The Worst Nuclear Disaster In US History That You’ve Never Heard About


The United States government deliberately hid “the worst nuclear disaster in U.S. history,” according to experts and an in-depth investigation by NBC4 Southern California. Whistleblowers have also come forward to expose the little-known catastrophe, which occurred north of Los Angeles in 1959 and leaked over 300 times the allowable amount of radiation into surrounding neighborhoods. That contamination is now linked to up to a 60% increase in cancer in the area, but the government still refuses to acknowledge its colossal mistake.

The ongoing tragedy was driven by America’s darkest demons, from dogmatic militarism to aggressive corporatism, and ongoing government and corporate efforts to cover-up the disaster are nothing short of staggering.

In 1947 — two years after the United States dropped nuclear bombs on Japan — the North American Aviation corporation opened a 2,800 acre nuclear test site in Ventura County, just miles from the San Fernando and Simi Valleys — two adjacent valleys located north and northwest of the city of Los Angeles. North American Aviation amassed power during World War II, when it produced more aircraft than any other company and flexed its muscles as an early and powerful player in America’s emerging military-industrial complex. One of its expansions came in the form of building the Santa Susana Field Lab (SSFL), where researchers would perform top-secret nuclear tests involving rocket engineering, missiles, and nuclear energy and power.

“The Worst Nuclear Disaster in U.S. History”

For twelve years, things ran smoothly, but on July 1, high levels of radiation leaked from the Sodium Reactor Experiment (SRE). Workers initiated a contamination cleanup and started and stopped the reactor for two weeks. On July 13, however, the situation grew far more dire: a power surge occurred in one of the nuclear reactors and employees were unable to shut it down.

Whistleblower John Pace, now in his seventies, started working at the facility in January of 1959 and was present on the day of the partial meltdown. He says he has spoken out in recent years because of his guilty conscience. “The radiation in that building got so high, it went clear off the scale,” Pace recalled to NBC4. “They were not able to contain the radiation that was leaking from the reactor.” Blaming equipment failure, Pace said the men working at the facility had two choices: let the reactor explode, a nuclear detonation Pace says “would have been just like the Chernobyl reactor blowing up,” or open the reactor and let the radiation flow out into the atmosphere.

“Do we blow up with it or do we let [the radiation] go?” Pace recalled debating. He was 20 years old. Some workers expressed concerns the wind would blow the radiation directly into the nearby neighborhoods — where their families lived — but with heavy hearts (and upon orders), they opted to release the radiation to avoid a devastating explosion.

As NBC4 documents, “Pace says that dangerous radiation was released for weeks and went whichever direction the wind was blowing. Pace says the large door in the reactor was opened so they could vent the radiation from inside the building. He also remembers that the exhaust stack of the reactor was opened so that radiation could be released from inside the damaged reactor straight into the atmosphere.”

Each time they started and stopped the reactor . . . radiation from the reactor was released,” he said in 2009 when he began to speak out about the disaster. Supervisors at the facility reportedly barred employees from wearing radiation-detecting film badges, knowing that if they were worn, they would detect radiation “higher than the allowable limit.

Pace said he and all of the other workers were “sworn to secrecy” and his boss “[got] right in his face” to make it clear. He says he and his coworkers were “just following orders.” “Nobody knows the truth of what actually happened,” he added.

NBC4 reported that “Some experts believe the 1959 partial meltdown at SSFL could be the worst nuclear disaster in U.S. history, surpassing the radiation released during the Three Mile Island accident.” Three Mile Island involved the partial meltdown of a commercial nuclear reactor in Middletown, Pennsylvania in 1979 and was previously considered the worst nuclear accident in American history — even though the secret Santa Susana disaster occurred twenty years earlier.

North American Aviation Knew This Was a Possibility

In 1947, North American Aviation chose the land overlooking Simi Valley for its new field office partly because it was sparsely populated and thus allowed for secrecy, but mostly because it was close to local research universities — where many of the scientists who worked at the lab taught.

But it had a drawback: “Santa Susana ranked fifth out of the six sites because its weather patterns increased the risk of contaminated air and water flowing off-site. Despite these concerns, the company selected the Santa Susana location for the Field Lab,NBC4 reported. The Atomic Energy Commission, the precursor to the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, oversaw construction and development.

For twelve years, the secret site developed nuclear power for both military and civilian purposes. The site, divided into multiple “areas,” conducted over 30,000 rocket tests during its decades-long tenure (many of which were for NASA), as well as advanced weapons research. It also boasted the nation’s first civilian nuclear power plant, a feat it accomplished in 1957 with the SRE.

