Cleaning Up the Santa Susana Field Laboratory

PSR-LA has been involved in efforts to clean up the radioactive and chemical contamination at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL), formerly known as Rocketdyne, for over 30 years. We are a founding member of the Rocketdyne Cleanup Coalition, and currently serve as the coordinator of the SSFL Work Group.

PSR-LA co-founder Dr. Richard Saxon with local residents at an early protest to cleanup SSFL.

PSR-LA co-founder Dr. Richard Saxon with local residents at an early protest to cleanup SSFL.

SSFL is a former nuclear reactor and rocket testing facility located 30 miles from Los Angeles, in the hills between the San Fernando and Simi valleys. It was established in the late 40s for rocket testing and in 1949, was chosen for nuclear testing that was too dangerous to do in a populated area. (Since then, population has dramatically increased, with half a million people currently living within 10 miles of the site.)

Nuclear work continued until 1989, when it was stopped due to pressure from the Rocketdyne Cleanup Coalition. Rocket engine testing and other aerospace work continued until 2006.

Over the decades, SSFL housed 10 nuclear reactors, a “Hot Lab” to cut up irradiated reactor fuel from around the country, plutonium and uranium-carbide fuel fabrication facilities, and a sodium burn pit in which open-air burning of contaminated reactor components took place. One of the reactors, the Sodium Reactor Experiment, experienced a partial nuclear meltdown in 1959, and two other reactors experienced accidents with fuel damage as well. Over 30,000 rocket engine tests took place at SSFL, with numerous toxic spills and releases.

A cow grazes in SSFL's Area IV, where nuclear work occurred. Photo by William Preston Bowling

A cow grazes in SSFL’s Area IV, where nuclear work occurred. Photo by William Preston Bowling

These activities left the site highly polluted with nuclear and chemical contaminants that pose a threat to public health. Contaminants of concern include dangerous radionuclides such as cesium-137, strontium-90, and plutonium 239 and toxic chemicals trichloroethylene, perchlorate, heavy metals, dioxins, PCBs, and more – all of which can cause cancer and other illnesses. SSFL has groundwater, surface water, and soil contamination, and scores of violations of NPDES permit limits for surface water discharges leaving the site. Contamination continues to migrate from the site and has been found in numerous offsite locations.

Several studies indicate increases cancers associated with proximity to SSFL. An extensive, multi-year epidemiological study by the UCLA School of Public Health found significant increases in death rates among the most exposed workers from cancers of the lung, lymph, and blood systems. A study for the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ASTDR), Professor Hal Morgenstern found rates for key cancers in members of the nearby public increased the closer the person lived to SSFL. Click here to view these and other studies.

In 2010, community members and cleanup advocates celebrated a tremendous victory when the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and NASA, which operated key parts of the site, finally signed a cleanup agreement with the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) to cleanup to background levels of contaminants. Though the Boeing Company, which owns the largest portion of the site, refused to sign the agreement, DTSC said it would Boeing to strict cleanup standards.

Today, there is great concern that DTSC will allow DOE and NASA to break their cleanup commitments and that DTSC will approve Boeing’s proposed weak cleanup that will leave most of the contamination onsite. A 2014 report, “Inside Job – How Boeing Fixers Captured Regulators and Derailed a Nuclear and Chemical Cleanup in LA’s Backyard” by Consumer Watchdog details the unraveling of the cleanup. The report reveals significant influence that Boeing’s lobbyist wield over the DTSC, which has recently come under fire for its failure to protect communities throughout California, such as those living near the Exide plant in Vernon.

Nuclear work at SSFL occurred over four decades. Another area of concern is the disposal of radioactive debris from SSFL. In 2013, PSR-LA joined with other advocates in a lawsuit against the state Department of Toxic Substances Control to prevent the disposal of low level radioactive waste in facilities that are not licensed to it, many of which are located in low-income communities of color. A preliminary injunction was issued later that year and on January 5, 2015 the Sacramento Superior Court of California denied Boeing’s motion to summarily grant judgment.

PSR-LA continues to fight for the 2010 cleanup agreements to be enforced and for Boeing to fully clean up its portion of the site. To learn more about the SSFL cleanup, contact Denise Duffield and visit for information about past and future meetings.