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Santa Susana nuclear reactor accidents, 1957, 1959, 1971

Spent Fuel
The Risky Resurgence of Nuclear Power
By Andrew Cockburn
Harper's Magazine
January 2022


Moorpark, a small town northwest of Los Angeles, became the first American community to draw its electricity from a nuclear reactor. Moorpark’s power came from the Sodium Reactor Experiment, operated by the Atomic Energy Commission at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory twenty miles away. The AEC—a precursor to today’s Department of Energy—invited Edward R. Murrow to commemorate the event on his television show. “Enrico Fermi once looked at a reactor and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it could cure the common cold?’” intoned Murrow. “Here at Moorpark, a chain reaction that started with him washed the dishes and lit a book for a small boy to read.” No such lyrical announcement marked the day in July 1959 when the plant’s coolant system failed and its uranium oxide fuel rods began melting down. With the reactor running out of control and set to explode, desperate operators deliberately released huge amounts of radioactive material into the air for nearly two weeks, making it almost certainly the most dangerous nuclear accident in U.S. history. The amount of iodine-131 alone spewed into the southern California atmosphere was two hundred and sixty times that released at Three Mile Island, which is generally regarded as the worst ever U.S. nuclear disaster. None of this was revealed to the public, who were told merely that a “technical” fault had occurred, one that was “not an indication of unsafe reactor conditions.” As greater Los Angeles boomed in the following years, the area around the reactor site—originally chosen for its distance from population centers—was flooded with new residents. No one informed them of the astronomical levels of radioactive contaminants seeded deep in the soil.

Prosperous and 70 percent white, West Hills, California, is one of the communities that have sprouted near the Santa Susana Field Laboratory in the decades since the 1959 meltdown. Unlike the poor, sick, and embittered residents of Shell Bluff, people living in West Hills had until recently only the barest inkling that nuclear power in the neighborhood might have had unwelcome consequences. “Almost no one knew about the Santa Susanna Field Lab, or they thought it was an urban legend,” Melissa Bumstead, who grew up in nearby Thousand Oaks, told me recently. In 2014, Bumstead’s four-year-old daughter, Grace, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia. “This has no environmental link,” her pediatric oncologist told her firmly. Childhood cancers were rare, and this was just cruel luck. Then, while taking Grace to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, Bumstead ran into a woman who recognized her from the local park where their young daughters played. The woman’s child had neuroblastoma, another rare cancer, as did another from nearby Simi Valley, whom they encountered while the children were getting chemo. Back at home, someone on her street noticed the childhood cancer awareness sticker on Bumstead’s car and mentioned that another neighbor had died of cancer as a teenager. Bumstead began to draw a map detailing the cluster of cancer deaths in small children just in the previous six years, but stopped working on it in 2017. “I had such severe PTSD when I added children onto it, my therapist told me to stop.” But it is still happening, she said, mentioning the unusual number of bald children she had noticed in local elementary schools in recent years, as well as the far-above-average rate of breast cancer cases recorded in the area. A cleanup of the field lab was due to be completed in 2017, but it has yet to begin.

I called Bumstead because I had been struck by the fact that TerraPower’s Natrium reactor resembles in its basic features the long-ago Sodium Reactor Experiment at Santa Susana. (Natrium is Latin for sodium.) “That’s exactly what we had!” Bumstead exclaimed when I mentioned that liquid sodium is integral to TerraPower’s project. “The meltdown was in the sodium reactor.” As her comment made clear, such liquid sodium technology is by no means innovative. Nor, in an extensive history of experiments, has it ever proved popular—not least because liquid sodium explodes when it comes into contact with water, and burns when exposed to air. In addition, it is highly corrosive to metal, which is one reason the technology was rapidly abandoned by the U.S. Navy after a tryout in the Seawolf submarine in 1957. That system “was leaking before it even left the dock on its first voyage,” recalls Foster Blair, a longtime senior engineer with the Navy’s reactor program. The Navy eventually encased the reactor in steel and dropped it into the sea 130 miles off the coast of Maryland, with the assurance that the container would not corrode while the contents were still radioactive. The main novelty of the Natrium reactor is a tank that stores molten salt, which can drive steam generators to produce extra power when demand surges. “Interesting idea,” Blair commented. “But from an engineering standpoint one that has some real potential problems, namely the corrosion of the high-temperature salt in just about any metal container over any period of time.”

TerraPower’s Jeff Navin assured me in response that Natrium “is designed to be a safe, cost-effective commercial reactor.” He added that Natrium’s use of uranium-based metal fuel would increase the reactor’s safety and performance. Blair told me that such a system had been tried and abandoned in the Fifties because the solid fuel swelled and grew after fissioning.

In a March 2021 report for the Union of Concerned Scientists, the physicist Edwin Lyman likewise concluded that there was little evidence that reactor designs like Natrium’s would be safer than water-cooled models. “When I read about many of the current proposals,” Blair said, “it is almost as if they are unaware of all the work that has gone before.” Citing the Navy’s abandonment of sodium reactors, he suggested that companies such as TerraPower “are unaware, or intentionally choose to ignore history.” He recalled that Admiral Hyman Rickover, who ran the Navy’s nuclear program for three decades, would personally command the sea trials of every new nuclear submarine. In that spirit, he suggested, “they should only license a small modular reactor on condition that the head of the corporation that built it takes up permanent residence within a quarter mile of the plant.”

As the sodium saga indicates, the true history of nuclear energy is largely unknown to all but specialists, which is ironic given that it keeps repeating itself. The story of Santa Susana follows the same path as more famous disasters, most strikingly in the studious indifference of those in charge to signs of impending catastrophe.The operators at Santa Susana shrugged off evidence of problems with the cooling system for weeks prior to the meltdown, and even restarted the reactor after initial trouble. Soviet nuclear authorities covered up at least one accident at Chernobyl before the disaster and ignored warnings that the reactor was dangerously unsafe. The Fukushima plant’s designers didn’t account for the known risk of massive tsunamis, a vulnerability augmented by inadequate safety precautions that were overlooked by regulators. Automatic safety features at Santa Susana did not work. This was also the case at Fukushima, where vital backup generators were destroyed by the tidal wave.

No one knows exactly how much radiation was released by Santa Susana—it exceeded the scale of the monitors. Nor was there any precise accounting of the radioactivity released at Chernobyl. Fukushima emitted far less, yet the prime minister of Japan prepared plans to evacuate fifty million people, which would have meant, as he later recounted, the end of Japan as a functioning state. Another common thread is the attempt by overseers, both corporate and governmental, to conceal information from the public for as long as possible. Santa Susana holds the prize in this regard: its coverup was sustained for twenty years, until students at UCLA found the truth in Atomic Energy Commission documents.


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