My students have been asking me all week about the risks of fallout from Japan’s nuclear disaster. Californians have been emptying drug stores of iodine tablets in preparation for the impending assault on their thyroids. (Hopefully they haven’t already started consuming them, as the risk of iodine overdose is far more likely). Nevertheless, the disaster in Japan is horrifying, particularly for those in the middle of it. And it is not yet over. It will be some time before we know the true extent of the damage.
While Chernobyl was the worst nuclear accident to date, it was certainly not the first. Nor was the meltdown at Three Mile Island, which miraculously had relatively minimal affects on people. The first nuclear accident occurred at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL), also known as RocketDyne, in Ventura Country, California, in 1959.
According to Kim Vincent, who wrote California's Historical Nuclear Meltdown, the SSFL accident released far more radiation than Three Mile Island. The SSFL was used as a testing site for rockets and had a sodium reactor used for nuclear research during the Cold War. As such, it was fairly secretive. The details of the SSFL meltdown were essentially kept hidden from the public until UCLA researchers and few reporters tracked down the details in the afterglow of Three Mile Island’s meltdown in 1979, twenty years after the fact. Scientists and workers at the site were sworn to secrecy, one of whom never told a soul until he saw himself on a documentary about the event.
SSFL was the first U.S. commercial nuclear power plant. It was not well tested and workers were not well versed in the possible problems that could happen. On July 13th, 1959, the reactor started to act up. Workers tried to determine the nature of the problem, but failed, and turned the reactor back on and ran it for another two weeks before discovering that 13 of 43 fuel rods had partially melted. While much smaller than the Three Mile Island reactor, SSFL is believed to have released up to 240 times more radiation than the 1979 disaster. The reason for this is that it did not have a concrete containment structure.
In 1989, the Department of Energy said that the SSFL site was still contaminated. Researchers have found increased levels of bladder cancer in the area. UCLA did a follow up report that determined that cleanup workers had cancer death rates three times higher than the general population. In 2007, the EPA declared SSFL a Superfund site.
Many workers at the site were enlisted to help clean up, including many from the rocket division who did not have any expertise in radiation containment, according to the Venture Country Star. Many were told not to wear their film badges (used to measure exposure to radiation) so they could continue helping the cleanup effort even after surpassing their radiation limits and they often wore nothing more protective than coveralls. Cleaning materials were often just dumped. They also released radioactive gas over the San Fernando Valley and did not inform the public, while the company repeatedly downplayed the event and denied there was any danger to the public.