Though SSFL went on to operate for decades, during which time the area became more suburbanized and more densely populated, a modification to the facility in 1953 transferred partial ownership to the government. In that year, the Atomic Energy Commission supervised the addition of a new wing to the field office: Area IV.

The 209-acre section of the field lab was dedicated to the development and testing of experimental nuclear reactors, and “[o]ver the course of four decades, Area IV would be home to 10 reactors, a plutonium fuel fabrication facility, a uranium fuel facility and a ‘hot lab’ for remotely cutting up dangerous radioactive material.”

The 1959 nuclear disaster occurred in Area IV.

Excessive Cover-Up, Insufficient Clean Up

The Atomic Energy Commission reported to the public six weeks after the incident that a “fuel element failure” — a minor accident — had occurred but that no radiation had leaked to surrounding communities. This seemed inconsistent with the fact that when they restarted the reactor on the 15th of July, the radiation levels surpassed measurable amounts, denoting a second incidence of leaks that was even more concentrated. Citizens were unaware of these facts and the public announcement was accepted without suspicion.

“What they had written in that report is not even close to what actually happened,” Pace said. “To see our government talk that way and lie about those things that happened, it was very disappointing.”

Behind the scenes, high levels of radiation were found in and on the reactor, and by the 17th, radiation was still actively leaking. An internal government memo from July 17 not only admitted there had been intermittent leaks before the one on the 13th, but reported that as a result of that disaster, “concentration [was] 300 times the maximum permissible concentration in air for unidentified beta gamma emitters.” The memo recommended shutting down the area where the reactor was housed.

Dan Parks, a health physicist who worked at SFFL at the time — with the express purpose of monitoring radiation on site — says the spill was so bad he found radioactive material “lying on the pavement.”  He says he also witnessed “Burn Pits,” where radioactive materials and other hazardous waste were burned, engulfing the facility in contaminated smoke. To this day, he is concerned about the remaining radiation: “I don’t want to lose my own life. We drink the water, we brush our teeth in the water,” he said.

While a small-scale cleanup occurred in the months following the leak, it was not thorough, nor did it clear the radiation that had seeped into the atmosphere and environment. The reactor was shut down for investigation on July 26. The reactor was cleaned and uranium, sodium, and other fuel materials were removed. In October, filmmakers came to the facility to document the “recovery” of the reactor, though presumably, no mention of the massive spill was made. The reactor was replaced by November, but the cleanup did not extend to the land surrounding it. Parks suspects the damages have not been remedied. “I know it’s out there — the contamination,” he said.

The truth was kept entirely secret until 1979, when UCLA students uncovered Atomic Energy Commission records documenting the accident and released them to the media. That same year, NBC4 broke the news that a partial meltdown had occurred in 1959, but reporters were unaware of the radiation. The news sparked concern and inspired concerned citizens to push for a full-scale clean up, which has yet to happen. By that time, two more nuclear accidents had transpired (one in 1963 and another in 1969).

60% Increased Rate of Cancer

The radiation released in 1959 (and the lack of sufficient cleanup) has not been without consequence. A 1989 Department of Energy study found radiation in the soil, groundwater, and bedrock on the hilltop — a finding made more troubling when considering North American Aviation’s initial concerns about the location: that the area’s weather patterns could carry contamination off-site.

A 1997 study found increased rates of cancer among SFFL employees. A 2009 study of the soil by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR, a division of the CDC) found “areas of concern” at the facility that had the potential to run off-site. That study, however, suggested it was not affecting the health of residents nearby (interestingly, the CDC grants compensation to people who worked at the SSFL before, during, and after the 1959 meltdown and developed cancer).

A 2007 University of Michigan studycommissioned two years earlier by the very same ATSDR that found there was no risk in 2009 —  found rates of cancer increased as much as 60% in areas surrounding the SSFL. NBC4 identified countless residents stricken with cancer who are convinced their proximity to SSFL has led to serious health problems throughout their lives:

  • The Selzer family, which has no history of cancer, has been devastated by the disease:
  • Three of three sisters have struggled with various cancers for years and recently lost their mother to cancer. The daughters played in, swam in, and drank the water running down the hills from SSFL.
  • Bonnie Klea, who worked at the facility as a lab secretary from 1963 to 1971, developed bladder cancer and says people in 14 of 15 homes on her street also developed cancer.
  • Krista Slack suffers from “triple-negative” breast cancer, a rare condition linked to people of African-American and Jewish descent. Slack is neither and her doctor suspects her illness is due to the fact that she grew up in Simi Valley. Her mother died of cancer last year.
  • Arline Mathews lost her son to a rare brain cancer linked to exposure to radiation. When he was in high school, he ran through the Santa Susana hills while training for cross country. Arline Mathews’ grandson now has leukemia, a condition linked to parents with damaged genetic material.
  • Ralph Powell worked as a security guard at SFFL and remembers being covered in flames at the Burn Pits.  “I saw clouds of smoke that was[sic] engulfing my friends, that[sic] are dying now,” Powell said. He also worries he carried radioactive material into his home that caused his son to develop leukemia. He died at the age of eleven.

