The Worst Nuclear Disaster in US History That You’ve Never Heard About

September 28, 2015   |   Carey Wedler

Carey Wedler
September 28, 2015 

(ANTIMEDIA) Los Angeles, CA — The United States government deliberately hid “the worst nuclear disaster in U.S. history,” according to some experts and an in-depth investigation by NBC4 Southern California. Whistleblowers have also come forward to expose the little-known catastrophe, which occurred north of Los Angeles in 1959 and leaked over 300 times the allowable amount of radiation into surrounding neighborhoods. That contamination may now linked to up to a 60% increase in certain cancers in the area, but the government still refuses to acknowledge its colossal mistake.

The ongoing tragedy was driven by America’s darkest demons, from dogmatic militarism to aggressive corporatism, and ongoing government and corporate efforts to cover-up the disaster are nothing short of staggering.

In 1947 — two years after the United States dropped nuclear bombs on Japan — the North American Aviation corporation opened a 2,800 acre nuclear test site in Ventura County, just miles from the San Fernando and Simi Valleys — two adjacent valleys located north and northwest of the city of Los Angeles. North American Aviation amassed power during World War II, when it produced more aircraft than any other company and flexed its muscles as an early and powerful player in America’s emerging military-industrial complex. One of its expansions came in the form of building the Santa Susana Field Lab (SSFL), where researchers would perform top-secret nuclear tests involving rocket engineering, missiles, and nuclear energy and power.

“The Worst Nuclear Disaster in U.S. History”

For twelve years, things ran smoothly, but on July 1, high levels of radiation leaked from the Sodium Reactor Experiment (SRE). Workers initiated a contamination cleanup and started and stopped the reactor for two weeks. On July 13, however, the situation grew far more dire: a power surge occurred in one of the nuclear reactors and employees were unable to shut it down.

Whistleblower John Pace, now in his seventies, started working at the facility in January of 1959 and was present on the day of the partial meltdown. He says he has spoken out in recent years because of his guilty conscience. “The radiation in that building got so high, it went clear off the scale,” Pace recalled to NBC4. “They were not able to contain the radiation that was leaking from the reactor.” Blaming equipment failure, Pace said the men working at the facility had two choices: let the reactor explode, a nuclear detonation Pace says “would have been just like the Chernobyl reactor blowing up,” or open the reactor and let the radiation flow out into the atmosphere.

“Do we blow up with it or do we let [the radiation] go?” Pace recalled debating. He was 20 years old. Some workers expressed concerns the wind would blow the radiation directly into the nearby neighborhoods — where their families lived — but with heavy hearts (and upon orders), they opted to release the radiation to avoid a devastating explosion.

As NBC4 documents, “Pace says that dangerous radiation was released for weeks and went whichever direction the wind was blowing. Pace says the large door in the reactor was opened so they could vent the radiation from inside the building. He also remembers that the exhaust stack of the reactor was opened so that radiation could be released from inside the damaged reactor straight into the atmosphere.”

Each time they started and stopped the reactor . . . radiation from the reactor was released,” he said in 2009 when he began to speak out about the disaster. Supervisors at the facility reportedly barred employees from wearing radiation-detecting film badges, knowing that if they were worn, they would detect radiation “higher than the allowable limit.

Pace said he and all of the other workers were “sworn to secrecy” and his boss “[got] right in his face” to make it clear. He says he and his coworkers were “just following orders.” “Nobody knows the truth of what actually happened,” he added.

NBC4 reported that “Some experts believe the 1959 partial meltdown at SSFL could be the worst nuclear disaster in U.S. history, surpassing the radiation released during the Three Mile Island accident.” Three Mile Island involved the partial meltdown of a commercial nuclear reactor in Middletown, Pennsylvania in 1979 and was previously considered the worst nuclear accident in American history — even though the secret Santa Susana disaster occurred twenty years earlier.

North American Aviation Knew This Was a Possibility

In 1947, North American Aviation chose the land overlooking Simi Valley for its new field office partly because it was sparsely populated and thus allowed for secrecy, but mostly because it was close to local research universities — where many of the scientists who worked at the lab taught.

But it had a drawback: “Santa Susana ranked fifth out of the six sites because its weather patterns increased the risk of contaminated air and water flowing off-site. Despite these concerns, the company selected the Santa Susana location for the Field Lab,NBC4 reported. The Atomic Energy Commission, the precursor to the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, oversaw construction and development.

