Los Angeles' Nuclear Nightmare

by Hugh Mungus

When it comes to nuclear reactor accidents, the top three - in terms of radioactive fallout - are definitively Chernobyl, Fukushima and Three Mile Island, right?

Wrong. An event occurred in 1959 - 30 miles north of Los Angeles - releasing perhaps 240 times the radiation Three Mile Island did two decades later. How come you haven't heard about it? The Atomic Energy Commission - a now-obsolete branch of the government - lied regarding the mishap.

Isotopes from this accident still exist, and will do so for centuries.

Amid the Simi Hills, the Santa Susana Field Laboratory initiated nuclear production and rocket development in 1948. Run by Atomics International and Rocketdyne, projectile engines strident enough to be heard across the valley were tested at the plant.

Trials included a Sodium Reactor Experiment (SRE) - the first nuclear reactor in the U.S. providing electricity to a public power facility. This venture used sodium, instead of water, to cool its radioactive core. In 1959, something that has never been clarified went terribly wrong.

July 26th. After temperatures inside the reactor vessel drastically increased, employees at Santa Susana narrowly brought the device to shutdown. Following a cursory inspection - that lasted two hours - technicians restarted the process. Amid heightened radiation levels, workers continued operating the machine two consecutive weeks.

After readings reached horrifying plateaus for an extended period, employees reevaluated the situation. About as effective as applying the brakes after launching a car off a cliff. Lowering a camera to the core, it was established 13 of 43 fuel rods had been destroyed and, due to their use over the prior 14 days, partly melted.

Should this have occurred inside a properly protected facility, it would have been devastating enough. However, Santa Susana was a testing location. Thus, precautions employed at a nuclear power plant were nowhere to be found.

Santa Susana was no more capable of protecting surrounding environs from fallout than your home, a grocery store or office building. As if this weren't virulent enough, the structure was specifically created to vent radioactive steam into the air.

Due to insufficient monitoring, scientists have yet to determine how much radioactivity was released. The SRE was about 100 times smaller than the damaged Three Mile Island reactor. Since Santa Susana wasn't equipped to contain fallout, however, this may have resulted in much more discharge than the accident in 1979 Pennsylvania. Investigators speculate release of radioactive particles in Simi Valley could be hundreds of times that of Three Mile Island.

The Atomic Energy Commission erroneously asserted only one of the nuclear fuel rods was damaged and, at that, minimally.

Good luck finding these facts on Los Angeles' tourism brochures. L.A., baby: Home to more plastic faces than a Barbie factory, what remains of Matt LeBlanc's career, and one of history's worst nuclear nightmares.

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