A Nuclear Incident “Worse Than Three Mile Island
In 1959 a partial meltdown occurred at
the Boeing-Rocketdyne nuclear testing facility, about 30
miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. The incident
released the third greatest amount of radioactive iodine in
nuclear history. But no one really heard about it until
Boeing recently settled a class-action suit filed by local
residents. The plaintiffs complained of nuclear-related
cancers and thyroid abnormalities caused by proximity to the
facility. Host Steve Curwood talks with Dr. Arjun Makhijani,
who provided scientific testimony for the case, and Bonnie
Klea, who was a secretary at the Boeing facility for eleven
years following the 1959 accident.
CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in
Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm
Nuclear power plant accidents. Chernobyl in the Ukraine,
Windscale in the UK, and… the Santa Susana Field Lab in
California. Those incidents are the top three releasers of
radioactive iodine in nuclear power history. But number
three slipped largely under the radar.
The Boeing-Rocketdyne Nuclear Facility, also referred to
as the Santa Susana Field Lab, is located about 30 miles
northwest of downtown Los Angeles, near the Simi Valley
area. And in 1959, a clogged coolant channel in a
20-megawatt nuclear reactor lead to the melting of 30
percent of the fuel elements in the reactor core.
Iodine-131 – that is, radioactive iodine – was released
in doses estimated up to 100 times that of Three Mile
Island, enough to cause various types of cancers and thyroid
abnormalities, particularly in children under the age of 15.
And while radioactive iodine only has an eight day half
life, that’s more than enough time to get into the local
dairy cows and contaminate the milk supply.
The facility also released many other radioactive
materials, as well as other toxic chemicals, over a period
of years. After an eight-year-long court battle, more than
100 local residents reached a settlement with Boeing-Rocketdyne.
Dr. Arjun Makhijani provided scientific testimony for the
plaintiffs. He’s the president of the Institute for Energy
and Environmental Research and a former advisor to the EPA
on nuclear matters. Hello, sir.
MAKHIJANI: Hi Steve.
CURWOOD: So, tell me the story of what happened in
California. Now why is it that nobody ever heard about this?
MAKHIJANI: Well, it was a sodium-cooled reactor that had
had a problem that had been detected in terms of
contamination in the core, and they ran the reactor anyway.
And then, in the middle of July, they had a partial meltdown
and there was a release of radiation. The iodine-131
releases were between, I estimate, somewhere between 80 and
100 times bigger than the iodine-131 releases from Three
And there had been a reactor accident at Windscale in
Britain two years prior which had an even larger release of
iodine from there. And after attempting to sort of cover it
up, or hide the consequences, in a day or two the British
authorities decided to go largely public. They collected
milk from a 200-square-mile area – I believe half a million
gallons, if I remember the number correctly – and they
dumped it. So they actually went and sampled the milk,
And I felt that at the time of the Rocketdyne accident,
in 1959, that that example was available to the authorities.
And yet, despite that public health example, they did not
follow a sound procedure. And then the officials concluded
that, “ah, well, although we don’t really understand the
accident, we don’t think anything was released;” and that
became the accepted theory for 45 years.
So, essentially, people were led to believe that there
were no serious releases of radioactivity, especially in
terms of iodine, from this accident. And so the subsidiary
questions as to who was hurt, whether somebody got thyroid
cancer, and so on, were not really raised until this lawsuit
CURWOOD: Just briefly explain the science of why
iodine-131 would be of interest involving people’s health.
MAKHIJANI: Yes. Now, iodine-131 is a radioactive form of
iodine – very radioactive – that’s produced in nuclear
reactors when uranium is split and we generate energy. It’s
the same as iodine in terms of how the body recognizes it,
chemistry, so it goes to the thyroid. But when it gets to
the thyroid, the radiation damages the thyroid – increases
risk of cancer, and, at certain levels, increases risk of
hypothyroidism, because part of the thyroid gets destroyed
in children. It can have developmental effects.
CURWOOD: Now, you were brought in as an expert witness on
the nuclear questions here. What was the lawsuit all about?
MAKHIJANI: Well the lawsuit was filed by neighbors of
this plant, essentially alleging that the plant’s operation
had caused a variety of health effects, especially cancers.
Radioactivity wasn’t the only type of thing that was emitted
from the site. They had chemicals, they had chromium, they
had heavy metals, and so on. So it was a complicated case.
My own involvement as an expert involved primarily the
radioactivity at the site, and estimating how much was
released. The facility itself was quite complex. They had a
huge number of activities. And I did report that if they
wanted me to study everything it would take years and cost
millions, and, of course, there were not the years
available, nor the millions, to do it.
CURWOOD: Now, going back over the records that were kept
by Boeing, apparently there’s some large gaps in those
records. Can you fill in any of those parts for us of what
might be found?
MAKHIJANI: Well, that’s partly what we did in arriving at
the estimates of how much iodine was released. Our best
estimate was about 1,300 curies. That would make it the
third largest release of iodine-131 in a reactor accident in
the history of nuclear power. First there was Chernobyl;
then Windscale in England in 1957; and the third-worst would
be this sodium-reactor experiment in Simi Valley. Because
the records were incomplete, and the investigations were
incomplete, it was like solving a mystery with partial
information. And so essentially we filled in the gaps
through scientific analysis.
