Friday, April 1, 2011

World's First Partial Nuclear Meltdown in the San Fernando Valley



For my second ever post, there were so many topics to choose from to jump-start this blog like the San Fernando Mission, the early pioneers, the influence of movies, Valley culture, celebrities, etc, etc. But I thought the best way to start would be to discuss a matter garnering media attention today; the Fukushima Nuclear Meltdown as a result of the massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Also check out this first hand account from a worker at the plant when the earthquake hit courtesy of the BBC.

You are probably wondering how this relates to the Valley. Well, it doesn't. What does relate, is that unfortunately, the Valley suffered the worlds first partial Nuclear Meltdown back in 1959. Yes, the world's first, right in the backyard of the SFV.


Known as the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) which was originally started by Rocketdyne is tucked away in the Simi Hills just on the border between Chatsworth and Simi Valley. This site according to Wikipedia was: 
used mainly for the testing and development of Liquid-propellant rocket engines for the United States space program from 1949 to 2006,[1] nuclear reactors from 1953 to 1980 and the operation of a U.S. Government-sponsored liquid metals research center from 1966 to 1998.[
So all those missions to the moon and space were made possible by rocket engine testing at SSFL which is quite amazing that this activity took place right in the backyard of the SFV. The downside to this site was that on 13 July 1959, a partial meltdown of the fuel rods occurred due to a cooling issue in a Sodium Reactor Experiment (SRE).  

Its unknown how much damage has occurred to humans and the neighboring cities but the site has become contaminated and workers have been diagnosed with various cancers due to the exposure. Even nearby residents claimed they have been diagnosed with cancer as result of the meltdown. Its hard to prove these things but the one known fact is that the site has undergone contamination cleaning since 1989. 

Keep in mind two things regarding the meltdown, 1) since the reactor was experimental, no concrete containment dome was built as required for Nuclear power plants. So although the reactor was smaller than other sites like Three Mile Island, it dispersed more contamination into the air compared to other disasters because of the lack of containment. 2) this disaster was hidden from the public for 20 years but thanks to UCLA students, this info was released in 1979.

There is a lot of information to digest regarding this site and the nuclear meltdown, that this post doesnt do much justice. My goal was to briefly summarize this incident but if you are yearning for more details,  I recommend visiting the following sites:






In addition to the links above, there is great video footage on YouTube below (will take about 25min to view all three videos):

General Video about the site (I believe from Rocketdyne but not sure of the source) (thanks to "acmelosangeles")


Video showing a rocket test (not sure of the source) (thanks to "NonStopActionVideo")


 History Channel Video about the SRE Meltdown (thanks to "rocketdyne")


I remember growing up in the Valley when I was kid seeing strange stuff like lights and smoke from those hills and not really knowing what it was at the time. NOW I KNOW!!!

Do you have any stories of SSFL to share?

Courtesy USC Digital Library: Photograph of a view of the Rocketdyne Field Laboratory in the Santa Monica Mountains, [s.d.]. The laboratory is set into a large valley and consists of several large metal structures. Two tall metal scaffolding structures with cranes on top can be seen, while several tanks can be seen on the rocky ground. A collection of relatively small buildings can be seen in the shadow of a large rock at center. The tops of several mountains are visible in the distance.
Courtesy USC Digital Library: Photograph of "Battleship" tanks, which simulate the configuration of an atlas ICBM, feeding propellants to the engine being test fired, ca.1955. In the left, a large tower can be seen exposing five platforms with staircases, pipes and a rail surrounding each one. Its highest point is formed by a cylinder-shaped machinery(?) with two circular balconies surrounding its top area. In the left, by the bottom of the tower, different tones of smoke (steam?) are being ejected from the tower¿s pipes and from underneath it.

Courtesy LAPL Photo Collection: "Huge 24-wheel trailer moves slowly up Santa Susana Pass to test site where Rocketdyne's Saturn S-II missile will eventually be loaded for trip later this year out of mountains to Cape Kennedy Fla. Today's trip was a test run to see if the huge carrier could maneuver the twisting road." Photograph dated: Jan. 27, 1965. 

2 comments

Wendy L. Kaysing June 23, 2011 at 2:02 PM

We lived in Canoga Park--the far west end of the Valley--when my dad worked for Rocketdyne. We could the glowing flames of rockets being tested many evening from our tract house (near Roscoe & Fallbrook). My father worked as a technical writer from February 1956, then as senior technical writer, later in 1956 as a service analyst, a service engineer, and fianlly in 1962 as a publications analyst. According my sister one day, while our mom was in our yard gardening on an otherwise cloudless day, she saw a huge red cloud materialize over the Santa Susana mountains...now decades later, my sister and I have to wonder what it was that she saw? The radioactive cloud than blanketed the Simi and San Fernando Valley? My family relocted to another state following my dad's resignation in 1963. We later returned to Santa Barbara, CA. I had never heard mention of the "meltdown" until a few years ago. Perhaps ironically, 51 years later I now find myself living back in the Valley. I have not give the meltdown a whole lot of thought..I have hoped the effects of this disaster have warn off by now (although that last video said that the effects of radiation can last for centuries). I assume my family, and especially my dad, were exposed to the toxic/radioactive emmissions eminating from not one but two meltdowns in that five year period! I've been fairly healthy most of my life, as had been my mom, but my sister and father experienced persistant health problems over their length of theirlives. Note my dad passed away in 2005. It makes one wonder about how safe we all are no matter where we live--what we are exposed to. However, a cover-up, as in the case of the Santa Susana meltdown, is purely reprehensible! People should of course be informed when a disaster or accident of this maganitude occurs and reguarly kept up to date on the effects. Shoving things under the rug never helped anyone!

SFValleyblog June 23, 2011 at 10:17 PM

Hello Wendy,

Thanks for sharing your story. Unfortunately, its sad what occurred at the SSFL site and more importantly the brazen attempt to conceal any knowledge of the meltdown from the public for more than 20 years. I am not a doctor nor a Nuclear Physicist so its hard to say what has been the immediate and long term impact to the San Fernando Valley. What I do know is that this meltdown occurred and people have been affected, but to what extent? Was my mom affected by SSFL having passed away from breast cancer in 1992? My family moved to Canoga Park from Canada in 1987 and three years later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was in her early 40's, active, and healthy. I will never know the answer but sometimes it makes you wonder if there is somehow a connection. I continue to live in Chatsworth today so like you said, I hope the "effects" are gone.

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