Santa Susana Field Nuclear Laboratory’s toxic secrets revealed – investigative journalism


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Years of mishandling dangerous radioactive materials and chemicals has also left a toxic legacy for generations of people living near the Santa Susana Field Laboratory.  BY JOEL GROVER AND MATTHEW GLASSER

Tucked away in the hills above the San Fernando and Simi valleys was a 2,800-acre laboratory with a mission that was a mystery to the thousands of people who lived in its shadow. In a place called Area IV of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL), there was a secret collaboration between the U.S. government and private companies to test the limits of nuclear power.

For decades, scientists and staff at SSFL experimented with new types of nuclear reactors, advanced rocket systems and futuristic weapons. While this research helped launch Americans into space and provided a better understanding of nuclear power, years of mishandling dangerous radioactive materials and chemicals has also left a toxic legacy for generations of people living near the site. The scientists are now gone, but acres and acres of radioactive and chemical contamination remains right above the neighborhoods of thousands.

The NBC4 I-Team spent a year investigating the story of the Santa Susana Field Lab. Our work involved interviews with whistleblowers, an intense review of more than 15,000 pages of government, academic and corporate documents, and interviews with dozens of community members, experts and public officials. We now know these families have been living in the shadow of one of the nation’s worst nuclear disasters in history and for the first time, NBC4 is revealing LA’s Nuclear Secret.


The Santa Susana Field Lab occupies more than 2,800 acres in the rocky terrain of the Simi Hills at the intersection of Simi Valley and the West San Fernando Valley. It sits atop the Simi Hills overlooking Simi Valley to the north, Chatsworth, West Hills and Canoga Park to the east, Woodland Hills and Thousand Oaks to the south, and Moorpark to the west.

When the site was initially developed by North American Aviation, it was in a remote, but growing part of Los Angeles and Ventura counties. Suburban housing developments were springing up nearby, but cows still roamed freely and local farms grew oranges and other produce.

But things have changed. Today, there are more than a half million people living within 10 miles of the site surrounded by dense suburban populations. Thousands live within two miles of the lab.

The Santa Susana Field Lab went into operation in 1947 and would eventually become home to 10 experimental nuclear reactors as well as the site of thousands of rocket, energy and weapons tests. Because of corporate mergers and acquisitions over the years, SSFL has had several owners throughout the decades. It’s also been used by the U.S. government. Its nuclear activities at Area IV were once supervised by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission which later became the United States Department of Energy. Another section of the field lab is actually owned by the federal government and was used by NASA for rocket tests and scientific experiments.


With the detonation of the world’s first nuclear weapon by the United States Army on July 16, 1945, the world ushered in the “Atomic Age.” Two years later, an American aerospace company called North American Aviation selected a rural location in the hills above Simi Valley to build a secret research facility. At first, the purpose of the site was to test rocket engines. But in 1953, under the supervision of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, the predecessor of the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Field Lab added Area IV. This 209-acre section of the Field Lab was dedicated to nuclear research including the development and testing of experimental nuclear reactors. Over 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 rest of the site, more than 2,000 acres was used for the testing and development of rocket engines for the U.S. space program and for advanced weapons research. During its operational history, more than 30,000 rocket engine tests were conducted at SSFL.

Why was it called a Field Lab?

Where is the Field Lab located?

Why did they pick that location for the Field Lab?

How is the Santa Susana Field Lab organized?

Who owns SSFL?

Who is responsible for the clean-up of the Santa Susana Field Lab?

What is the status of the clean-up at SSFL?


Throughout the years, most of the people who lived near the Lab knew very little about the work being conducted at the location. Only a select few knew its full history of scientific achievements and toxic failures.


During its history, there were several nuclear accidents at the Santa Susana Field Lab. 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.


We asked the responsible parties to speak to us on camera and answer our questions. The U.S. Department of Energy, NASA, Boeing and Brandeis-Bardin Institute all declined our requests for an on-camera interview. Instead, they provided us with written statements………

THE WHISTLEBLOWERSFor decades, two former Santa Susana employees lived with the secrets that they witnessed at the site. John Pace was working at the Sodium Reactor Experiment in 1959 when it experienced a partial meltdown. His account of what happened, supported by documents obtained by NBC4’s I-Team and interviews with government officials, experts and academics, varies greatly from the official accounting of the incident.

While the Atomic Energy Commission, the predecessor of the U.S. Department of Energy, claims that there was “no release of radioactive materials” to the environment, Pace says that dangerous radiation was released for weeks and went which ever 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.

For more than three hours, we interviewed John Pace about what happened in 1959. Only a fraction of what he told us ended up in our broadcast stories. Here are some of the other things that Pace had to say:

What went wrong?…
How bad was the accident?….
Was there a containment facility?….
What was done with the radioactive material?….
That night, were the workers scared?….
Why would the government lie?….
Where did the radiation go?….
How did the workers feel?…
Do you know how much radiation you were exposed to?….
Why speak out now?….

Dan Parks worked at the Santa Susana Field Lab in the early 1960s. He was a health physicist and his job was to monitor radiation at the site. During a nearly three-hour interview, Parks told us that he witnessed the release of radioactive materials from several of the site’s nuclear reactors into the environment. He also witnessed the burning of radioactive waste in at the Field Lab’s burn pits. These were manmade lakes where waste was dumped and burned.

Here are some of Dan Park’s observations from his time at the Santa Susana Field Lab.

What was the attitude about safety?
How bad was the radiation that you found?
How bad was this?
What are all the places you found contamination?
Why are you speaking out now, more than 50 years later?
Did the government tell the public this was happening?
Do you get frustrated when people say, ‘This didn’t happen?’
Do you believe there is radioactive contamination in surrounding communities?
Are you concerned about what happened?
Do you think the site should be cleaned up?


