Friday, February 1, 2008

State Will Finally Clean Southern California Nuclear Meltdown Site, Thanks to Community Watchdogs, Sen. Kuehl, and Assemblymember Brownley

By Collin Fisher, Research Analyst, Sierra Club California

The nuclear industry frequently explains away the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents as the only blemishes on an otherwise stellar safety record. But the past fifty years have seen hundreds of releases of radioactive materials and gases from nuclear operations. Many of these incidents have been kept secret by the industry or government agency involved. The Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) is one example of a single site that experienced many major incidents that exposed residential and commercial areas in the Los Angeles and Simi Valley areas to radiation.

Occurring from the 1950s and until as late as 1994, many of the accidents involving nuclear reactors and radioactive waste were kept secret by Rocketdyne and various other private corporate entities that owned and operated the SSFL. Indeed, the SSFL was a pioneering site for developing and experimenting on America’s rocket engines and nuclear reactors. Of the ten nuclear reactors operating at Santa Susana, four of them experienced major accidents and meltdowns. A meltdown in 1959 exposed the surrounding area to over 458 times the amount of radiation released at Three Mile Island. This meltdown was kept from the public until it was exposed in 1979 by Daniel Hirsch, a University of California lecturer and expert on nuclear issues. Hirsch, the President of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, has worked with the residents near the SSFL Lab since then, first to successfully shut down the reactors and more recently to clean up the contamination on the site, which is now owned by Boeing.

The efforts of Hirsch and other community watchdogs led to Senate Bill 990, legislation passed last year requiring a proper and complete clean-up of Santa Susana. The bill was introduced by State Senator Sheila Kuehl, who has fought tenaciously for decontamination for many years, and co-authored by Julia Brownley, a rookie Assemblymember who persistently pushed the bill through her house with the help of many environmental, health and community groups, including Sierra Club California. Governor Schwarzenegger signed SB 990 in October of last year, over Boeing’s loud objections, but simultaneously issued a statement calling for new legislation to repeal its operative provisions because some in his administration believed the cleanup standards of SB 990 were too stringent.

Sierra Club California joined Committee to Bridge the Gap and many other advocates for the full decontamination of SSFL in petitioning the administration to keep SB 990 intact. Secretary of Environmental Protection Linda Adams personally intervened and listened to the advocates at great length, becoming convinced that the best way forward was to proceed under the health-protective SB 990 standards. On January 14th, 2008, the Governor agreed to reverse his original stance and call for the highest standard of cleaning for the SSFL.
The passage of this decontamination legislation stands as a fine example of what can happen when public-interest advocates persistently pursue justice and enlightened public officials put the community’s health ahead of a polluter’s profits.

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