There are more cases like these, but officials continue to downplay the health dangers.

Moreover, studies have found more than just radiation leaked into the environment. As NBC4 explains,

In addition to the radiation, dozens of toxic chemicals, including TCE and Perchlorate, were also released into the air and dumped on the soil and into ground and surface water from thousands of rocket tests conducted at the Santa Susana Field lab from the 1950s to 80s. The tests were conducted by NASA, and by Rocketdyne, a government aerospace contractor.

According to a federally funded study obtained by the I-Team, ‘emissions associated with rocket engine testing’ could have been inhaled by residents of ‘West Hills, Bell Canyon, Dayton Canyon, Simi Valley, Canoga Park, Chatsworth, Woodland Hills, and Hidden Hills.’

Worse still, some analyses suggests the radiation is still exponentially higher than government agencies are willing to admit.

The Adjacent Children’s Summer Camp

SSFL is located directly next to the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, a Jewish cultural and community center that has been in Simi Valley since 1947 — the same year SSFL was built. The establishment also runs a children’s summer camp that hosts 30,000 children every year. In 1993, an EPA-supervised study found “radioactive elements” in a limited number of soil samples from the Brandeis property, leading Brandeis-Bardin to file a legal complaint against several entities in December of 1995.

The Brandeis-Bardin complaint implicated every company that came to be involved in the facility throughout the years (due to acquisitions and mergers): North American Aviation, Atomics International, North American Rockwell Corporation, Rockwell International Systems, and Rocketdyne. Boeing would take ownership of SSFL in 1996 when it purchased Rocketdyne — after this suit was filed. The Brandeis-Bardin complaint explicitly acknowledged the extent of the spill, noting it “released mercury, vinyl chloride, polychlorinated biphenyls, radioactive tritium, cesium, [and] strontium” into “the soil, air, and groundwater” and that these elements “seeped” into the environment.

The complaint alleged the 1959 disaster caused “irreparable harm” to the Brandeis property. Brandeis eventually settled with Rocketdyne in 1997 and now claims the land is safe. It told NBC4 in a written statement it regularly tests the land with optimal results but declined to provide any documentation. Instead, it claimed the EPA certified the premises as safe in 1995 — the same year Brandeis sued for indisputable contamination on the property. “Extensive tests have been undertaken for more than 20 years to verify the ongoing safety of the property,” the institute’s statement to NBC4 said.

Though the Brandeis-Bardin complaint was resolved, the Boeing Company’s acquisition of the facility when it purchased Rocketdyne proved cataclysmic for any effort to fully investigate or clean up the still-secret radiation. To read more about how Boeing evaded the truth, manipulated research, and paid off government officials to avoid resolving the disaster decades after it happened.

 A year long, two-part investigation by NBC affiliate NBC4 Southern California revealed last week that the United States government hid what experts call “the worst nuclear disaster in U.S. history.Part 1 detailed how the catastrophe occurred and how the leaked radiation might be affecting the health of nearby residents. Part 2 investigates how in 1996, the Boeing Company — a behemoth corporation with deep roots in America’s military industrial-complex — acquired ownership of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL). And how since, the corporation has resorted to bribery, manipulation, and deceit — all to avoid cleaning up a mess it is legally obligated to remedy.

The Boeing Company

Though Rocketdyne, the last owner of SSFL before Boeing acquired it, eventually settled with the Brandeis-Bardin Institute over the toxins that seeped into its property, the stalled cleanup now rests with Boeing (to this day, the Department of Energy still leases a portion of Area IV while Area II is property of the federal government and is operated primarily by NASA).

Linda Adams, former head of California’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), attempted to initiate a full-scale cleanup in 2007 when she was in office. She was fully aware of the massive contamination that remained at and around the facility: “Those chemicals don’t stay on the mountain. The population is below the site,” she said.