For twelve years, the secret site developed nuclear power for both military and civilian purposes. The site, divided into multiple “areas,” conducted over 30,000 rocket tests during its decades-long tenure (many of which were for NASA), as well as advanced weapons research. It also boasted the nation’s first civilian nuclear power plant, a feat it accomplished in 1957 with the SRE.

Though SSFL went on to operate for decades, during which time the area became more suburbanized and more densely populated, a modification to the facility in 1953 transferred partial ownership to the government. In that year, the Atomic Energy Commission supervised the addition of a new wing to the field office: Area IV.

The 209-acre section of the field lab was dedicated to the development and testing of experimental nuclear reactors, and “[o]ver the course of four decades, Area IV would be home to 10 reactors, a plutonium fuel fabrication facility, a uranium fuel facility and a ‘hot lab’ for remotely cutting up dangerous radioactive material.”

The 1959 nuclear disaster occurred in Area IV.

Excessive Cover-Up, Insufficient Clean Up

The Atomic Energy Commission reported to the public six weeks after the incident that a “fuel element failure” — a minor accident — had occurred but that no radiation had leaked to surrounding communities. This seemed inconsistent with the fact that when they restarted the reactor on the 15th of July, the radiation levels surpassed measurable amounts, denoting a second incidence of leaks that was even more concentrated. Citizens were unaware of these facts and the public announcement was accepted without suspicion.

“What they had written in that report is not even close to what actually happened,” Pace said. “To see our government talk that way and lie about those things that happened, it was very disappointing.”

Behind the scenes, high levels of radiation were found in and on the reactor, and by the 17th, radiation was still actively leaking. An internal government memo from July 17 not only admitted there had been intermittent leaks before the one on the 13th, but reported that as a result of that disaster, “concentration [was] 300 times the maximum permissible concentration in air for unidentified beta gamma emitters.” The memo recommended shutting down the area where the reactor was housed.

Dan Parks, a health physicist who worked at SFFL at the time — with the express purpose of monitoring radiation on site — says the spill was so bad he found radioactive material “lying on the pavement.”  He says he also witnessed “Burn Pits,” where radioactive materials and other hazardous waste were burned, engulfing the facility in contaminated smoke. To this day, he is concerned about the remaining radiation: “I don’t want to lose my own life. We drink the water, we brush our teeth in the water,” he said.

While a small-scale cleanup occurred in the months following the leak, it was not thorough, nor did it clear the radiation that had seeped into the atmosphere and environment. The reactor was shut down for investigation on July 26. The reactor was cleaned and uranium, sodium, and other fuel materials were removed. In October, filmmakers came to the facility to document the “recovery” of the reactor, though presumably, no mention of the massive spill was made. The reactor was replaced by November, but the cleanup did not extend to the land surrounding it. Parks suspects the damages have not been remedied. “I know it’s out there — the contamination,” he said.

The truth was kept entirely secret until 1979, when UCLA students uncovered Atomic Energy Commission records documenting the accident and released them to the media. That same year, NBC4 broke the news that a partial meltdown had occurred in 1959, but reporters were unaware of the radiation. The news sparked concern and inspired concerned citizens to push for a full-scale clean up, which has yet to happen. By that time, two more nuclear accidents had transpired (one in 1963 and another in 1969).

60% Increased Rate of Cancer

The radiation released in 1959 (and the lack of sufficient cleanup) has not been without consequence. A 1989 Department of Energy study found radiation in the soil, groundwater, and bedrock on the hilltop — a finding made more troubling when considering North American Aviation’s initial concerns about the location: that the area’s weather patterns could carry contamination off-site.

A 1997 study found increased rates of cancer among SFFL employees. A 2009 study of the soil by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR, a division of the CDC) found “areas of concern” at the facility that had the potential to run off-site. That study, however, suggested it was not affecting the health of residents nearby (interestingly, the CDC grants compensation to people who worked at the SSFL before, during, and after the 1959 meltdown and developed cancer).