For decades, people living in neighborhoods around the Santa Susana Field Lab have worried about the impact of the activities at the site on their health. Because the Lab sits on top of a hill, some neighbors we spoke with worry that the contamination isn’t staying on the site. They may have good reason to worry. Experts we spoke with, including a former Secretary of the California EPA, a medical doctor who studies radiation and a top government scientist told us that when the wind blows or the rains come and the water flows downhill from the site, radioactive and chemical contamination can come with it. And several studies, lawsuits and expert opinions raise serious concerns about off-site contamination as a result of what went on at the Santa Susana Field Lab.

Through months of research, the use of social media and old fashioned investigation, the NBC4 I-Team identified dozens of people who believe their health or their family’s health was impacted by the research at the Santa Susana Field Lab. Many of them agreed to sit down with us for a daylong interview. Each shared their opinion on why they believe the Field Lab is to blame for their family’s suffering.

Click on a photo [on the original story] to learn more about each person’s story:

THE BRANDEIS-BARDIN INSTITUTEIn 1947, Dr. Shlomo Bardin purchased 2,200 acres of land in the foothills of the Santa Susana Mountains downhill from the Santa Susana Field Lab. Over the next 68 years, the land would become home to The Brandeis-Bardin Institute, a center for Jewish study, learning and culture. Home to Camp Alonim, a sleep-away-camp for kids, the Brandeis Collegiate Institute and numerous events and activities for Jews of all ages, BBI now encompasses 2,800 acres and operates year-round. It is the largest piece of Jewish-owned land outside of Israel. Today, the campus is part of American Jewish University, which owns the Institute.

The Brandeis-Bardin Institute came into existence at the same time as the Santa Susana Field Lab was being built. While the employees at the Field Lab performed nuclear research and rocket tests, children and adults were participating in activities just a few miles downhill at Brandeis. In 1993, a U.S. EPA-supervised study found “radioactive elements” in a limited number of soil samples from the Brandeis property. While the EPA said the levels were safe at the time, the National Academies of Sciences now say there is no safe level of radiation.

In December 1995, Brandeis-Bardin sued the owner of the Field Lab at the time (Rocketdyne), alleging that “hazardous materials” from Santa Susana, including radioactive elements, have “seeped into… the soil and groundwater” of Brandeis. In May 1997, Brandeis settled that suit for $3.2 million and agreed never again to sue Boeing (the current owner of the Field Lab). Six years later, the California Department of Toxic Substance Control found the chemical perchlorate, often used in rocket testing, in a well on the Brandeis property at levels exceeding California’s drinking water standards.

A Brandeis spokesman, Rabbi Jay Strear, told the I-Team that BBI routinely tests its groundwater and soil and believes “the site is safe.” NBC4 asked to see all of their environmental tests conducted during the Institute’s 68-year history, but were only given tests from 1996, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 that were limited in where and what was tested.

NBC4 has repeatedly asked the American Jewish University (AJU), which took ownership of The Brandeis-Bardin Institute in 2007, for an interview for this story. They declined. Instead, AJU emailed us a 6-page letter, which includes their official response. NBC4 has elected to publish AJU’s entire letter in addition to their official statement. Because they have not provided us with a forum to ask follow-up questions, we have added our responses to their letter. The AJU’s official statement can be found below. For months, NBC4 asked for all soil and water tests ever done on Brandeis property and AJU refused. Several days before our story aired, AJU did provide us with brief memoranda about eight tests but many were missing key elements, such as lab reports. AJU gave us no test data for 13 out of the last 20 years, even though they say their groundwater is tested several times a year.


These are some of the key documents [on original story] NBC4 uncovered during our investigation of contamination at The Brandeis-Bardin Institute. You can click on a document to read it for yourself. You can also click on the yellow annotations to learn more about what we found in the documents.


Piecing together the history of the Santa Susana Field Lab and especially AREA IV, where the nuclear research took place, wasn’t easy. Many of the original documents have been lost, destroyed or withheld. The official version of the 1959 meltdown sought to minimize the impact of the incident and the radioactive releases. Dr. Jan Beyea, who studied the 1959 accident for California’s Santa Susana Field Laboratory Advisory Panel, wrote in a paper that “had there been a large release [of radiation] kept secret at SRE, it would have been consistent with earlier behavior in the United States.” This effort to keep the story secret is what we discovered during our yearlong investigation.

Despite the challenges, the NBC4 I-Team spent months collecting and reviewing more than 15,000 pages of documents. Some of these documents were obtained through government Freedom of Information Act requests, others were provided by whistleblowers and experts who have studied the site. In the end, we performed an intensive review of hundreds of government, corporate, academic and community documents. Through this effort, we were able to piece together LA’s Nuclear Secret.

We invite you to review some of these documents for yourself. [go to original story]


While our current investigation took us a year, this is actually a story 36 years in the making. In 1979, KNBC was the first station in the country to report on a nuclear accident in Area IV at the Santa Susana Field Lab. At the time, we were told that no radiation had escaped into the community. Over the years, we followed the fight for a clean-up of the site and reported on new developments. This year, we decided to connect-the-dots for the first time and conduct a yearlong investigation into what really happened in Area IV. And 4 the first time, we’ve documented the truth behind LA’s Nuclear Secret.

Here are some of our original 1979 stories featuring the investigative work of reporter Warren Olney and producer Pete Noyes.

Segment 1
Segment 2
Segment 3
Segment 4
Segment 5

One Response to “Santa Susana Field Nuclear Laboratory’s toxic secrets revealed – investigative journalism”

  1. A Green Road Project Says:

    Reblogged this on A Green Road Daily News.

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