Around the same time, State Senator Sheila Kuehl attempted prioritize a cleanup. “There are cancer clusters of various kinds of exotic cancers all around this site,” she recalled telling her legislative colleagues.  Kuehl co-authored S.B. 990 in the California legislature, which asserted even though Boeing did not own SSFL at the time of the accident, its present possession obligated it to clean up the area. The bill passed in 2007 and then-California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed it into law, placing responsibility for cleanup primarily on Boeing but also requiring NASA and the Department of Energy to fund the cleanup since they both used the facility over the years.

Ultimately, a high court invalidated S.B. 990 shortly after it took effect, ruling Boeing did not have to execute a cleanup because the requirements were too stringent. Eventually, the EPA — under Adams — stepped in to draft agreements for the Department of Energy, NASA, and Boeing to commit to a cleanup. Boeing was the only entity that refused to sign. Instead, NBC4 reported, “they are operating under an older 2007 order from the DTSC that allows the DTSC to determine the cleanup levels for the site. Something they have not yet done.”

According to Adams, Boeing hired “a large army of lobbyists … to do everything they could to stop a cleanup to that level.” The lobbyists included “Peter Weiner, a former environmental aide to Gov. Jerry Brown, Winston Hickox, a former head of the California EPA, and Robert Hoffman, the former chief lawyer of the Department of Toxic Substance Control. All three left government service and have worked on behalf of Boeing to kill a full cleanup of Santa Susana.

NBC4 details Boeing’s intricate web of influence, which “[includes] campaign donations of $29,500 to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, $17,500 to Gov. Jerry Brown, $11,300 to Sen. Barbara Boxer and $4,000 to California Sen. Kevin De Leon, the current Senate President Pro Tempore and the Chairman of the Committee that confirmed Barbara Lee as Director of the DTSC [Department of Toxic Substance Control].” The DTSC is the entity tasked with forcing Boeing to conduct a cleanup.

Barbara Lee, appointed last October, is still the director of the California DTSC and has admitted “[t]he site has a lot of contamination.” Even so, the DTSC may not require Boeing to provide the large-scale cleanup that S.B. 990 required. “I don’t believe there is a current exposure to communities,” Lee told NBC4’s investigative team. The DTSC is solely responsible for setting the terms of the cleanup, but because Lee was appointed by lawmakers bought out by Boeing, there is little doubt as to why it has not yet occurred.

I don’t know how anyone could be saying that,” Adams said of Lee’s claims there was no exposure to communities. “All the evidence I’ve seen shows there is a threat.” She became emotional in her interview with NBC4, saying she feels she let the community down by failing to launch a cleanup effort before she stepped down in 2009.

Medical and Media Manipulation

In 2012, Boeing tasked a PR team with a strategy to “target media,” including “KNBC,” so as to perpetuate the myth that the “site poses no risk to human health today.” This tactic flew in the face of the 2007 ATSDR-commissioned study that suggested the exact opposite.

Boeing was untruthful about the results of that University of Michigan study, which found rates of cancer were 60% greater than in other regions. The study examined health data from 1988-2002 within a two to five mile radius of SSFL. Boeing promptly distorted the study and asserted it found no proof of health side effects due to radiation. Though the study’s authors cautioned it could not draw definite conclusions and noted the study’s limitations, Dr. Hal Morgenstern, who led the analysis, accused Boeing of manipulating his work.

Morgenstern contacted California State Senator Joe Simitian, Chair of the Committee on Environmental Quality, to assert this concern: “I would like to make it clear to your Committee that Boeing’s claim made about the conclusion of our study is false. We did not conclude that there was no excess cancer in the communities surrounding SSFL. Furthermore, Boeing’s quotes from our report were taken out of context, and they failed to report our specific findings that contradicted their claim,” he wrote in a letter. Morgenstern noted that cancers such as thyroid, bladder, and lymph tissue were both tested for and found.

As he told NBC4, “There’s some provocative evidence…It’s like circumstantial evidence, suggesting there’s a link.” Even if the results are not conclusive, however, few — save Boeing and the government agencies attempting to shirk accountability — can deny they warrant further study.

Though Boeing claims it will conduct a full cleanup based in “science,” Dan Hirsch, a nuclear policy instructor at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), doubts the company’s sincerity. He explained Boeing’s latest proposal to detoxify the site: “…they want to clean up almost none of it…Boeing is proposing that they only have to clean up something on the order of a few percent of the contamination.” He continued that “[b]y Boeing’s own estimate, if someone lived up there, every third person would get a cancer from the contamination,” said Hirsch. “I know of no site in the country that has risks that high.”

