Legacy of a Meltdown

Did the 2018 Woolsey California fire recirculate radioactive fallout from a covered up Southern California Edison partial meltdown in 1959?  Can that same company now be trusted to safely operate a nuclear waste dump on the beach by the rising sea?

By James Heddle & Mary Beth Brangan – EON

[ An earlier version of this article was published on Reader Supported News ]

Path of smoke from CA fires shows how fallout from West coast disasters can impact the country. Photo: NOAA

What Goes Around, Comes Around

The devastating Woolsey Fire officially started at 2:24pm on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018.  

By November 18, it had burned 96,949 acres, caused three deaths, the evacuation of over 250,000 people and destroyed 1,452 structures from Thousand Oaks to Malibu.

A traffic jam from citizens evacuating Malibu. Photo: David McNew/Getty Images

Southern California Edison (SCE) reported to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) that at Nov. 8 at 2:22pm – two two minutes earlier than when fire started – its Chatsworth substation suffered an outage.  According to a CPUC document, that substation is “within the larger Boeing Rocketdyne Santa Susana complex.”  

Edison equipment
’s role in possibly sparking the fire is now being investigated.  And thereby hangs a tale.

Chatsworth substation, between apparent site of start of fire to the right and location of the 1959 SRE reactor partial meltdown to the left.

Just Over the Hill from LA

Just a 45-minute drive from downtown Los Angeles, that Santa Susana Field Laboratory complex also happens to be the site of America’s first and worst partial nuclear meltdown…so far, only about 1,000 yards away from where Southern California Edison’s currently suspect Chatsworth substation is now located. “Though we must wait for fire authorities to conclude their investigation,’ says Denise Duffield, Associate Director of Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles (PSR-LA), “it is ironic that an electrical substation built for a reactor that melted down six decades ago now may now be associated with a catastrophic fire that began on the SSFL site that is still badly contaminated from that accident and numerous other spills and releases.” 

In an irony of history, the reactor that partially melted down nearly 60 years ago was operated by… Southern California Edison.

The Santa Susana Field Lab’s (SSFL) Horrendous Legacy

In 1947, fresh from WWII successes and record profits, giant weapons-maker North American Aviation opened an experimental facility for rockets, missiles and nuclear energy just miles from the San Fernando and Simi Valleys. 

The Santa Susana Field Lab was home to the SNAP-10, the first nuclear reactor to be launched into space.  Intense toxic and radioactive contamination pervades the site that had ten nuclear reactors and multiple rocket experiments.  (It was closed in 1996.)

In 1956, the company’s Atomics International division signed a contract with Southern California Edison to construct and operate an experimental sodium graphite-cooled reactor for electricity production.

In 1957, Edward R. Murrow narrated while more than 20 million CBS viewers watched as Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Lewis Strauss threw the switch and electricity generated by the new reactor lit up the nearby town of Moorpark…but not for long.

In 1959, that sodium reactor became America’s first partial nuclear meltdown when Southern California Edison operators pushed it beyond its limits.


Daniel Hirsch is a nuclear policy consultant who directs the Committee to Bridge the Gap (CBG) and until recently was Professor of Nuclear Policy at the University of California, Santa Cruz.  For decades, Hirsch has been working to document the tragic impact that meltdown continues to have in communities throughout the region from cancer clusters and environmental damage.  He has spent years advocating for a cleanup of the site that has yet to happen.

“When I began this work,” he says, “I had no preconceived notions regarding nuclear power. My views of nuclear power have changed by decades of interaction with the operators of nuclear facilities and the regulators. My view of the technology has been shaken by the incapability of these institutions to be honest.”

For Hirsch, his long years of experience with the Santa Susana facility are a perfect case in point.

Southern California Edison operated the Sodium Reactor Experiment, or SRE, on contract with a management style that Hirsch says was a preview of future developments.

One of the Worst Nuclear Accidents 

“They ran this reactor; they knew that they had leaks.  They had a power excursion, meaning that the power runs out of control exponentially in fractions of a second. They could barely shut the reactor down. They were jamming control rods in and the power was still going up because the reactor was badly designed.

“They looked to figure out what had caused the accident; they could not figure it out.  And two hours later, they start up again not knowing what had caused the problem. They ran it for more than a week and then eventually when they shut down, they found that a third of the core experienced melting – one of the worse accidents in nuclear history.  And the reactor had no containment structure so they vented the radioactivity directly into the environment.”

A Pattern of Cover-ups

For over a week, the reactor’s damaged fuel rods spewed radioactive particles and gases into the atmosphere – by some estimates, many hundreds of times more than from the Three Mile Island partial meltdown 20 years later.  In both cases, the cover-ups began at once.

The Santa Susana release was covered up for two decades, then falsely minimized – a now-familiar pattern with nuclear events.

Nuclear Pioneer at San Onofre

Southern California Edison advertises with pride being a ‘pioneer’ of nuclear energy.  Not mentioned is its role in the landmark Santa Susana meltdown event.

