Saturday, February 28, 2004

Breeder Reactor Meltdown in 1959

For my friends who were asking about this: in the LATimes this week, we have news of a breeder reactor meltdown in 1959 in Calabasas.
    A 1959 nuclear meltdown at Rocketdyne's Santa Susana Field Laboratory near Simi Valley released far more radiation than was previously known and likely contributed to some area residents developing deadly cancers and other illnesses, according to experts hired by the plaintiffs in a lawsuit pending against the lab's operator.

    A representative for Rocketdyne's parent company, Boeing Co., called the experts' findings little more than speculation.

    Two experts found that the July 1959 meltdown of an experimental breeder reactor released 15 to 260 times more deadly radiation than was released during the 1979 nuclear reactor disaster in Three Mile Island, Pa.

    Arjun Makhijani, a nuclear engineer and president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park, Md., and Bernd Franke, an expert on nuclear contamination and scientific director of the institute in Heidelberg, Germany, made the conclusions.

    "At the time of the meltdown and for decades to follow, defendants successfully covered up the seriousness of the disaster and the impact it had on the residents of the two neighboring valleys," the declaration states. "Only now, during plaintiffs' experts' analysis of the incident, has the truth come to light."

    Rocketdyne's 2,700-acre field laboratory, perched on a rugged plateau in the Simi Hills, is best known as a rocket engine test site for the Air Force and NASA.

    But from the 1950s through the 1980s, Rocketdyne conducted nuclear research on a portion of the lab site for the government. The work included the operation of small nuclear test reactors and recycling of highly contaminated spent fuel from nuclear fuel rods.

    The partial meltdown was not widely publicized until 20 years after the incident. The company later said there had been no danger to the public or workers.

As for any effects on humans, this is what is said in the article:
    "Their statements add nothing new to the debate and are based on speculative assumptions," said Boeing spokesman Dan Beck. "It's a lot of theory, but there's no scientific evidence of a public health threat or a threat to property as a result of operations at Rocketdyne."

    Moreover, Beck said, three cancer studies conducted by the federal government over the last several years found that rates for thyroid cancer among nearby residents were not higher than levels in the general population.

    For more than three decades, Rocketdyne conducted nuclear research at the Santa Susana Field Lab on behalf of the federal government. Public disclosure in 1989 of lingering, low-level contamination from past nuclear projects sparked a public furor and prompted Rocketdyne to halt nuclear operations there the following year. Cleanup of contaminated facilities continues to this day.

    Eight scientific experts, including two associated with an international energy and environmental watchdog group, submitted their findings on radiation and chemical exposure on Feb. 12 to the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles as part of the 6-year-old lawsuit against Boeing. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit include more than 120 area residents.

    According to declarations filed with the court, the experts concluded that the plaintiffs' exposure to hazardous substances released from Rocketdyne's facilities "in reasonable medical probability, was a substantial factor in contributing to the risk of developing their injuries or cancer."

    The experts hired by the Santa Barbara law firm of Cappello & Noel said the plaintiffs were exposed by inhalation to a number of hazardous substances, including hexavalent chromium, radionuclides, trichloroethylene and a "toxic chemical cloud containing multiple human carcinogens" that caused at least 83 plaintiffs to contract cancer.

    Another 23 plaintiffs with cancer are suspected of contracting their diseases from exposure to Rocketdyne chemicals, and another 17 do not have cancer but fear they will get it, said attorney Leila Noel. Of those with cancer, many have already died, she said.

    The scientists reached their conclusions based on calculations and analysis of 8.5 million pages of documents turned over by Boeing over the last five years. They considered such factors as the number of years a resident lived in the area, weather conditions on a particular day and the types of chemicals that were known to be used at the plant at the time.
Note: this was not a headline article. I believe it was buried somewhere in the back where I usually find other interesting articles.