Governor receives bill to clean up nuclear contamination

Marla Schevker

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In 1959, the first-ever meltdown of a power-producing reactor in the United States occurred at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, located on top of the Simi Hills in Simi Valley. Since then the site, currently serving as a research facility for Boeing Co., has reportedly been the source of chemical contamination both throughout the facility and neighboring communities.

State Senator Sheila Kuehl, of the 23rd District, is working with the state legislature and assembly to get a bill, SB 990, passed. The bill, which is an effort to get the site cleaned to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s highest standards, is currently on Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s desk awaiting his signature.

Laura Plotkin, chief deputy and district director to Kuehl, said they undertook this endeavor because it was a concern of their constituents.

“This bill is the fifth that (Sen. Kuehl) has carried trying to clean up the SSFL,” Plotkin said. “In the 13 years that she has been a legislator we’ve probably gotten more calls from constituents that were concerned about this issue than any other issue relating to our district.”

A major part of the concern arises from the chemicals that seeped into the ground and contaminated the groundwater.

Geological sciences chair and professor Ali Tabidian, said that a few years ago mercury leaked off site and Boeing was fined.

“It isn’t unusual at all for contaminants to get off site, especially when there is an unusual amount of rainfall,” Tabidian said. “The groundwater system is very complex up there. The reason is it’s composed of fractured rock. Remediation of contaminated ground water in fractured rocks would be very challenging and expensive. When the SSFL opened, there were not a lot of people that were living in the area. Over the past 50 years, the population has dramatically increased. Now, rainfall has the potential to move the chemicals out onto the surrounding population.

Dan Hirsch, SSFL panel co-chair, said out of the 10 reactors, there were four that had problems with them, including one partial nuclear meltdown. Due to the influence of Boeing Co., the people who live around the SSFL have little power to stand up for themselves against the risks from contamination, he said.

“The legislation that has passed is indicative of increased public concern about the site,” Hirsch said. “I began 28 years ago; it’s been a long struggle. This is a very powerful agency, the U.S. Department of Energy and the powerful Boeing Co. It’s much easier for them to make a contribution than to clean it up.

“On one hand people who can be impacted by the contamination and don’t have much power and on the other hand there is the polluter who has a large amount of power and they can influence the agencies not to make them clean up the mess that they’ve made.”

Hirsch said the effects the SSFL have had on the community are uncertain. While it seems as though the contamination has caused disease in the neighboring communities, there is no proof.

“There are many indicators that there has been excess cancer in the community,” he said. “But the records have been so poor. There could have been no cancers from these accidents and where in that range the true number lies. The data is simply not good enough to have high confidence in the estimate.”

While SB 990 aims to get the SSFL cleaned up, Tabidian said complete cleanup of the site is almost unrealistic.

“As far as contamination, they have a long way to go,” he said. “It will take tens of years to clean up the ground water and tens to hundreds of millions of dollars. I don’t think it would be possible.

“Some of the chemicals are in depth of several hundred feet and they are trapped in fractures and cavities of rocks, and (that is) why I would say it would be difficult to go after every rock.”

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