Was There a Meltdown at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory?

POLITICS-On October 17, 2014, a document was uploaded to the website of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC). It went out to people on their distribution list for the Santa Susana Field Laboratory. The notice said:

“DTSC- SSFL Document Upload Notification: FAQ – Was there a meltdown at SSFL? Location: Public Involvement / Fact Sheets.” That Fact Sheet was released on a Friday, but on the following Monday, the link to the document no longer worked. Why was this document taken down? 

Was there a meltdown at the SSFL 

Why is the discussion of an incident at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory in 1959 – a remote site at the time – so important today? The answer is that non-profits have been calling this incident a “meltdown” or “partial meltdown” for more than three decades. Some people on social media reference this incident as: “America’s Worst Nuclear Meltdown.” As a result, local residents are lead to believe that they, their children’s, or their friend’s cancers are the result of this event in 1959 or other radioactive accidents and spills at this site. 

In December 2013, DTSC held a “Scoping Meeting” for their Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Report on the Santa Susana Field Laboratory.   

The following day, DTSC staff made a presentation on the Santa Susana Field Laboratory to the Woodland Hills Warner Center Neighborhood Council (WHWCNC). 

At that meeting of the WHWCNC, a Board member asked the DTSC staff if there was a “meltdown” at the SSFL site. The DTSC staff who were present were not able to give an educated response at that time. 

The following April 2014, DTSC held an Open House. WHWCNC President Scott Silverstein cancelled their Board’s regularly scheduled Board meeting, and he invited his Board and the community to attend the DTSC Open House. This is the presentation given by DTSC at their April 2014 Open House in Simi Valley: “Santa Susana Field Laboratory Questions Regarding Potential Off-site Issues April 9, 2014.”   

That night, WHWCNC President Silverstein asked DTSC management if there was a “meltdown” at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory. The response to the room from DTSC Management was that the DTSC AREA IV project manager was unable to be present, and the DTSC Manager speaking at this event was again not able to give an educated response to that technical question. 

That year, the Woodland Hills Warner Center Neighborhood Council and the Canoga Park Neighborhood Council held a Town Hall on the Santa Susana Field Laboratory in October 2014. DTSC staff, Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board (LARWQCB) staff, Boeing, NASA, and the DOE employees all made presentations to an auditorium with about 300 people in attendance at Canoga Park High School. The presentations for that event can be found in the DTSC document library under Public Involvement and Presentations here.  

When the DTSC FACT SHEET on the Sodium Reactor Experiment was released on October 17, 2014, I thought DTSC staff would have this document as a handout for the public at that Town Hall. Why wasn’t this information made available to the community at this public forum when DTSC knew that the residents wanted an answer to this question? 

So what does the DTSC FACT SHEET say? Was there a meltdown at the SSFL in 1959? (See the link above) 

“DTSC does not believe the term provides a useful description of the events that occurred at SSFL in the summer of 1959. A meltdown is commonly understood to mean a catastrophic failure at a nuclear reactor. The term implies loss of cooling to the reactor core, uncontrolled fission and subsequent melting of a large portion of the nuclear fuel with potential containment failure and large-scale release of radioactive materials to the environment. Meltdown (or partial meltdown) is not typically used to communicate technical or regulatory information. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission uses the term core melt accident to describe “an event or sequence of events that result in the melting of part of the fuel in the reactor core.” 

“The Department of Energy (DOE) describes the incident that occurred at the SSFL’s Sodium Reactor Experiment (SRE) during a two-week period in July 1959 as a core damage incident. At that time the SRE, a small federally funded research reactor located in the Simi Hills about 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, suffered significant fuel damage as a result of overheating in the reactor’s core.” 

“Through the years, numerous studies of this event have been conducted. Most can be found online here.”  (The link on the original fact sheet has not been updated – the DOE website has had changes since 2014.) “These reflect substantial agreement that relatively non-reactive and short-lived radioactive fission products, the noble gases xenon and krypton, did migrate to the helium gas used to blanket the pool of circulating liquid sodium within the reactor core. Following the incident, between July 20th and September 28th 1959, the helium cover gas, which had been contaminated during the accident, was transferred to shielded holding tanks and periodically vented into the atmosphere when levels of radioactivity were deemed safe according to the regulatory standards of the time.” 

“Soon after the 1959 incident, the SRE was repaired and new fuel installed. The SRE continued to operate as a research reactor until 1965. Between 1967 and 1978, all nuclear fuel used during SRE operations was removed for reprocessing at DOE’s Savannah River facility. The reactor vessel and all other contaminated structures and equipment were dismantled and removed for disposal as low-level radioactive waste at a DOE facility in Beatty, Nevada. By 1985 all remaining SRE structures had been decommissioned, decontaminated and released for unrestricted use by DOE. In 1999, the last remaining SRE buildings were demolished.” 

In August 2009, the Department of Energy hosted an SRE Workshop. Links to videos from that six-hour meeting can be found here.  

In his SRE written summary related to the Sodium Reactor Experiment, Dr. Thomas Cochran of the NRDC states: 

“I have been asked to review selected documents related to the partial fuel meltdown.”

“Comparative risks: In assessing the risks and harm from the July 1959 accident, it is worth noting that this reactor is small relative to the power of today’s operational nuclear power reactors. The Three Mile Island Unit 2 (TMI-2), which experienced a partial core meltdown accident beginning March 28, 1979, was rated as 2,568 MWt. Its power was 128 times larger than that of the SRE. The TMI-2 reactor was within a sealed secondary containment structure. The SRE reactor had no such sealed secondary containment.” 

To the best of my memory at this SRE Workshop almost a decade ago, Dr. Cochran stated at this event that, in his opinion, the SRE did not cause any harm to the community in 1959, and it did not pose any harm to the community today. 

At that SRE Workshop, in the presentation  by Dr. Paul Pickard of Sandia Labs, Dr. Pickard explained that any of the radionuclides that were released during the overheating of this reactor would have bound with the sodium coolant to form a salt, or with the uranium fuel which is highly reactive. Dr. Pickard, and the other experts – Dr. Cochran and Dr. Richard Denning of Ohio State University, concluded by the fuel inventory that only about 2 % of the fuel at the SRE would have melted. 

In conclusion, why isn’t the lead agency, DTSC releasing their fact sheet or an updated one, so that local residents can be made aware that there was no meltdown at the SRE, and that this accident does not pose a risk to local residents today? 

Please ask your elected officials to ask for this fact sheet or a similar document to be released so that people do not live in fear that radiation from this 1959 event can cause harm to the communities in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties.


(Chris Rowe has been a 41-year resident of West Hills, was a former West Hills Neighborhood Council Board Member, and has a B.S. in health education. She can be reached at rowecl@yahoo.com. Photo a gift from the Jim Owens Family. The Sodium Reactor Experiment Complex in the foreground. Circa late-19502 to 1060s.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.