A 2007 University of Michigan studycommissioned two years earlier by the very same ATSDR that found there was no risk in 2009 —  found rates of certain cancers increased as much as 60% in areas surrounding SSFL. Though the study indicated the spike may have been caused by other factors, it also noted there was a possibility it was linked to SSFL, but said more research was needed. NBC4 identified countless residents stricken with cancer who are convinced their proximity to SSFL has led to serious health problems throughout their lives:

  • The Seltzer family, which has no history of cancer, has been devastated by the disease: Three of three sisters have struggled with various cancers for years and their mother had her thyroid gland remove to remove pre-cancerous tumors. The daughters played in, swam in, and drank the water running down the hills from SSFL.
  • Bonnie Klea, who worked at the facility as a lab secretary from 1963 to 1971, developed bladder cancer and says people in 14 of 15 homes on her street also developed cancer.
  • Krista Slack suffers from “triple-negative” breast cancer, a rare condition linked to people of African-American and Jewish descent. Slack is neither and her doctor suspects her illness is due to the fact that she grew up in Simi Valley. Her mother died of cancer last year.
  • Arline Mathews lost her son to a rare brain cancer linked to exposure to radiation. When he was in high school, he ran through the Santa Susana hills while training for cross country. Arline Mathews’ grandson now has leukemia, a condition linked to parents with damaged genetic material.
  • Ralph Powell worked as a security guard at SFFL and remembers being covered in flames at the Burn Pits.  “I saw clouds of smoke that was[sic] engulfing my friends, that[sic] are dying now,” Powell said. He also worries he carried radioactive material into his home that caused his son to develop leukemia. He died at the age of eleven.

There are more cases like these, but officials continue to downplay the health dangers.

Moreover, studies have found more than just radiation leaked into the environment. As NBC4 explains,

In addition to the radiation, dozens of toxic chemicals, including TCE and Perchlorate, were also released into the air and dumped on the soil and into ground and surface water from thousands of rocket tests conducted at the Santa Susana Field lab from the 1950s to 80s. The tests were conducted by NASA, and by Rocketdyne, a government aerospace contractor.

According to a federally funded study obtained by the I-Team, ‘emissions associated with rocket engine testing’ could have been inhaled by residents of ‘West Hills, Bell Canyon, Dayton Canyon, Simi Valley, Canoga Park, Chatsworth, Woodland Hills, and Hidden Hills.’

Worse still, some analyses suggests the radiation is still exponentially higher than government agencies are willing to admit.

The Adjacent Children’s Summer Camp

SSFL is located directly next to the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, a Jewish cultural and community center that has been in Simi Valley since 1947 — the same year SSFL was built. The establishment also runs a children’s summer camp that hosts 30,000 children every year. In 1993, an EPA-supervised study found “radioactive elements” in a limited number of soil samples from the Brandeis property, leading Brandeis-Bardin to file a legal complaint against several entities in December of 1995.

The Brandeis-Bardin complaint implicated every company that came to be involved in the facility throughout the years (due to acquisitions and mergers): North American Aviation, Atomics International, North American Rockwell Corporation, Rockwell International Systems, and Rocketdyne. Boeing would take ownership of SSFL in 1996 when it purchased Rocketdyne — after this suit was filed. The Brandeis-Bardin complaint explicitly acknowledged the extent of the spill, noting it “released mercury, vinyl chloride, polychlorinated biphenyls, radioactive tritium, cesium, [and] strontium” into “the soil, air, and groundwater” and that these elements “seeped” into the environment.

The complaint alleged the 1959 disaster caused “irreparable harm” to the Brandeis property. Brandeis eventually settled with Rocketdyne in 1997 and now claims the land is safe. It told NBC4 in a written statement it regularly tests the land with optimal results but declined to provide any documentation. Instead, it claimed the EPA certified the premises as safe in 1995 — the same year Brandeis sued for indisputable contamination on the property. “Extensive tests have been undertaken for more than 20 years to verify the ongoing safety of the property,” the institute’s statement to NBC4 said.

Though the Brandeis-Bardin complaint was resolved, the Boeing Company’s acquisition of the facility when it purchased Rocketdyne proved cataclysmic for any effort to fully investigate or clean up the still-secret radiation. To read more about how Boeing evaded the truth, manipulated research, and paid off government officials to avoid resolving the disaster decades after it happened, read Part 2.

Click here to read Part 2 of this report

Editor’s note: If you were involved with or have any additional information on the disaster SSFL, please contact the author of this article (who grew up in the San Fernando Valley and takes special interest in reporting further) at carey.wedler@theantimedia.org. This is Part 1 of our investigation into the nuclear disaster at SSFL. Read Part 2 here.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article said rates of cancer increased 60% according to a 2007 study. It has been updated to reflect that rates of certain types of cancer increased. An earlier version also incorrectly noted the Seltzer sisters’ mother died of cancer. It has been updated to reflect that she had her thyroid gland removed but is alive.


