The Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL), formerly known as Rocketdyne, is a complex of industrial research and development facilities located on a 2,668-acre (1,080 ha) portion of the Southern California in the hills between Simi Valley and Los Angeles.
The site is located approximately 18 miles (29 km) northwest from Hollywood and approximately 30 miles (48 km) northwest of Downtown Los Angeles. Sage Ranch Park is adjacent on part of the northern boundary and the community of Bell Canyon is along the entire southern boundary.
The SSFL was used mainly for the development and testing of liquid-propellant rocket engines for the United States space program from 1949 to 2006, nuclear reactors from 1953 to 1980 and the operation of a U.S. government-sponsored liquid metals research center from 1966 to 1998.
Throughout the years, about ten low-power nuclear reactors operated at SSFL, in addition to several "critical facilities" that helped develop nuclear science and applications. At least four of the ten nuclear reactors had accidents during their operation. The reactors located on the grounds of SSFL were considered experimental, and therefore had no containment structures.
The site ceased research and development operations in 2006. The years of rocket testing, nuclear reactor testing, and liquid metal research have left the site "significantly contaminated". Environmental cleanup is ongoing.
The public who live near the site have strongly urged a thorough cleanup of the site, citing cases of long term illnesses, including cancer cases at rates they claim are higher than normal. On 30 March 2018, a 7-year-old girl living in Simi Valley died of neuroblastoma, prompting public urging to thoroughly clean up the site; despite the fact that there is insufficient evidence to identify an explicit link between cancer rates and radioactive contamination in the area.
Since 1947 the Santa Susana Field Laboratory location has been used by a number of companies and agencies. The first was Rocketdyne, originally a division of North American Aviation (NAA), which developed a variety of pioneering, successful, and reliable liquid rocket engines. Some were those used in the Navaho cruise missile, the Redstone rocket, the Thor and Jupiter ballistic missiles, early versions of the Delta and Atlas rockets, the Saturn rocket family, and the Space Shuttle Main Engine. The Atomics International division of North American Aviation used a separate and dedicated portion of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory to build and operate the first commercial nuclear power plant in the United States, as well as for the testing and development of compact nuclear reactors, including the first and only known nuclear reactor launched into Low Earth Orbit by the United States, the SNAP-10A. Atomics International also operated the Energy Technology Engineering Center for the U.S. Department of Energy at the site. The Santa Susana Field Laboratory includes sites identified as historic by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and by the American Nuclear Society. In 1996, The Boeing Company became the primary owner and operator of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory and later closed the site.
Three California state agencies and three federal agencies have been overseeing a detailed investigation of environmental impacts from historical site operations since at least 1990. Concerns about the environmental impact of past disposal practices have inspired at least two lawsuits seeking payment from Boeing and several interest groups are actively involved with steering the ongoing environmental investigation.
The Santa Susana Field Laboratory is the focus of diverse interests. Burro Flats Painted Cave, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is located within the Santa Susana Field Laboratory boundaries, on a portion of the site owned by the U.S. government. The drawings within the cave have been termed "the best preserved Indian pictograph in Southern California." Several tributary streams to the Los Angeles River have headwater watersheds on the SSFL property, including Bell Creek (90% of SSFL drainage), Dayton Creek, Woolsey Canyon, and Runkle Creek.
SSFL was slated as a United States government facility dedicated to the development and testing of nuclear reactors, powerful rockets such as the Delta II, and the systems that powered the Apollo missions. The location of SSFL was chosen in 1947 for its remoteness in order to conduct work that was considered too dangerous and too noisy to be performed in more densely populated areas. In subsequent years, however, the Southern California population grew, along with housing developments surrounding "The Hill".
The site is divided into four production and two buffer areas, (Area I, II, III, and IV, and the northern and southern buffer zones). Areas I through III were used for rocket testing, missile testing, and munitions development. Area IV was used primarily for nuclear reactor experimentation and development. Laser research for the Strategic Defense Initiative (popularly known as "Star Wars"), also was conducted in Area IV.
North American Aviation (NAA) began its development of liquid propellant rocket engines after the end of WWII. The Rocketdyne division of NAA, which came into being under its own name in the mid-1950s, designed and tested several rocket engines at the facility. They included engines for the Army's Redstone (an advanced short-range version of the German V-2), and the Army Jupiter intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) as well as the Air Force's counterpart IRBM, the Thor. Also included among those developed there, were engines for the Atlas Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), as well as the twin combustion chamber alcohol/liquid oxygen booster engine for the Navaho, a large, intercontinental cruise missile that never became operational. Later, Rocketdyne designed and tested the J-2 liquid oxygen/hydrogen engine which was used on the second and third stages of the Project Apollo spacecraft. While the J-2 was tested at the facility, Rocketdyne's huge F-1 engine for the first stage of Apollo was tested in the Mojave desert near Edwards Air Force Base. This was due to safety and noise considerations, since SSFL was too close to populated areas.
