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Monster in Our Backyard

Events in Japan bring thoughts of nearby nuclear incidents to mind.

Monster in Our Backyard

Like everyone, I am having trouble comprehending the biblical proportions of the cataclysm that has landed squarely on top of Japan. The largest earthquake ever felt in the quake-prone country, a tsunami that still has yet to fully enter my brain, and the slow-motion and unimaginable horror that is unfolding at four nuclear power plants.  

As a girl, my number one terror was fallout from a nuclear attack. Bomb drills at school were as regular as recess and our grade school was a hop, skip and a jump away from a Nike missile site. That meant we were a target. The occasional fire or police siren made my blood freeze. Beginning with the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis when I was in second grade, I kept my fears to myself because I was unpersuaded by adults telling me that a nuclear attack could not happen. If that were true, then why all the bomb drills? 

I was in fifth grade when JFK was assassinated. We went home for lunch and I was watching Bozo’s Circus when the bulletin came on: the president has been shot and is in critical condition. I ran upstairs and told my mother. Back at school, I told my teacher who, to my amazement, was still unaware of the crisis. She sent me to tell the principal, who was also ignorant of what was happening. After a quick assembly, we were sent home.  

I knew in my bones that our country was now more vulnerable to attack than it had been the day before. Again, the adults assured me that we were completely safe. And again, I wondered why nothing else was on television for four entire days if the assasination did not affect our safety.  I saw a lot of grown-ups crying like babies and I figured some of them were just plain scared. 

While I was safely in Chicago, a truly dangerous event had occurred on the West Coast.  In July of 1959, the summer that I turned 6years old, there was a partial nuclear meltdown at the Rocketdyne facility above Simi Valley. For two weeks, unknown amounts of radiation were secretly vented out over the west San Fernando Valley and beyond.  

Rocketdyne was quietly experimenting with nuclear reactors at the Santa Susana Field Lab. One of the 10 reactors had been acting up. Unknown to the plant operators at the time was the fact that fuel rods had begun to melt when the cooling system failed. Ignorant of the cause, those operators made some very bad decisions. When the sodium reactor experiment would suddenly get very hot, they would shut it down, vent the accumulating radiation, let the core cool off, and then restart the reactor. This was repeated for two full weeks. 

This reckless and hidden release of radiation was finally revealed  to the public in 1979, when UCLA researchers stumbled upon a press release about the event which claimed that no radiation had been released and the public was in no danger at any time.    

In the ensuing decades, experiments and weapons testing spewed hazardous materials across the field lab. This included not only radioactive contaminents but also a witch’s brew of toxic chemicals and heavy metals. To this day, none of the hazardous stew has been cleaned up. Instead, the toxins have permeated the soil and rocks and found their way onto nearby properties. They have contaminated the ground water, the wells and the creeks. They have been burned into cinders by wildfires and dispersed by the Santa Anas over the Valley and Ventura County. 

It has been 51 years since the partial meltdown and still the parties that fouled the Santa Susana Field Lab have yet to begin any meaningful clean up. The Department of Energy, NASA and the State of California signed an agreement to abide by the state law (SB 990) requiring them to scrub the area clean. But the main culprit, Rocketdyne, has been absorbed by the Boeing Company and instead of cleaning up their own galactic-sized toxic mess, Boeing chose instead to sue over the state law. Boeing claims that the law violates its constitutional rights.  

So here we are, still downwind and downstream from the worst nuclear accident in our country’s history. It was estimated that hundreds of times more radiation was released during the 1959 meltdown than was released during the 1979 Three Mile Island near-disaster. 

If this is not alright with you, if you understand how much harm has been visited on innocent residents for two generations, if you want some answers and some action, then write to your elected representatives. Tell Boeing that it is unacceptable. Yell at the tops of your lungs and demand better treatment by your government and your society.   

And as you learn more about what happened right here in our backyard in 1959 and what still remains a dangerous presence in 2011, you get a glimpse of the enormity of the disaster unfolding in Japan. If we can’t clean up our own very old mess, what could their future possibly hold?

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*Joan Trossman Bien has written about the Santa Susana Field Lab nuclear meltdown for Miller McCune Research Center and ChinaDialogue, an international environmental Web site. Enviroreporter.com is the Web site of Michael Collins, Joan's Miller McCune writing partner, who has been writing award-winning articles about the subject since 1997.

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