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50th anniversary of nuclear leak at Santa Susana Field Laboratory

Fifty years ago, a power surge at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory in Ventura County prompted a partial nuclear meltdown that most people didn’t know about for decades. KPCC’s Cheryl Devall says veterans and neighbors of the facility are gathering for a commemoration Monday night at the Aerospace Cancer Museum of Education in Chatsworth.

America’s first nuclear meltdown accident happened at an experimental reactor operated by Atomics International and North American Rockwell. The reactor discharged unknown amounts of radioactive gases into the skies over the San Fernando Valley before workers shut it down and dismantled it.

Even so, an Atomic Energy Commission press release at the time downplayed damage to the reactor, to employees at the facility, and to the environment. The field lab continued to operate, conducting rocket engine tests and other experiments, for another three decades.

The Boeing Corporation and NASA own the property now. Anti-nuclear activists and researchers link high rates of cancer in the surrounding areas to the presence of the lab. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has pledged $40 million in economic stimulus money to help clean up the Santa Susana site.