The Atomics International Division of North American Aviation used SSFL Area IV as the site of United States first commercial nuclear power plant  and the testing and development of the SNAP-10A, the first nuclear reactor launched into outer space by the United States. Atomics International also operated the Energy Technology Engineering Center at the site for the U.S. government. As overall interest in nuclear power declined, Atomics International made a transition to non-nuclear energy-related projects, such as coal gasification, and gradually, ceased designing and testing nuclear reactors. Atomics International eventually was merged with the Rocketdyne division in 1978.
The Sodium Reactor Experiment (SRE) was an experimental nuclear reactor that operated at the site from 1957 to 1964 and was the first commercial power plant in the world to experience a core meltdown. There was a decades-long cover-up of the incident by the U.S. Department of Energy. The operation predated environmental regulation, so early disposal techniques are not recorded in detail. Thousands of pounds of sodium coolant from the time of the meltdown are not yet accounted for.
The reactor and support systems were removed in 1981 and the building torn down in 1999.
The 1959 sodium reactor incident was chronicled on History Channel's program Engineering Disasters 19.
The Energy Technology Engineering Center (ETEC), was a government-owned, contractor-operated complex of industrial facilities located within Area IV of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory. The ETEC specialized in non-nuclear testing of components which were designed to transfer heat from a nuclear reactor using liquid metals instead of water or gas. The center operated from 1966 to 1998. The ETEC site has been closed and is now[needs update] undergoing building removal and environmental remediation by the U.S. Department of Energy.
Throughout the years, approximately ten low-power nuclear reactors operated at SSFL, in addition to several "critical facilities": a sodium burn pit in which sodium-coated objects were burned in an open pit; a plutonium fuel fabrication facility; a uranium carbide fuel fabrication facility; and the purportedly largest "Hot Lab" facility in the United States at the time. (A hot lab is a facility used for remotely handling or machining radioactive material.) Irradiated nuclear fuel from other Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and Department of Energy (DOE) facilities from around the country was shipped to SSFL to be decladded and examined.
At least four of the ten nuclear reactors suffered accidents: 1) The AE6 reactor experienced a release of fission gases in March 1959. 2) In July 1959, the SRE experienced a power excursion and partial meltdown that released 28 Curies of radioactive noble gasses. The release resulted on the maximum off-site exposure of 0.099 millirem and an exposure of 0.018 millirem for the nearest residential building which is well within current limits today. 3) In 1964, the SNAP8ER experienced damage to 80% of its fuel. 4) In 1969 the SNAP8DR experienced similar damage to one-third of its fuel.
The reactors located on the grounds of SSFL were considered experimental, and therefore had no containment structures. Reactors and highly radioactive components were housed without the large concrete domes that surround modern power reactors.
The sodium burn pit, an open-air pit for cleaning sodium-contaminated components, was also contaminated[when?] by the burning of radioactively and chemically contaminated items in it, in contravention of safety requirements. In an article in the Ventura County Star, James Palmer, a former SSFL worker was interviewed. The article notes that "of the 27 men on Palmer's crew, 22 died of cancers." On some nights Palmer returned home from work and kissed "his wife [hello], only to burn her lips with the chemicals he had breathed at work." The report also noted that "During their breaks, Palmer's crew would fish in one of three ponds ... The men would use a solution that was 90 percent hydrogen peroxide to neutralize the contamination. Sometimes, the water was so polluted it bubbled. The fish died off." Palmer's interview ended on a somber note: "They had seven wells up there, water wells, and every damn one of them was contaminated," Palmer said, "It was a horror story."
Other spills and releases occurred over the decades of operation as well. In 1989, a DOE investigation found widespread chemical and radioactive contamination on the property. Widely publicized in the local press, the revelations led to substantial concern among community members and elected officials, resulting in a challenge to and subsequent shutdown of continued nuclear activity at the site, and the filing of lawsuits. Cleanup commenced, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was brought in at the request of local legislators to provide oversight.
On 11 December 2002, a Department of Energy (DOE) official, Mike Lopez, described typical clean-up procedures executed by Field Lab employees in the past. Workers would dispose of barrels filled with highly toxic waste by shooting the barrels with rifles so that they would explode and release their contents into the air. It is unclear when this process ended, but for certain did end prior to the 1990s.