Despite its involvement in the Santa Susana disaster – which is still exposing local residents to harmful radionuclides – the very next year, 1960, Edison announced its ‘belief in the efficacy of nuclear power’ and its intention to build a full-scale nuclear plant for commercial service at San Onofre in a section of the Camp Pendleton Marine base.  The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station was euphemistically called “SONGS.”

Public opposition to Edison’s San Onofre project appeared at once – when Time Magazine reported that the contractor, Bechtel Corporation, had installed a 420-ton nuclear reactor vessel backward.  Public opposition is continuing today.

Another Leak

On January 31, 2012, less than a year after the still-ongoing Fukushima disaster started, a radioactive leak occurred at San Onofre and both reactors were forced into an emergency shutdown.  Edison didn’t admit to the public for over 17 days that radioactivity was released into the environment and then insisted that it was a ‘small’ leak.  Activists began intense work to shut the plant permanently.

On June 7, 2013, threatened with staunch regional opposition, official public hearings and mounting costs, SCE announced it would permanently shutdown and decommission SONGS.

Elated activists celebrated a victory but elation soon faded.  They realized that over 3.6 million pounds of high level radioactive waste in the form of used or ‘spent fuel’ assemblies had accumulated on-site in the SONGS’ 30 years of operation and – in the absence of a federal radioactive waste repository – was likely to be stored there for an indefinite period…possibly permanently. 

Used fuel, misleadingly labeled ‘spent fuel’ is exponentially more radioactive when it comes out of the reactors than when it went in.  This is highly unstable radioactive material that will be lethal more than 250,000 years – far longer than any civilization has yet existed.

Nuclear-Waste-Dump-by-the-Sea for “Chernobyls-in-a-Can”

To activists’ dismay, further research and investigation revealed that SCE’s on-site storage location was only 108 ft. from the beach and 31 inches above the ground water, over an earthquake fault in a tsunami zone with rapid sea level rise predicted by some to be more than 10 feet in coming years. 

Yet, despite strong concerns by both public and experts, on October 6, 2015 the California Coastal Commission approved the SCE radioactive waste storage plan using thin Holtec canisters which cannot be checked for the condition of the fuel inside, monitored for cracks or repaired in the event of damage. 

The 5/8 inch thin stainless steel canisters are subject to corrosion in the damp sea air, which can cause through-wall cracking.  Studies indicate that air or water entering through a crack could cause a canister to have a hydrogen explosion.  Each canister contains roughly a Chernobyl’s-worth of radioactive Cesium contamination.  Yet SCE is rushing to move these canisters of deadly radioactive waste into the concrete vaults on the beach by early 2019 to save money, shift liability and to decrease the security required.

Blowing the Whistle on Incompetence and Illegality

“I may not have a job tomorrow for what I’m about to say,” the young man at the public comments microphone said, swallowing hard, “but that’s fine.  Because I made a promise to my daughter that if no one else talked about what happened on Friday, that I would.” 

With those words, David Fritch, a safety observer of issues related to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) at the San Onofre nuclear power plant site began his statement at the August 9, 2018 Southern California Edison-sponsored Community Engagement Panel meeting in Oceanside, California. 

Mr. Fritch went on to describe an incident he had observed on August 3rd during the loading of the 5/8 inch thick stainless steel canister, containing 49 tons of deadly radioactive fuel rods into a concrete vault a few yards above the beach at the plant site.  The canister became lodged on a ¼ inch ledge four feet into the vault but operators didn’t realize it for nearly an hour and released the rigging holding it.  Unsecured, it could have dropped 18 feet to the concrete below.  Many believe that what he reported narrowly missed resulting in a damaged or ruptured canister that could have caused a major nuclear disaster on the Southern California coast, potentially affecting the entire state, nation and beyond. [ video link , transcript link ]

SanOnofreSafety.org’s founder Donna Gilmore and others worry that the engineering flaws that caused the canister to be stuck on the ledge have scratched or gouged the other 29 canisters containing the lethal waste previously lowered into the vaults.  These scratches in the thin stainless steel could lead to even more rapid corrosion and through wall cracks.  Studies indicate under normal conditions through wall cracks can occur within a scant 16 years.  Edison denies any problem.

That near miss catastrophe, the second of its kind, followed other problems at San Onofre in which three Holtec canisters were loaded with a defective shim that was not discovered until a fourth canister was being loaded into the concrete pad. 

Endemic Lax Safety Culture

David Fritch went on to describe mismanagement and a lax safety culture at the Southern California Edison-run facility.  “We’re undermanned. We don’t have the proper personnel to get things done safely.“  He also reported poorly trained workers; frequent worker replacement; the discouragement of voicing safety concerns; and an apparent corporate tendency to cover-up incidents like the one he had just observed.

Later in the meeting, Donna Gilmore, a retired systems analyst, charged that the company was violating its Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) license because of its admitted inability to repair, open or replace a damaged nuclear waste canister, as its NRC license regulation requires.