This article (The Worst Nuclear Disaster in US History That You’ve Never Heard About) is free and open source. You have permission to republish this article under a Creative Commons license with attribution to Carey Wedler and theAntiMedia.org. Anti-Media Radio airs weeknights at 11pm Eastern/8pm Pacific. If you spot a typo, email edits@theantimedia.org.

Author: Carey Wedler

Carey Wedler joined Anti-Media as an independent journalist in September of 2014. Her topics of interest include the police and warfare states, the Drug War, the relevance of history to current problems and solutions, and positive developments that drive humanity forward. She currently resides in Los Angeles, California, where she was born and raised.

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43 Comments

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  4. This is my home town, I just went to a meeting this last week about this. We grew up knowing about the secret in our hills and the dangers that come from it. Money has been paid out for years to keep it a secret from the masses and to keep ANY form of clean up from happening. They just opened up the doors and released radiation into our atmosphere with no warning or knowledge of the release. This happened daily to release the deadly radiation. They also buried drums of nuclear waste and were caught and fined but never cleaned it up. They used to have a lake bed that they would line up barrels and shoot them to cause them to explode. They are killing us and they know!! A few dollars keeps our lost lives worth it. I have lost large amounts of friends and family members due to cancer. We all now have to wonder if this has anything to do with it. By Boeings own numbers, if people lived on parts of that land today 96% of the population would get cancer… Boeing is doing EVERYTHING they can to NOT clean up this site, even trying to turn it into a national park!! Making it a park requires less clean up. We demand a full clean up of Santa Susana testing site NOW! Please help by signing the petition!!

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  6. This is the work of the same complex of psychopathic military/intelligence zombies, acting on behalf of our oligarchy, who killed JFK, Malcolm, MLK and RFK (the entire progressive leadership of the era), and instituted COINTELPRO, Operation Gladio in Europe, CHAOS, the Gulf of Tonkin, Operation Condor, the death squads all over Latin America, arming Islamic fundamentaists, etc. etc., all without anyone ever being held accountable or brought to justice in any way. Which is why we're in the endless war for endless profits insanity we live in today. To be "surprised" by this story one would have to be unaware of the history of this nation post-WW-II, which, unfortunately, most Americans are.

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  8. Bad people hiding behind corporations. The people that caused this mess should be the ones that have to pay a dear price for causing these deaths, these cancers, these sorrows.

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  9. So true. I tried to alert people to Fukushima and how it had the potential to be worse than Chernobyl and nobody cared.

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  12. Nope, supposedly normal people think you are crazy if you bring up stuff like thisa because it shatters their glass walls. The government would never cover up such a disaster, say it isn't so. Fukushima continues to pump waste into ocean, gee wonder why the sea life is dying in hourds on the West Coast. All because some psychophants want more money

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  13. Speaking of glass walls! Have you seen, "Cowspiracy" on Netflix, or Cowspiracy.com? Check it out.

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  15. Some of us do give a shit. After the Fukushima incident, for my birthday after that, I decided what I wanted for my birthday was a radiation monitoring system, we are the only system (other than EPA) in GA. If you go to netc.com you can see all the stations, and see where anywhere you want to check, is sitting radiation wise. They also have direct links to ENENews where they stay pretty well up to date on the news about what is going on and where.

    I get so disgusted when they talk about the whales dying, or the sea lions, seals, etc., and acting like they don't have the foggiest idea why. The whole Pacific ocean is at risk of dying. People want to stay asleep and act like nothing has happened.

    Just the othe day, I gave this lady a lecture on letting her kid play in the rain. Oh my God, she had no idea. The cutest 4 year old. So sweet and innocent. I try to make people understand that in just a few generations, humans may not even resemble humans anymore; that is IF there are still humans living.

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  17. Back in the early-to-mid 1960s, a news bulletin came over the radio: "A tremendous explosion has rocked top-secret Medina Base outside of San Antonio….residents fleeing the area….tons of gravel falling…" There were no further bulletins and nothing appeared in the newspapers. Medina base was part of the Defense Atomic Support Agency, and nukes were serviced in quarters protected with masive cones of gravel above them. Another nuclear disaster, perhaps? Do you suppose one of the nukes got detonated?