On 26 July 1994, two scientists, Otto K. Heiney and Larry A. Pugh were killed when the chemicals they were illegally burning in open pits exploded. After a grand jury investigation and FBI raid on the facility, three Rocketdyne officials pleaded guilty in June 2004 to illegally storing explosive materials. The jury deadlocked on the more serious charges related to illegal burning of hazardous waste.
At trial, a retired Rocketdyne mechanic testified as to what he witnessed at the time of the explosion: "I assumed we were burning waste," Lee Wells testified, comparing the process used on 21 and 26 July 1994, to that once used to legally dispose of leftover chemicals at the company's old burn pit. As Heiney poured the chemicals for what would have been the third burn of the day, the blast occurred, Wells said. "[The background noise] was so loud I didn't hear anything ... I felt the blast and I looked down and my shirt was coming apart." When he realized what had occurred, Wells said, "I felt to see if I was all there ... I knew I was burned but I didn't know how bad." Wells suffered second- and third-degree burns to his face, arms and stomach.
The 2018 Woolsey Fire began at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory site. The fire scorched portions of the SSFL, causing the Southern California Edison's Chatsworth electrical substation to trip offline at 2:22 pm. However, the Woolsey Fire is reported to have begun at 3:30 pm on 8 November 2018, at Rocketdyne in Simi Valley. Although the Los Angeles County Public Health stated that no contamination was spread and that the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, which is overseeing cleanup of the site, also said that "previously handled radioactive and hazardous materials were not affected by the fire," Dr. Bob Dodge, President of Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles, said, “The Woolsey Fire likely released and spread radiological and chemical contamination that was in SSFL’s soil and vegetation via smoke and ash. All wildfire smoke can be hazardous to health, but if SSFL had been cleaned up long ago as DTSC promised, we’d at least not have to worry about exposure to dangerous radionuclides and chemicals as well.” He added, "When it burns and becomes airborne in smoke and ash, there is real possibility of heightened exposure for area residents."
The California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) found in their 2021 final report that the fire did not cause contaminants to be released from the site into Simi Valley and other neighboring communities. The report concluded that the risk from exposure to smoke during the fire was not higher than what is normally associated with wildfire.
In October of 2021 an independent, peer-reviewed study, Radioactive microparticles related to the Woolsey Fire in Simi Valley, CA, proved that radioactive contamination from the Santa Susana Field Lab reached nearby communities during the Woolsey Fire, contrary to DTSC's claims.
Three weeks after the Woolsey Fire 360 samples of dust, ash, and soils were collected in homes and on public land and were then analyzed by alpha- and beta-radiation counting. 97% of the samples showed activities at or close to site-specific background levels. However, offsite samples collected in publicly-accessible areas nearest to the SSFL site perimeter had the highest alpha-emitting radionuclides radium, thorium, and uranium activities, indicating site-related radioactive material has escaped the confines of the laboratory.
The study found radioactive particles associated with the fire at SSFL as high as nineteen times background (normal) nine miles away.
In October 2006, the Santa Susana Field Laboratory Advisory Panel, made up of independent scientists and researchers from around the United States, concluded that based on available data and computer models, contamination at the facility resulted in an estimated 260 cancer related deaths. The report also concluded that the SRE meltdown caused the release of more than 458 times the amount of radioactivity released by the Three Mile Island accident. While the nuclear core of the SRE released 10 times less radiation than the TMI incident, the lack of proper containment such as concrete structures caused this radiation to be released into the surrounding environment. The radiation released by the core of the TMI was largely contained.
According to studies conducted by Hal Morgenstern between 1988 and 2002, residents living within 2 miles of the laboratory are 60% more likely to be diagnosed with certain cancers compared to residents living 5 miles from the laboratory. This 2-mile region includes small sections of far southeastern Simi Valley and most of Bell Canyon. Part of Chatsworth and Canoga Park, as well as most of West Hills and Simi Valley are within 5 miles of the laboratory.
During its years of operation widespread use of highly toxic chemical additives occurred, in order to power over 30,000 rocket engine tests and to clean the rocket test-stands afterwards. As well as considerable nuclear research and at least four nuclear accidents, which has resulted in the SSFL becoming a seriously contaminated site and an offsite pollution source, requiring a sophisticated multi-agency Cleanup Project. An ongoing process to determine the site contamination levels and locations, cleanup standards to meet, methods to use, costs, timelines and completion requirements – are still being debated, and litigated.
In early May 2007, a Federal Court in San Francisco issued a major ruling which concluded that DOE has not been cleaning up the site to proper standards, and that the site would have to be cleaned up to higher standards if DOE ever wanted to release the site to Boeing, which in turn, would most likely release the land for unrestricted residential development. Judge "Conti's ruling requires DOE to prepare a more stringent review of the lab, which is on the border of Los Angeles County. Conti wrote that the department's decision to prepare a less-stringent environmental document prior to cleanup is in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act and noted that the lab 'is located only miles away from one of the largest population centers in the world.'"