Edison says they will try to move the fuel elsewhere very soon, all the while rapidly loading the canisters into the concrete on the beach.  Many doubt Edison’s sincerity.

Just days before, in a local TV interview, Gregory Jaczko, former Chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, had given this warning: “…Quite frankly, once they get loaded, I don’t see them ever taking those canisters out of there. Realistically, they are not going to move them out, so those permits will be extended, the operational period will be extended on indefinitely and you will have a de facto burial site there.”   

Stop the loading process

Loading at the site has now been halted pending completion of an NRC investigation.  A growing chorus of local residents is now calling for a moratorium on further loading of the seaside dump until less risky alternatives can be explored.  Demands are growing for much thicker walled casks that can be monitored and repaired as well as transported to higher ground away from the beach.

These new (literally potentially explosive) revelations are but the latest in an unfolding drama at San Onofre that has spanned more than six decades. 

Southern California Edison’s record of safety violations and cover ups caused by profit-based decisions, stretch from Santa Susana’s partial meltdown in 1959, to  San Onofre’s 2012 radioactive leaks, to nearly dropping a flimsy container of 50 tons of lethal radioactive waste 18 ft. to concrete below at San Onofre, to the Santa Susana 2018 fire.

Just as fire can transport long-lived radionuclides from contaminated soil and vegetation, the ocean spray and water will eventually corrode the thin canisters holding the millions of pounds of deadly waste.   Canisters are only guaranteed from manufacturers defects for 20 years and are not constructed to last much longer than that.

Will Southern California Edison be allowed to continue its pattern of releasing huge amounts of radioactivity into the environment? 

It’s a drama emblematic of the Atomic Age, characterized by ‘toxic management,’ as one commentator puts it, “a uniquely dysfunctional safety culture that epitomizes the nuclear industry’s broader vulnerability to profit-driven opportunism.” 

Edison’s Santa Susana Legacy Haunts San Onofre

Ownership of the Santa Susana site has changed hands over the years, and with it, responsibility for clean-up, which has yet to happen.  Edison was partnering with Atomics International when the partial meltdown spewed its poisons across the landscape.  

The Woolsey fire imbroglio has ignited a firestorm of public attention sparked in part by a Twitter barrage from two Kardashian sisters, who live downwind.  A petition started by Melissa Bumstead, mother of a child with a rare leukemia, who lives five miles from the SSFL site for SSFL clean up is in viral circulation.

No radiation monitoring by the government has been found trustworthy by local residents.  However, for people within 25 miles of the Santa Susana field lab, Arnie and Maggie Gundersen of Fairewinds Energy Education  will test samples of their test house dust for radioactive “hot particles” free of charge. info@FairewindsEnergy.org

NBC-LA reporter Joel Graver has been reporting on this story for 30 years.  He has skin in the game.  As a kid, he attended a popular summer camp near the site that has now been revealed to have been contaminated.  His reports give the lie to current feel-good official assurances.  

The California Dept. of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) has regulatory oversight over the parties responsible for cleaning up the contamination – the Dept. of Energy, NASA, and the Boeing Company.  A mere 10 hours after the fire began at Santa Susana, and prior to an investigation, the agency released a statement saying it doesn’t ‘believe’ the fire caused the release of hazardous substances.

“The Woolsey Fire likely released and spread radiological and chemical contamination that was in SSFL’s soil and vegetation via smoke and ash,” said Dr. Bob Dodge, President of Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles.

“All wildfire smoke can be hazardous to health, but if SSFL had been cleaned up long ago as DTSC promised, we’d at least not have to worry about exposure to dangerous radionuclides and chemicals as well.”

With these new revelations people up and down coast and around the country are asking, what does Edison’s legacy of mismanagement of nuclear technology say about trusting it to safely design and operate a nuclear waste dump on the beach in a tsunami and earthquake zone in the face on oncoming climate change and sea rise?  Will this facility, if completed, set a low-bar standard for other waste storage facilities in the United States and the world?

Nuclear waste management consultant Tom English, like many others, has a low opinion of the Edison seaside waste storage plan, “We should basically say, ‘you guys can’t do anything [more] until you can inspect and monitor.”  Donna Gilmore thinks the whole approach is a lemon and offers solutions.

Dan Hirsch sums up the nuclear waste conundrum facing not just San Onofre, but our country and the world community:  “We created the technology, nuclear power, that produced toxic waste that we had no idea what to do with. It was like building a sailboat in your basement, not figuring out how you’re gonna get it out.”

“We’re talking about waste that has to be managed for half a million years. There’s just no human institution you can count on doing that. 

“So we were idiots to produce it. We’re idiots to produce an ounce more of it. The stuff that’s been produced – -you have to do the best you can with basically knowing you can’t do very well with it. But that’s no excuse to produce more of it when there’s no good solution.”


James Heddle & Mary Beth Brangan co-direct EON – the Ecological Options Network .  Their forthcoming documentary SHUTDOWN: The Case of San Onofre is now in post-production.  They can be reached at jamesmheddle@gmail.com & mbbrangan@gmail.com


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