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  18. Errr, except that this has been known by the anti-nuclear community at least, for quite awhile thanks to the work of Dan Hirsch and the Committee to Bridge the Gap.

    And of course, its not the worst nuclear disaster in US history, the worst is what we did to the Dineh people – or our very own National Sacrifice Area where abandoned uranium mines have contaminated their lands and killed their families since the 1950's with the worst single event being the Rio Puerco tailings failure that destroyed and entire river basin back in 1979.

    There are actually quite a few more similar events that continue to be hidden like the massive intentional release of radiation across Washington state in the 1950's, to the many examples of intentional exposure during atomic tests of military personnel, the general public and of course to hundreds of thousands of workers, medical experiments and more of which the John Glenn Senate investigations exposed and were forgotten about. We appeared to be on the way to exposing quite a few of these during Hazel O'Leary's placement at the head of DOE during the first half of Clinton's presidency but then was rolled by by the right. Even the agreement to keep a DOE website up documenting our historic failures to protect the public is almost completely unknown these days, and the now ancient site has not been updated since its creation and takes awhile to load, probably put in a closet server somewhere that may eventually die out since few even know of its existence anymore.

    https://ehss.energy.gov/ohre/roadmap/achre/index.html

    r

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  19. There's actually a documentary on TV about this that's been out for a couple of years. I watched it on either History, or Science, or Discovery Channel or something like one of those..

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  20. And the nuclear cartel is still alive and well, living it up on the taxpayer dime, while knowingly killing random people, especially children and unborn babies.

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  21. Jeffrey Wazenegger I care and so do 200 or so of my closest friends. Come join one of our Facebook groups. There is a list on my public page. Fukushima and the reactor explosions and spent fuel pool fires sent hot plutonium particles across the whole USA. Five years now and we are just beginning to really feel the consequences.

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  22. Janet McDonald You are right about it no being safe in that rain or snow! Just take a look at the plants a few days after it rains and the mutations should be a warning to everyone!

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  23. The corporations and the world leaders are working together to push the nuclear agenda on every country across the globe. The NRC, IAEA, and EPA are criminal co conspirators.

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  24. There have been a lot of meetings lately by govt. agencies reviewing human research guidelines. Could it be they had something planned? One must wonder about the radiation spike across the South and all the Midwest on Sept. 2,2015. I noticed it. That pulse went all over the USA abd nobody had claimed responsibility and I saw no known reason on the NRC reports

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  25. This is ore evidence of why we have to shut them all down and stop all Nuclear activity. Even if it could be handled "safely" with no possible chance of accident (which is of course NOT the case), the mining of Uranium destroys land, wastes water, and kills workers, their families, and the surrounding neighbors, including livestock and pets. And even if the Mining practices could be made benign (which they cannot) the Nuclear Waste resulting from ALL Atomic endeavors including mining will never have anywhere to go. And it will last in its deadly form longer than human civilization has been on Earth. It is all criminal. It MUST be stopped NOW. ALL of it.

    Post a Reply
  26. This is ore evidence of why we have to shut them all down and stop all Nuclear activity. Even if it could be handled "safely" with no possible chance of accident (which is of course NOT the case), the mining of Uranium destroys land, wastes water, and kills workers, their families, and the surrounding neighbors, including livestock and pets. And even if the Mining practices could be made benign (which they cannot) the Nuclear Waste resulting from ALL Atomic endeavors including mining will never have anywhere to go. And it will last in its deadly form longer than human civilization has been on Earth. It is all criminal. It MUST be stopped NOW. ALL of it.

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  27. David Delaney Sr. I've seen Cowspiracy and it was a big shock to me. Another industry that must go.

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  28. Christine Chaplik I haven't but I will look for it. I did my msw thesis years ago working with Navajo uranimum miners and their families who'd been poisioned unkowningly in the mining process. In the course of that research I read a book (title I can't remember) of photos and interviews with Utah downwinders. It was a rather rude awkening for me to see just how little regard for both Native peoples and common U.S. citizens our government officials actually had.

    Post a Reply
  29. Christine Chaplik I haven't but I will look for it. I did my msw thesis years ago working with Navajo uranimum miners and their families who'd been poisioned unkowningly in the mining process. In the course of that research I read a book (title I can't remember) of photos and interviews with Utah downwinders. It was a rather rude awkening for me to see just how little regard for both Native peoples and common U.S. citizens our government officials actually had.

    Post a Reply

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