Liza Tucker, who runs, suspects Boeing is attempting to skirt paying millions of dollars to detoxify the site. Rather, they are spending money on lobbyists and legal cases to avoid responsibility. “As far as I’m concerned,” Tucker said, “Boeing is running the DTSC right now.” Lee, on the other hand, dismissed any suggestion that Boeing has colluded with her agency: “I haven’t seen it. and I’ve looked for it.” She claims soil tests have been conducted but refused to share them with NBC4. Instead, her department directed the journalists to older studies claiming the contamination off-site was insignificant.

Similarly, the Department of Energy, NASA, and Boeing told NBC4 they are all working to remedy the situation. They all declined to speak with NBC4, providing written statements instead. The DOE said it has conducted tests on soil but failed to explain why, as NBC4 asked, it has failed to publicly admit that radiation was leaked into the atmosphere above Los Angeles. NASA noted its agreement with the California EPA to help clean up. While touting its own efforts, Boeing audaciously cited tests from the Department of Toxic Substance Control, the department they have evidently purchased through the state legislature, to argue there have been no adverse health effects.

Notably, in NBC4’s video presentation on the investigation, one of its reporters attended a public meeting to question John Jones, the Department of Energy’s project manager for the SSFL. “Will anyone from your agency talk to us at all?” reporter Joel Grover asked. “My public people have talked to you. I’ve said all I’m gonna say,” Jones replied, with noticeable agitation. “You’ve said nothing,” Grover countered.  Jones paused for a moment, then simply said, “Thank you for your time.”

To its credit, the ATSDR (under the CDC) agreed last week to conduct further studies of the health effects of the 1959 leak. However, it only agreed after local resident Abe Weitzberg gained the number of necessary signatures on a petition demanding the effects be studied. Some residents expressed concerns that studying the health effects might detract from their 30-year effort to cleanup to region (an effort launched in the 1970s when the severity accident was first revealed). Though Weitzberg personally does not believe people have been affected, as a resident who used to work at the SSFL, he wants the issue resolved. There is no set date for the studies to commence.

Coincidentally, the agreement from the ATSDR to conduct the studies comes as California’s DTSC is close to finishing its report and guidelines for the official cleanup Boeing was ordered to conduct under S.B. 990. It also coincides with the release of NBC4’s investigation last week.

According to Hirsch, as of 2009, various agencies and Boeing had already spent $250 million in an attempt to clean up the site. But Hirsch, who runs the Committee to Bridge the Gap, believes it is still not enough and continues to call for a full cleanup of the area.

The Boeing Corporation may not have caused the spill, but it has long been a key player in the military-industrial complex. In 2011 alone, it sold a total of $67.8 billion worth of arms. Considering its massive budget, it is baffling why the corporation would rather dedicate its resources to blocking a cleanup rather than paying for one as it is obligated to by law. Of course, this is a symptom of rampant corporate collusion with government. Though the DTSC will soon release its guidelines for cleanup, its obligations to lobbyists make it doubtful they will be as stringent as local residents and activists hope.

America’s worst nuclear disaster happened in 1959, two years before President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of an emerging military-industrial complex that would entangle the nation in endless war. While he was still president, corporations were laying a foundation of corporatocracy and militarism that would allow Boeing to amass monumental power throughout the 20th century. It is that power and influence, fueled by war and the profits it yields, that has made a full cleanup impossible.

After countless lies, cover ups, and overwhelming collusion, however, instead of taking responsibility for the cleanup, Boeing has added insult to injury by moving to construct a recreational park near SFFL.

NBC4 noted its difficulties in obtaining information for its two-part investigation. The investigation included multiple Freedom of Information Act requests that produced over 15,000 pages of documents. NBC4 specifically noted that “many of the original documents have been lost, destroyed or withheld,” implying there have been concerted efforts to keep the truth suppressed. It continued that  “Dr. Jan Beyea, who studied the 1959 accident for California’s Santa Susana Field Laboratory Advisory Panel, wrote in a paper that ‘had there been a large release [of radiation] kept secret at SRE, it would have been consistent with earlier behavior in the United States.’”

Though details of the disaster have slowly emerged throughout the years, NBC4’s year-long investigation pieced together details about not only the severity of the spill, but the sordid channels of corporate influence and manipulation that have riddled attempts to initiate a cleanup. Unsettlingly, at the time of this article’s publication, NBC4’s investigation has received little attention from the media — a puzzling reaction to a detailed report on the worst nuclear disaster in the nation’s history.

As Krista Slack, local resident and cancer sufferer told NB4C, “The government needs to take responsibility when it makes a mistake.” 56 years later, the government and its corporate partners continue to endanger the very people they claim to protect with weapons they demonstrably cannot contain.

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