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Worse than Three Mile Island?
September 3, 2010 4:14 PM   Subscribe

Over fifty years after Los Angeles' first nuclear meltdown, the State of California is finally getting around to decontaminating the radioactive fallout.
posted by Chinese Jet Pilot (35 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
Worse than a Mel Gibson meltdown?
posted by GuyZero at 4:27 PM on September 3, 2010


Wow - never heard of this.
In August 1959, about five weeks after the accident, the Atomic Energy Commission published a press release indicating that "a parted fuel element had been observed," a reference to damage. But it added that there was no evidence of radioactive releases or unsafe operating conditions.
Fucking up and allowing a meltdown to occur is one thing. Deciding to keep it a secret takes you to a whole new level of being a terrible person.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 4:44 PM on September 3, 2010 [3 favorites]


These guys built the Atlas rockets which sent John Glenn into orbit, but this facility really is the dark side of 20th century American technological and engineering. About 10 years ago I read a lot of old documents relating to this site and it was a complete shitshow. They got rid of a lot of toxic and/or radioactive waste by literally blowing it up or burning it in outdoor pits. From wikipedia:

On December 11, 2002, a top Department of Energy 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 ... On July 26, 1994, two scientists, Otto K. Heiney, 52, of Chatsworth and Larry A. Pugh, 51, of Thousand Oaks, were killed when the chemicals they were illegally burning in open pits exploded.

One particularly appalling detail that I recall reading, and which I haven't seen mentioned anywhere, was that sometime in the sixties they actually lost a golf ball sized lump of plutonium somewhere in Simi Valley near the laboratory. It was accidentally dropped out of a helicopter in which it was being transported, and they never found it.
posted by Mendl at 4:48 PM on September 3, 2010 [9 favorites]


And the same people wonder what everyone has against nuclear power plants.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 4:57 PM on September 3, 2010 [4 favorites]


Mendl's find on Wikipedia is pretty interesting.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:59 PM on September 3, 2010


And the same people wonder what everyone has against nuclear power plants.

To be fair to nuclear power plants, for some reason we allow fossil fuel plants to dump their waste products directly into the atmosphere by default. At least it's the exception with nukes.

Small comfort, I know...
posted by Salvor Hardin at 5:03 PM on September 3, 2010 [7 favorites]


34°13'52.06"N
118°41'38.16"W

It's right between Simi Valley and Los Angeles. That was the boonies, more or less, back in the 1950's. It's smack dab in the middle of suburbia now.

Wikilink.
posted by Xoebe at 5:14 PM on September 3, 2010


Woah, I've got The China Syndrome out from the library right now, I guess it's time to finally watch it.
posted by carsonb at 5:28 PM on September 3, 2010


while radioactive iodine only has an eight day half life, that's more than enough time to get into the local dairy cows and contaminate the milk supply.

So the iodine doesn't die if it can find a host cow?
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:03 PM on September 3, 2010 [5 favorites]


Yes, probably worse than Three Mile Island. Lots of things were worse than Three Mile Island. You don't need radioactive materials to do bad stuff, just some dumb people with hazardous materials. The other incidents just don't get the Jane Fonda treatment.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 6:03 PM on September 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Anytime I see shit like this I think about free market douchebags and how "the invisible hand" is supposed to prevent this from happening. Yeah.
posted by maxwelton at 6:06 PM on September 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


When I bought my house in the San Fernando Valley a few years ago, they included in the final documents mandatory revelations about the extent of the contamination at the RocketDyne site in the Santa Susana Mountains.
posted by Asparagirl at 6:43 PM on September 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm probably one of the most rah-rah pro nuclear people you'll find on MeFi, but even I have to shake my head at the pure stupidity of operating any nuclear reactor without a containment building. Not to mention not requiring a containment building because it was an experimental reactor. Wouldn't you think that an experimental reactor would be the one most in need of a containment building?
posted by wierdo at 8:36 PM on September 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


Here it is on Google map. Looks like there's now a trailer park less than a mile away. I wonder how much they know about what happened there.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 8:36 PM on September 3, 2010


From Wiki: "On December 11, 2002, a top 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."

Jesus. What were those fuckheads thinking?
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 8:43 PM on September 3, 2010


Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese: "Here it is on Google map. Looks like there's now a trailer park less than a mile away."

