The Health Impact of Nuclear Meltdowns: From California to Chernobyl

When one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded hit Japan, only to be followed by an equally punishing tsunami, the people of Japan were devastated and people throughout the world deeply sympathetic. These disasters were succeeded, day after day, by reports of dangerous problems at many of the nation’s nuclear reactors. Potentially most catastrophic among them was partial meltdowns of the fuel, although no one yet knows the extent of the meltdowns because conditions near the reactors are presently far too hazardous to allow physical inspection. The indirect evidence for meltdown is the presence of two deadly isotopes in the environment near the reactors.

Similar nuclear meltdowns have taken place in the US as well. One such event took place more than fifty years ago, at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) in southern California.

Mystery has long shrouded the SSFL. Founded in the mid-1940s, the lab, located between Simi Valley and Chatsworth in the San Fernando Valley, developed and tested nearly a dozen nuclear reactors for the US Atomic Energy Commission, later the Department of Energy. The lab also conducted tests of large liquid propellant rockets.

At SSFL, in November of 1957, the Sodium Reactor Experiment (SRE) – an experimental nuclear reactor – began operation. In a public relations effort by the Atomic Energy Commission the SRE was tied into an Edison power substation to light the town of Moorpark. Supposedly, this was the first time that a nuclear reactor provided commercial electricity.

But about a year and a half later the SRE suffered a partial meltdown, releasing radioactive material into the air. News of the accident was suppressed for twenty years, until students at UCLA found AEC records of the accident and released them to the news media.

Fifty years after the release of radiation its impact on workers and residents remains unknown. It’s noteworthy, however, that in May of 1989 Department of Energy surveys revealed that radioactive and toxic chemicals from decades of nuclear experiments and rocket tests had leaked into soil, groundwater, and bedrock at the SSFL site.

Suppressing news of the partial meltdown probably wasn’t necessary for the cover up at first because few people knew the meaning of the tem until 1986, when the nuclear reactor meltdown at Chernobyl grabbed worldwide attention. This disaster began on April 26 at the Chernobyl Power Plant in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union. In what has become standard procedure with such accidents, the Soviet Union covered up reports of the danger as the plume created by explosions and fires drifted across a large region around Chernobyl and then across much of Europe. Only after radiation levels set off alarms at a nuclear power plant in Sweden, 700 miles from the Chernobyl plant, did the Soviet Union admit that an accident had occurred.

By one estimate, there may have been 4,000 deaths attributable to the nuclear accident. But another estimate of the human toll may be more significant. Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations from 1996 to 2006, has stated ”At least three million children in Belarus, Ukraine and the Russian Federation require physical treatment (due to the accident). Not until 2016, at the earliest, will we know the full number of those likely to develop a serious medical condition.” And as of December 2000, over 350,000 people had been evacuated from the most severely contaminated areas of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine, and then resettled.

There was also significant property damage. One example was Pripyat, the city nearest the meltdown. Although people there were not even informed of the accident at first, after a few days the city was surrounded by a barren exclusion zone of 30 kilometers. That zone remains in place today.

The partial meltdown of the SRE is certainly not an event comparable to the Chernobyl disaster, now recognized as one of the worst nuclear accidents ever. It would be foolish, however, to assume that it had no consequences. After all, it was reported that the meltdown released radiation into the air. Radiation is dangerous to human health. Therefore, where the radiation went is worth knowing, although not always easy to find out.

A reporter from a local CBS television station interviewed three women who live in Simi Valley. Each one of the women has cancer. Although it’s not possible to conclude that a specific cancer has a specific cause, the women insist that their cancers were caused by pollution from SSFL — nuclear, toxic chemical, or both– that was deposited in Simi Valley.

As for Japan, the nuclear meltdowns have been complicated by many explosions, even more fires, destruction of structures, releases of small amounts of radiation, and more. The effect on people can’t yet be known because the situation is still changing, and perhaps not for the better.