The Nuclear Waste Dump Hiding in LA

I grew up in Los Angeles and work on nuclear safety, but I just learned recently that a nuclear reactor melted down in our area. In a shocking reminder of the perils of nuclear energy, that radioactive release (and releases from other nuclear work and rocket engine tests at the site) has left behind a toxic legacy. Federally-funded studies have found that contaminants have migrated offsite and there are markedly elevated rates for key cancers associated with proximity to the site.

The Santa Susana Field Laboratory was established seventy years ago as a remote site for work too dangerous to conduct near communities. It’s situated on a rise on the north-west end of the Los Angeles Valley. What was once sparsely inhabited is now a packed community of 150,000 living within five miles of the site and more than half a million people living within 10 miles.

To the north, the community of Simi Valley. To the southwest, Thousand Oaks. And to the east, Chatsworth, Canoga Park, and West Hills. From these suburban streets, the hills around Santa Susana provide a beautiful backdrop of round sandstone and golden grass. But the picturesque view hides a secret—the fact that Santa Susana Field Laboratory is one of the most contaminated sites in California.

The site is no longer active; that doesn’t mean it’s benign. Over the years Santa Susana hosted a variety of activities, including ten nuclear reactors, a rocket engine testing facility, and multiple open-air “burn pits” where radioactively and chemically contaminated items were “disposed of” through burning. These activities left their mark. In 1959, one of the nuclear reactors partially melted down, an incident that scientists estimate may have released more radioactive iodine than Three Mile Island. And rocket-engine testing released toxic chemicals like TCE, dioxins, PCBs, and heavy metals. Wind and rain, and fires like the Woolsey Fire that burned 80 percent of the site in 2018, continue to carry contaminates from the site into the neighborhoods that have grown up around it.

All of this history is known, and really, none of these facts are in dispute. That’s why community members like Melissa Bumstead and Lauren Hammersley (both of whose daughters had rare forms of cancer), community organizations like Physicians for Social Responsibility–Los Angeles and Committee to Bridge the Gap, and celebrities like Kim and Kourtney Kardashian have all been advocating on this issue. The Santa Susana Laboratory must be cleaned up, and cleaned up quickly. But the Trump administration is trying to walk away from its commitments, and that’s a clear danger to nearby residents.

Today, responsibility for the site is shared by Boeing, the Department of Energy, and NASA. Back in 2010, the Energy Department and NASA both signed legally binding agreements with California setting strict levels of cleanup to “background levels.” Essentially, this means cleanup to the condition the site was in before all of the pollution. The agreements also require the federal agencies obtain approval from California for all aspects of the cleanup. This was the right deal to make; NRDC strongly supported the deal then, and still does to this day. 

But now the Department of Energy and NASA seem to be trying to shirk their obligations.

First, the Energy Department issued a Final Environmental Impact Statement for remediation of the areas of the Field Lab it is responsible for. This is a legally required document designed to set forth the harms for the public, as well as the plan to mitigate those harms. In this document, the Department acknowledges that most of what it is considering violates its agreement with California, but it provides one-sided assurance that it will negotiate these points with California. Then in September, the Energy Department issued decisions to demolish multiple buildings without California’s consent, directly contradicting the cleanup obligations spelled out in the agreement.

NASA seems to be taking a similar course; in October it published a supplemental environmental impact statement proposing alternatives that would leave most of the contamination not cleaned up, in violation of its agreement with California. Absurdly, NASA argues that each of the alternatives it considers provides the same health benefits even though all but one of the alternatives would abandon in place most of the contaminated soil. It presented this information at “public meetings” in November but called the police when members of the public tried to share their concerns that NASA’s alternatives would breach the agreement to reach the required “background levels.” In short, NASA is setting itself up to violate the binding cleanup standards set by California and doesn’t seem to want the public to know that’s what it’s doing.

But under their agreements with California, and also under the primary hazardous waste law, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the Energy Department and NASA don’t have the authority to choose how much they must clean up and how much contamination they can abandon in place. This authority is California’s alone.

Luckily, the state of California is on top of it, closely monitoring the situation. Both the California EPA and the Department of Toxic Substances Control strongly reminded the Energy Department of its obligations and that the state would enforce the cleanup agreement. Should NASA follow through on any of the alternatives it has considered that would ignore its obligations, we are hopeful California stands ready again.

But enough is enough for all of this. The cleanup agreements are well thought out documents, have broad public support, and it’s readily apparent that the neighbors of Santa Susana Field Laboratory will continue to be at risk until the Department of Energy, NASA, and Boeing meet their full obligations to clean up the site. We stand beside California, local organizations, and community members to ensure that these toxic remnants will be removed and the site cleaned up so the nearby residents can live in safety and peace.

About the Authors

Caroline Reiser

Nuclear Energy Legal Fellow, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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