Actually, this explains a lot about trailer parks.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 9:30 PM on September 3, 2010


Ahhh, Rocketdyne. I lived in Chatsworth in the last half of the 50s, and Rocketdyne was part of the local entertainment. It's just over a ridge of red rocked hills from Chatsworth; every week or two the night sky over those hills would light up like an Arizona Highways sunset, and we would hear and feel the engines being tested. We found it very apocolyptic and exciting. On weekends we'd be climbing all over those hills trying to get into the place. It was the boonies; not much but orange groves, horse ranches and chickens. Then Thompson-Ramo-Woolridge moved in and all the engineers and tract houses came. We moved out in the early 60s. We didn't know about the reactors. Wouldn't have mattered. It was a wonderful place back then. Except for, you know. But, who knew?
posted by carping demon at 9:43 PM on September 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


Explains a lot. I always thought a lot of the residents of Simi Valley were mutants.
posted by oneswellfoop at 10:52 PM on September 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


I went hiking up in that area a few years back but of course the whole site was off limits so I couldn't get too close. I was hoping to get a glimpse of the nearby Burro Flats Painted Cave but it's not an easy thing to find.
posted by euphorb at 10:55 PM on September 3, 2010


"Jesus. What were those fuckheads thinking?"

Probably what most people in the 1950s thought, that burning stuff was just how you got rid of things you didn't want. Do you have any idea for how long garbage dumps were still being burned in the US?

I lived in a building on the East Coast from 1970-1976 that had a trash incinerator, as did all the buildings in the complex. When we moved away they were still using the incinerators. We dumped our trash bags into a chute and poof, they were gone. They ran the incinerators a few times a week.

We dumped everything in there, including batteries, motor oil, all kinds of plastics, stuff with lead and asbestos in it, you name it.

Now, this was in a large housing complex with many thousands of people in it, located across the street from a grade school and a large public park, with a good-size college and a city-edge residential neighborhood all around it.

Multiply that by several thousand, since pretty much the whole metro area was doing that... not to mention all the leaded gasoline and little-to-no emissions controls on the cars and trucks. It's amazing the whole place wasn't dying of cancers and heavy metal poisoning.

I'm glad we've learned since then, but really it wasn't very long ago we were just dumping all this atrocious crap directly into our local environments.
posted by zoogleplex at 12:47 AM on September 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


Anytime I see shit like this I think about free market douchebags and how "the invisible hand" is supposed to prevent this from happening. Yeah.

This was done by what was effectively a captive government contractor. Just like Chernobyl (the worst nuclear accident by 4-5 orders of magnitude) was the responsibility of a state owned reactor designed for the military.

If you want to mock the arguments that the free market is a great way to prevent pollution, by all means do so. You should probably pick a situation that actually supports your argument though, there are plenty.
posted by atrazine at 2:17 AM on September 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


So the iodine doesn't die if it can find a host cow?

When radioactive iodine breaks down, one of its byproducts is radioactive strontium, which, when it gets eaten by cows, gets processed as if it were calcium (they're in the same column in the periodic table, which means they have very similar chemical binding properties). That calcium strontium finds its way into your milk, and believe me, it does not do a body good.
posted by Jon_Evil at 4:48 AM on September 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


This was done by what was effectively a captive government contractor. Just like Chernobyl (the worst nuclear accident by 4-5 orders of magnitude) was the responsibility of a state owned reactor designed for the military.

I think what maxwelton was talking about was Boeing's fifty-year long refusal to admit that 1. anything was wrong and 2. even though nothing was wrong, it certainly wasn't their responsibility to help clean up the giant nuclear and chemical wasteland they created.

blah blah corporations holding themselves to a higher operating standard than government blah blah blah fuck you.

"you" in this case is not atrazine, sorry if it looks that way
posted by Jon_Evil at 4:53 AM on September 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


National Geographic did a show on what would happen if humans suddenly disappeared from the planet.

One of the consequences was the inevitable meltdown of every single nuclear reactor on the planet and what the radiation would do to the surrounding environment.

The upshot is that 500 years later the planet as a whole would be in remarkably better condition without us around to continue screwing it up.
posted by bwg at 8:28 AM on September 4, 2010


"Jesus. What were those fuckheads thinking?"

Probably what most people in the 1950s thought, that burning stuff was just how you got rid of things you didn't want.


In the 1960s, we were still burning our lawn clippings and raked-up leaves in a small clearing behind our house. More than once we disposed of large pile of Poison Ivy that way. One time, that smoke drifted a few houses down, and this poor little girl playing in a plastic pool, in the path of the smoke ,was covered head to toe in angry sores.

Just about that time, backyard burn-offs were prohibited, and our family, for one, understood why that was reasonable.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:05 AM on September 4, 2010


This also reminds me of another mostly unknown nuclear accident, in Idaho Falls in 1961. A military reactor went on an "excursion" due to operator error and killed the three men working there. When the rescue team showed up, they found one dead, one mostly dead, and couldn't find the other guy until several days later, when they found that a control rod had pinned his body to the ceiling of the building like a butterfly on a pin. It's horrifying and strangely-fascinating at once, like the Goiânia accident.