On 26 July 2007, the staff at the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board recommended a $471,190 fine against Boeing for 79 violations of the California Water Code during an 18-month period. From October 2004 to January 2006, wastewater and stormwater runoff coming from the lab had increased levels of chromium, dioxin, lead, mercury, and other pollutants, the board said. The contaminated water flowed into Bell Creek and the Los Angeles River in violation of 1 July 2004, permit that allowed the release of wastewater and stormwater runoff as long as it didn't contain high levels of pollutants.
In October 2007, Boeing announced that "In a landmark agreement between Boeing and California officials, nearly 2,400 acres (10 km2) of land that is currently Boeing's Santa Susana Field Laboratory will become state parkland. According to the plan jointly announced by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Boeing, and state Sen. Sheila Kuehl, the property will be donated and preserved as a vital undeveloped open-space link in the Simi Hills, above the Simi Valley and the San Fernando Valley. The agreement will permanently restrict the land for nonresidential, noncommercial use."
The California state senate bill SB 990, passed into law in 2007, set the standards for the site's cleanup. To achieve them, the R.P.s (responsible parties) consisting of Boeing, DOE, and NASA, need to sign agreements of acceptance and cleanup compliance.[original research?]
Boeing has contested the law, filing a lawsuit in September 2009 to release it from compliance, with a court date set for summer 2011. Boeing won the suit and claims it will clean up the site, although to levels far below those outlined in SB 990.
In September 2010 DOE and NASA agreed to meet the stringent cleanup standards set for the site in the state's SB 990 legislation, and to cover all costs for their cleanup's implementation. This agreement is significant progress in the SSFL cleanup sequence. In 2014, NASA issued a final environmental impact statement containing mitigation measures that would demolish all structures and remediate soil and groundwater contamination. NASA issued a 2014 report highlighting cleanup technology feasibility studies, soil and groundwater fieldwork, and additional archaeology surveys that would be performed in preparation for the demolition of the structures. NASA determined that substantially more soil needed to be removed from its part of the site than what it estimated in the 2014 report so a supplemental report was prepared in 2019.
Demolition of abandoned buildings on the site was scheduled to start in early 2015 after abatement of asbestos, lead paint and other regulated materials. The test stands would follow and are the most complex to tear down but all demolition were to be completed in 2016. Because of their historical significance, one test stand and one control building will remain if the cleanup goals can still be met. The cleanup was projected to be completed in 2017. In 2019, the U.S. Department of Energy announced that it has decided to demolish and remove 13 of 18 remaining structures. In 2020, an agreement was reached to demolish 10 of the most highly contaminated structures.
The CA-DTSC: SSFL Project, the lead regulatory agency for the site cleanup, is forming a new [Sept. 2010] PPG – Public Participation Group, in response to their community 'Listening Sessions' held earlier in the year and the proposed Listening Session Response Plan. Applications from all the 'stakeholder' I.P.s – interested parties: the public, community groups, neighbors, local environmental and cultural groups, and others are being accepted currently [Sept. 2010].
Every quarter, the SSFL Workgroup holds meetings regarding the cleanup and are open for public attendance. The SSFL Workgroup is the current version of the Santa Susana Advisory Panel. The workgroup consists of representatives from the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, the U.S. EPA, public policy organizations, and community representatives. The Boeing Company, current owner of the SSFL site, and the DOE are also invited. Other organizations and private companies also attend as part of the workgroup depending on the topic pending. The meetings are usually held at The Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, and are posted on the DTSC-SSFL Calendar page of their website.
A petition to form a "CAG" or community advisory group was denied in March 2010 by DTSC. In 2012, the current CAG's petition was approved. The SSFL CAG recommends that all responsible parties execute a risk-based cleanup to EPA's suburban residential standard that will minimize excavation, soil removal and backfill and thus reduce danger to public health and functions of surrounding communities. However, SSFL Panel believes the CAG has a conflict of interest, as it is funded in large part by a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, and three of its members are former employees of Boeing or its parent company, North American Aviation.
|Fly-through Animation of Test Stand 1, Santa Susana Field Laboratory Area II, California, HAER, 27 March 2013|
|Fly-through Animation of Bravo Test Area at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, Santa Susana, CA, HAER, 25 September 2013|
|Fly-through of Coca Test Area at Santa Susana Field Laboratory, HAER 6 June 2013|
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Santa Susana Field Laboratory.|