California breaks promise to clean up radioactive pollution from nuclear meltdown

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A test nuclear reactor at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory suffered a meltdown in 1959. But the remnants of the radioactive disaster continue to reverberate in nearby communities decades later. Photo courtesy of the Department of Energy.

To the Point focuses on the radioactive fallout of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, the extraordinary number of rare childhood cancers in residential neighborhoods near the plant, and the state of California’s broken promises to clean up the site.

After a nuclear meltdown in 1959, the federal government and private contractors kept the disaster secret for decades while radioactive pollution remained on the site between the San Fernando and Simi Valleys.  Pollution from rocket testing also contaminated the region’s soil, water and air, as featured in the MSNBC documentary “In the Dark of the Valley.”

Map of the Santa Susana Field Lab and the surrounding area. Map courtesy of Melissa Bumstead.  

Some kids living near Santa Susana have died of cancer, and survivors will have health problems for the rest of their lives. A group of mothers whose children suffer from cancer have also organized and launched a petition gathering some 750,000 signatures demanding a cleanup. 

“In 2014, my daughter was diagnosed with an incredibly rare and aggressive form of leukemia. And in treatment, we kept meeting other families who lived near us,” says Melissa Bumstead, founder of the Parents Against the Santa Susana Field Lab

Gracie Bumstead is seen in treatment. Photo courtesy of Melissa Bumstead. 

However, years of promises to enforce a cleanup of the site have borne no fruit. During Arnold Schwarzenegger’s tenure as California’s governor, the state secured two legally binding agreements from the operators of Santa Susanna, including NASA, the U.S. Department of Energy and Boeing. They committed to a total cleanup by 2017. Then Jerry Brown came into office, and nothing was done. 

Last year, California Secretary for Environmental Protection Jared Blumenfeld said mopping up the Santa Susana site was the first goal of Gavin Newsom’s administration. But now he’s backing away, and the state is negotiating with the polluters behind closed doors. 

“They're trying to get out of cleanups [as] this has the potential to set a precedent for a new cleanup standard across America,” says Dan Hirsch, former president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap and retired director of the Program on Environmental and Nuclear Policy at UC Santa Cruz. 

Today, some 730,000 people live within 10 miles of the facility.



Warren Olney


Andrea Brody