Oddly, though, having read about the silly, inexcusable, appalling, interesting, sad, and spooky history of nuclear power around the world, I'd still rather have nuclear energy than caveman power (i.e. burning stuff). The nice thing about our increasingly privacy-free world is how hard it is to hide anything noxious and terrifying in this day and age.
posted by sonascope at 12:04 PM on September 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


zoogleplex wrote: "I lived in a building on the East Coast from 1970-1976 that had a trash incinerator"

My city still incinerates its trash. At least they've got some pollution control stuff in the smokestack. I doubt it's much worse than whatever the oil refineries are emitting.

bwg wrote: "One of the consequences was the inevitable meltdown of every single nuclear reactor on the planet"

Yeah, that's hyperbole. If the reactor got into a bad state, the automatic safety systems should scram the reactor and if there's no external power, the diesel generators should automatically start, providing electric power to the necessary pumps to prevent the residual heat from causing core damage. I'm sure at least a few would fail to operate properly, though.

This is one of the reasons I'd rather have something more advanced than the usual PWR/BWR reactors.

Most likely, you'd have a bunch of containment buildings full of radiation, and then some hundreds of years on when the containment buildings deteriorated enough from lack of maintenance they might collapse and release radioactive particles into the surrounding environment. The bright side of that is that if they did last for a hundred or two hundred years, most of the really really nasty stuff with short half-lives would have decayed already.
posted by wierdo at 12:21 PM on September 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


The nice thing about our increasingly privacy-free world is how hard it is to hide anything noxious and terrifying in this day and age.

Corporations and governments seem to have an easy time about it. Even if stuff comes out, you just shoot the messenger.

Look what happened with the smear campaign against WikiLeaks and its unofficial figurehead — they killed our informants and soldiers in Afghanistan, and they are rapists to boot, etc.

Private and public interests are now working together hand in hand. Since laws are more stringent about what governments do, the work gets privatized, farmed out to contractors so that there's less oversight (e.g., hire Bechtel to do lousy clean-up work or hire Blackwater as trigger-happy mercenaries), or they set up laws that benefit corporations, giving them the same protections as citizens, putting more stringent protections on private property, restricting damages through "tort reform" and similar legislative efforts.

Note how it's much, much tougher to go after corporations in the courtroom. Their lawyers file for change-of-venues to move the case in front of company-friendly judges. Or they simply out-spend you until you can't fight back.

That's if the corporation has a presence in your country. Then you have the Halliburtons that move to Dubai and other countries where we have virtually no legal recourse. Capital flows where there are fewer laws that protect people.

If you're very lucky, you might get something noxious and terrifying shut down. As a recent example, in the United States, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) allowed Entergy to keep running a nuclear power plant in Vermont, despite numerous and egregious safety violations. After the company lied about tritium leaks, the state of Vermont had to step in and shut the plant down. Entergy still denies any responsibility.

Nuclear is demonstrably not a safe option in either public or private hands. The technology seems practically irrelevant to the issue. It is the people involved who run the system who are dishonest for monetary or other personal gain, and who have gamed the system so that fixing problems almost becomes a functional impossibility. In the meantime, we get wastelands polluted for millennia, or enough people are sickened or die that problems can't get swept under the rug anymore.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:57 PM on September 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


I think that the corporations do tend to go after the messenger, but corporations don't hold all the reins to the means of distributing information. They've gone after Wikileaks, but Wikileaks is still out there, and most likely will still be out there for some time. In the olden days, you couldn't talk about the Church of LDS or Scientology without getting sued, but now, the great big dirty secrets are out there, more or less beyond the possibility of being stamped down. It's not a wonderland of freedom of the press out there, to be sure, but atrocities aren't able to hide for decades like they used to. Anywhere there's someone with a phone and a few bars of signal, it's gonna get out.
posted by sonascope at 3:13 PM on September 4, 2010


Also, I'd have to disagree on the safety of nuclear power, based on the actual data we've accumulated over the years, but unfortunately, we're not allowed to be pro-nuclear in this country. We can be anti-coal, anti-natural gas, anti-hydro, but apparently nuclear power is the wicked flame stolen from the gods, so we can use it in lieu of generation methods with a long and bloody track record (unlike nuclear's long and not bloody track record) because we'll get Prometheus into hot water. I used to be an anti-nukes guy, having become an independent adult in the age of Chernobyl, but when I sat down and actually looked at the data available that wasn't produced by organizations more interested in ideology than data, it turns out nuclear is pretty dang safe.

