the number could be as high as 1,800, within 62 square miles surrounding the field lab.
"These cancers, if they occurred, would have been amidst a population of several million people and over a period of many decades," the report said. "The ability of epidemiological studies to identify these cancers, if they exist, in a population that large, is limited, given the uncertainty of where the exposures occurred."
• For years, in violation of restrictions prohibiting such activity, radioactive and chemically contaminated components were disposed of at an open-air sodium burn pit at the field lab, polluting soil and groundwater.
• Perchlorate, a component of rocket fuel, migrated off the lab site, toward populated areas, in surface water runoff. Other contaminants may have spread off site in this manner as well, the report said.
The report also revealed important information about lab operations: It was home to 10 nuclear reactors and numerous low-power reactors, plutonium and uranium carbide fabrication plants and a "hot lab" used for remotely cutting up irradiated nuclear fuel shipped in from other federal nuclear plants. Marjorie Weems, who lives on property adjoining the site, said her daughter, Priscilla, 34, had to have part of her thyroid removed 13 years ago and worries about a possible connection to the lab's operations.
"It's been such a coverup for so many years," said Weems, 62, whose husband, now retired, worked at the lab. "They lied and lied and lied and said there was no contamination. But now we know that's not true." At the time of the 1959 nuclear accident, little information appeared in the media. Lab officials released a statement saying "no release of radioactive materials to the plant or its environs occurred, and operating personnel were not exposed to harmful conditions."
The advisory panel overseeing the most recent study accused the lab's operators of maintaining a pattern of deception and secrecy ever since. For instance, it said researchers discovered that a meteorological station was atop the nuclear reactor on July 13, 1959, when fuel rods ruptured and partially melted, emitting radioactive gases into the plant and the atmosphere. When the researchers requested the station's weather data to try to determine how far radioactive gases may have traveled from the hilltop lab, Boeing officials refused, asserting that the information was "proprietary — a trade secret," the panelists said in the report.
"How can you possibly declare a trade secret which way the wind blew on a certain day?" Hirsch said.
I anticipate that the case will continue to provoke further future actions, probably with no ultimate resolution.