CURWOOD: Arjun Makhijani is president of the Institute
for Energy and Environmental Research. Thank you, sir.
MAKHIJANI: Thank you very much, Steve.
CURWOOD: The 1959 nuclear power accident is one of a
series of chemical contaminations, radiological mishaps, and
partial nuclear meltdowns that occurred at Boeing’s Santa
Susana Lab over decades. And while Boeing compensated
inhabitants of surrounding areas with $30 million this past
September, a number of Boeing employees, those closest to
the radioactivity, have yet to succeed with worker’s
Bonnie Klea worked for Boeing at the Santa Susana Field
Lab right after the 1959 meltdown. She lives in West Hills,
California, a town about two miles from the facility, and
joins us on the phone. Ms. Klea, thanks for speaking with
KLEA: And thank you for calling.
CURWOOD: Now you’ve been active in raising awareness
about Boeing’s nuclear facility since you were diagnosed
with cancer, what, in 1995?
KLEA: Yes. I worked up at the facility in 1963 until
1971, and in 1995 I was diagnosed with bladder cancer. And
my doctors asked me where I worked, because generally it’s
an environmental cancer, or it’s a smoker’s cancer, and I
was not a smoker. So I told my doctors where I worked in the
‘60s and ‘70s, and they said, oh my gosh, we’re treating a
lot of employees for cancer from that facility. Not just the
scientists, but the janitors and the secretaries. And one of
my doctors said we’ve even gone so far as to write the
company a letter to ask them what are they doing to their
CURWOOD: So you weren’t there for the ’59 meltdown
KLEA: No, I was there in ’63. That happened ’59, but we
had another meltdown in ’64, which is just becoming public
now, as far as I know. They had 80 percent of the cladding
on the fuel rods melt down. And it was immediately shut down
when they found that out, and decommissioned in 1965. And
that’s been kept secret for a very long time.
CURWOOD: As a former employee of Boeing, you weren’t a
plaintiff in the class action lawsuit where Dr. Makhijani
made his statement?
KLEA: That’s correct. Don’t forget, when you’re working
for a company, and that company causes you harm, you’re only
recourse is through worker’s compensation, which I filed in
1996. And eventually, I lost my case. Their doctor that they
sent me to wrote a six-page letter, and he said it was
work-related. And then the company’s health physicist found
out; he went to the doctor and made him change his letter,
so I had a little one paragraph that said it wasn’t
work-related, and I consequently lost my case.
CURWOOD: You say you attended a meeting this past July
where Boeing-Rocketdyne addressed a group of ex-Boeing
employees. Would you tell us about what happened at that
meeting, and describe the scene for us?
KLEA: Yes. You know, we had a big workers’ study done at
UCLA, and their conclusion was that we had six to eight
times the death that they ever expected from exposure to
radiation. So after that study was done the Boeing company
commissioned their own doctors, they brought in four doctors
from all over the country, to do their own workers’ study.
And so they had a little meeting at the recreation center to
tell the employees that their work did not cause them extra
death or any harm.
And one of the employees stood up and said, now look, my
son died of leukemia, my husband died of leukemia, and I
have leukemia, and we were all employees. And, you know,
they just said, well, we don’t know about that. And another
stood up, he says, I have lung cancer, and he says I had a
beryllium test, and he says I can’t get the results of my
test back from the company. And so here they are telling a
roomful of workers that the job did not make them sick, and
most of us were sick or survivors.
CURWOOD: As I understand it, Boeing stopped the nuclear
aspects of its work there in Ventura County, what, back in
the late ‘80s, ’89. But have they cleaned everything up
KLEA: No, they haven’t cleaned anything up. In fact, I’m
part of a group right now that is monitoring the cleanup. We
want it cleaned up to EPA standards, which is a very, very
tight standard that they use for the Superfund sites, and
the reason we can’t use the EPA standards is because ther’re
currently no residents living on Santa Susana mountains. But
they propose to release it for unrestricted use. Potentially
we could have schools and homes and children living on
nuclear land. And believe me, those of us who are getting
involved, our group is growing. And we’re just not going to
let them do that.
CURWOOD: How do you feel about all this?
KLEA: I’m pretty upset. And I’m more upset at what
they’re doing today, and they’re still denying it, they’re
still fighting our worker claims, they’re still fighting
worker’s compensation, they’re still lying to the employees,
telling them that their jobs didn’t give them cancer when
we’re all sick and some of us are dead. And that upsets me
more than anything.
CURWOOD: Bonnie Klea, speaking from her home in West
Hills, California. The Boeing Corporation declined to be
interviewed, or comment on the settlement, but did provide a
written statement regarding workers compensation. Boeing
"There is no evidence that working conditions caused
increased mortality in the Rocketdyne workforce."
And as for the partial meltdown in 1959, Boeing writes:
“The 1959 Sodium Reactor Experiment (SRE) incident was
not a ‘meltdown.’ Measurements and data taken at the time
determined that releases were contained and controlled in
accordance with regulatory guidelines. The SRE facility has
since been properly decommissioned and cleaned up and has
not adversely impacted the surrounding communities.”