Chernobyl. Fukushima. Three Mile Island.
The world knows these names all too well because of accidents there: complete or partial meltdowns of nuclear reactors that released massive amounts of cancer-causing radiation into the air, soil, and water.
The Santa Susana Field Lab is far less well-known, but no less infamous for what took place at this former rocket engine and nuclear energy test site just 28 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles.
In July 1959, an accident involving one of 10 experimental nuclear reactors at the SSFL site released a cloud of harmful radiation and toxic chemicals over the surrounding area, including Simi Valley, San Gabriel Valley, Chatsworth, and Canoga Park. The small reactor had no containment vessel.
This accident resulted in a release of radioactive iodine estimated to be as much as 250 times that of the partial meltdown that would occur 2 decades later at Three Mile Island, a much larger commercial reactor that had a containment vessel.
In 1959, the public knew nothing about what happened at the site.
According to John Pace, then an employee at SSFL, the accident was covered up. Mr. Pace recounted the cover-up in the documentary “In the Dark of the Valley,” which first aired in November 2021 on MSNBC.
In fact, the accident at SSFL remained under wraps for 2 decades, according to Daniel Hirsch, former director of the Program on Environmental and Nuclear Policy at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and now president of Committee to Bridge the Gap, a nuclear policy nongovernmental organization.
“Students working with me while I was teaching at UCLA in 1979 uncovered these Atomic Energy Commission reports from Atomics International,” he said in an interview. “We had to order the documents from the annex to the UCLA Engineering Library. They were stored offsite, and it took a few days, and when we got them, we opened them up, and there were these fold-out photographs of the fuel [rods]. As we folded out the photographs further, we saw one photo with an arrow labeled ‘longitudinal cracks,’ and then other arrows showing other kinds of cracks, and then another arrow labeled ‘melted blob.’ ”
Mr. Hirsch and his students found that other accidents had occurred at SSFL, including a fuel fabrication system that leached plutonium, fires in a “hot” lab where irradiated nuclear fuel from around the United States was handled, and open-air burn pits where radioactive and toxic chemical wastes were illegally torched.
According to the Committee to Bridge the Gap, when the 2,800-acre SSFL site was being developed under the name Rocketdyne by aircraft maker North American Aviation, the area was sparsely populated, with nearly as many grazing animals as people in its hills and valleys.
North American Aviation later became part of Rockwell International, which in turn sold its aerospace and defense business units to the Boeing Company in 1996. Boeing, now in charge of the site and the cleanup efforts, is doing everything in its power to shirk or diminish its responsibility, Mr. Hirsch and other critics say.