I remember watching the movie Erin Brockovich and marveling at the capacity that the big companies and government had to cover up something as big as having contaminated water “nourishing” an entire community. It seemed unfathomable that these companies and/or the government would knowingly protect themselves from potential lawsuits and public dishonor at the cost of thousands of human lives. Little did I know that my family would soon be scripted to be cast in an almost identical story, but this time the story would be directed by Atomics International, Rockwell, Rocketdyne and the Santa Susana Field Lab.
When my brother was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2005 it was almost more than we could stand to hear since only a few months earlier my mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer. As my brother starting undergoing treatment for his thyroid cancer, my mother was diagnosed with a second, primary cancer, and this time lung cancer. She was not a smoker. I remember my mother’s oncologist stating that is it quite rare to have two primary cancers.
I can honestly say that 2005 was the worst year of my life. My mother lost her battle with her cancers and died Sept. 23, 2005. My brother was in the battle of his life trying to beat his unusually aggressive thyroid cancer, which was metastasizing; and I, a mother of two young girls aged 2 and 7 years old, had just gotten my diagnosis, thyroid cancer. My script had finally been delivered. I really could not figure out how it was possible that all three of us had been diagnosed with cancer in the same year until I learned about the SSFL.
The Santa Susana Field Laboratory is a complex of industrial research and development facilities located on a 2,668-acre (1,080 hectares) portion of the Southern California Simi Hills in Simi Valley, California. It was used mainly for the development and testing of liquid-propellant rocket engines for the United States space program from 1949 to 2006, nuclear reactors from 1953 to 1980 and the operation of a U.S. government-sponsored liquid metals research center from 1966 to 1998. The site is located approximately 7 miles (11 km) northwest from the community of Canoga Park and approximately 30 miles (48 km) northwest of Downtown Los Angeles. Sage Ranch Park is adjacent on part of the northern boundary and the community of Bell Canyon along the entire southern boundary.
Throughout the years, about 10 low-power nuclear reactors operated at SSFL, in addition to several “critical facilities” that helped develop nuclear science and applications. At least four of the 10 nuclear reactors had accidents during their operation. The reactors located on the grounds of SSFL were considered experimental and, therefore, had no containment structures.
The site ceased research and development operations in 2006. The years of rocket testing, nuclear reactor testing and liquid metal research have left the site “significantly contaminated.” Environmental cleanup is ongoing.
The Sodium Reactor Experiment (SRE) was an experimental nuclear reactor that operated at the site from 1957 to 1964 and was the first commercial power plant in the world to experience a core meltdown. There was a decades-long coverup of the incident by the U.S. Department of Energy.
At least four of the 10 nuclear reactors suffered accidents: 1) The AE6 reactor experienced a release of fission gases in March 1959. 2) In July 1959, the SRE experienced a power excursion and partial meltdown that released 28 curies of radioactive noble gases. The release resulted on the maximum off-site exposure of 0.099 millirem and an exposure of 0.018 millirem for the nearest residential building, which is well within current limits today. 3) In 1964, the SNAP8ER experienced damage to 80 percent of its fuel. 4) Finally, in 1969 the SNAP8DR experienced similar damage to one-third of its fuel.
As the facts show, we lived in a hot-spot area at the wrong time in history. The first meltdown was in 1959, and as we all know the half-life of nuclear materials can be thousands of years, so as far as I am concerned the area has been contaminated and putting the local neighborhood at risk since 1959. All of the other meltdowns and accidents that happened after that had a cumulative effect on the health of the community that lived downwind from these facilities. Where we lived, we were actually surrounded by four nuclear and/ or rocket fuel testing sites. We were just blocks from the DeSoto and Canoga rocket labs run by Atomics International. We were just blocks from the Chatsworth Reservoir, which used reclaimed water with TCE in it, highly carcinogenic, to cool down the rocket engines, thereby releasing a deadly and toxic gas downwind to those of us living in Canoga Park and West Hills. And of course, we were just a mile or two downwind from the Santa Susana Field Lab itself, which was the worst offender of all.
It was once I had all of these facts that I no longer wondered why all of my immediate family had cancer; I now knew why.
This was the price our family had to pay because Atomics International, Rockwell, Rocketdyne and the SSFL decided to cover up one of the worst nuclear meltdowns in history.
Beth is a pseudonym chosen by the writer as she is concerned about retaliation. See Power to Speak at www.vcreporter.com for website links referenced in the article.