High above Moorpark, in Ventura County, are the remnants of the Santa Susanna Field Laboratory, a multi acre site where rocket engines were tested in the early days of the space age and the country’s first commercial nuclear power plant had a partial meltdown. That’s right. A nuclear power plant went out of control just about 30 miles from downtown Los Angeles. That catastrophic accident happened 55 years ago this week, but neither the public nor local government agencies knew about it for 20 years.
Fewer than 3,000 people lived in Moorpark when the experimental reactor, cooled by liquid sodium rather than water, began providing electricity in November, 1957. On July 12, 1959 the power plant became damaged and nearly exploded and the automatic shutdown devices failed. Workers had to manually bring down the power, but by then 13 of the plant’s 43 fuel rods had partially melted , releasing radiation that escaped into the plant’s cooling system. Some radioactive gases vented into the atmosphere, but plant operators said the amounts were so small and diffused that the public was not in danger.
Atomics International, which ran the plant, spent more than a year removing the damaged rods, and trucking them, along with other radioactive debris, to a dump site in Nevada. The reactor was shut down in 1964 and decommissioned in a project that lasted more than 30 years.
Today the property is owned by Boeing, which has spent years cleaning up the site. Several years ago, the company announced an agreement with the state to turn the area into a park, but environmental activists aren’t satisfied with Boeing’s decontamination efforts, and the company has contested some of the conditions of the deal. It doesn’t look as if kids will be flying their kites up there anytime soon.
I’ve included a portion of a government film showing the power plant when it first began operating, as well as some shots of the clean up efforts. The second video clip is a Skyfox aerial of the site.