I used to take all the scary stories from the anti-nuclear crowd a lot more seriously back when NASA was launching the Cassini-Huygens probe, just before I had my first real run-in with my fellow Greenpeace-y, ecologically-minded progressives. The scare-mongering was absolutely unbelievable, just hysterical, uninformed bullsh!t on a gay-marriage-ruins-straight-marriage level, about how the evil devil NASA was gambling with our whole planet, our whole ecosystem, and so on, and I sat there and discussed and debated and had shouting matches and did my homework and started to study the actual independent data on such things (and in the interests of full disclosure, I had a lot of good data because of my proximity to the Goddard Space Flight Center, my previous involvement with the science & tech Explorer Post that was based there, and friends working on unmanned probe projects). It just hadn't ever occurred to me that "my" side as a green-thinking progressive would turn out to be as full of crap as the bad guys, but there they were.

The problem with our nuclear power plants are that they were produced in concert with the nuclear weapons industry, and now everyone's so histrionic about nuclear power on every side of the issue that we can't settle down and stop making a moral issue of it long enough to move on to the next thing. It's too bad—we've got a problem in climate change, and a real-world solution that works right now, unlike solar electricity and a lot of other alternative sources, but as long as Homer's working for Mr. Burns, people are only going to see that nuclear plant.
posted by sonascope at 3:47 PM on September 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


Back in the 1950s my father was a safety engineer for Rocketdyne- that's right, he was one of the people supervising waste disposal. Fifty years later, I'm clerking in a law firm, looking at a list of witnesses in the Simi Valley class action lawsuit over toxic waste products in the ground water. Called in as a technical witnesses for Rocketdyne was my father. That's when I realized what my half-senile father's talk about men in suits coming to talk to him was all about. The poor lawyers just wanted to know where his team deposited the waste- good luck getting anything useful out of him after fifty years. As for dad, he was just delighted to have people paying so much attention to him.
posted by happyroach at 4:52 PM on September 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


That should be "we can't use it in lieu" in the first paragraph. The joy of rambling at my desk, alas.

Also, in the interest of not being being less of a blowhard, I can distill my skepticism down a bit:

I'm as reluctant to accept data and conclusions from people who claim that all nuclear power is always wrong, forever and ever, because humans are greedy, selfish, stupid (fill in the blank) as I am to accept data from the unsinkable-Titanic corporate brigade. Between those poles, however, there's some very good and independent scholarship that doesn't paint as bleak a picture as some do.
posted by sonascope at 5:21 PM on September 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Equally engrossing in the stupidity level is how plutonium from Rocky Flats contaminated the Denver suburbs, and how the government responded to it. It's hard to understand the mentality until you've been around it for a year or two. It's a mixture of macho and ignorance contrived by all concerned.

Very few countries in the world who played with nuclear managed to escape major incidents. They'd be less scary without the coverups. Many dozens of unknown incidents have been dragged into the light thanks to the internet... the lists on WP are getting lengthy. No doubt there are many more.
posted by Twang at 4:44 AM on September 5, 2010


wierdo: "zoogleplex wrote: "Yeah, that's hyperbole. If the reactor got into a bad state, the automatic safety systems should scram the reactor and if there's no external power, the diesel generators should automatically start, providing electric power to the necessary pumps to prevent the residual heat from causing core damage. I'm sure at least a few would fail to operate properly, though.

Actually it's not; they mentioned the backup systems, but the premise of the show was what would happen if humans were gone all at once, and it pointed out that diesel generators would eventually run dry and there wouldn't be enough time to prevent meltdowns.

Mind you, we wouldn't be here, so it wouldn't really matter, and in time the Earth would recover.
posted by bwg at 7:53 AM on September 5, 2010


bwg wrote: "Actually it's not; they mentioned the backup systems, but the premise of the show was what would happen if humans were gone all at once, and it pointed out that diesel generators would eventually run dry and there wouldn't be enough time to prevent meltdowns."

Yeah, that's not completely accurate. Those diesel generators have enough fuel to get through the worst part of the decay heat generation. (a few days to a week) It is true that when they ran out of fuel, there might be some damage to the core, but a full on meltdown to the point of radiation release is not particularly likely. My point was that human input is not necessary, at least in most western reactors. The safety systems are all automatic. (of course, they can be triggered manually also)

Granted, a full on radiation release is inevitable in the longer term. Exactly how long depending on how long it takes nature to knock down the containment building and cause the primary coolant loop piping to spring a leak. By the time that happens, the problem will be primarily heavy metal contamination, not radioactivity, as most of the high-energy emitters will have decayed already.
posted by wierdo at 1:33 PM on September 5, 2010


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