11 December 2009
Dispute over radioactive dirt going to Calif site
By Noaki Schwartz
Associated Press Writer

LOS ANGELES—Boeing Co. and NASA have applied to the state to haul tainted soil from a partial nuclear meltdown at a former rocket test lab to a San Joaquin Valley dump that's not licensed to accept radioactive waste.

The proposal before the California Department of Toxic Substances Control has been assailed by activists and residents who live near the cleanup site and the town near the hazardous waste site.

If radioactive waste is allowed to go to Kettleman facility it could create "a defacto unlicensed radioactive dump at a place not designed for it," said Dan Hirsch, who heads the Committee to Bridge the Gap, a nuclear policy group focused on the cleanup at the former nuclear testing site.

The dirt was dug up as part of a cleanup effort at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory near Los Angeles, where rocket engines were tested for years and a partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor took place in 1959. The U.S. Department of Energy, NASA and Boeing are responsible for a cleanup that is being overseen by the state and could potentially cost $1 billion.

Boeing found some of the dirt contains cesium 137, a radioactive byproduct of nuclear testing.

In response to Boeing's request for an opinion, the Department of Public Health reviewed the proposal. In September, it found the dirt "does not represent a public health threat" and could be sent to a hazardous waste facility such as Kettleman City, about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Rick Brausch, Santa Susana project director for the Department of Toxic Substances Control, however, said Kettleman is not licensed to accept radioactive waste. The agency is under pressure to make a final decision on whether the dirt can be sent there.

Boeing has said it can alternately send the dirt to a landfill in Utah that is permitted to accept radioactive waste.

In November, Brausch sent a letter to the Department of Health requesting more information about the agency's opinion. Brausch, who is still awaiting a response, wants to make sure he does not "advise the facility to accept anything outside their permit."

"We are absolutely 100 percent compliant with federal and state regulations and we will not accept this material without full approval of all regulatory agencies, including the California Environmental Protection Agency," said Kit Cole, spokeswoman for Chemical Waste Management, which owns the Kettleman facility. "We take the protection of human health and the environment very seriously."

During the Cold War, the then-Atomic Energy Commission used the 2,850-acre Santa Susana Field Laboratory site to test rockets and experimental nuclear reactors.

Over the years, the site has been home to 10 nuclear reactors, low-power reactors, plutonium and uranium carbide fabrication plants. It also housed a lab for remotely cutting up irradiated nuclear fuel shipped in from other federal nuclear plants.

In 1959, one reactor's coolant channels became blocked, causing fuel rods to overheat and partially melt. Operators shut down the reactor for inspection, then started it up again for two more weeks.

Thirteen of 43 fuel rods were destroyed. The reactor had no containment dome to prevent radiation from leaking into the surrounding environment.

Former workers and residents of surrounding communities have blamed the meltdown for a variety of health problems, including cancer, and are anxious to get the contaminants out of the area. Residents in Kettleman City, who similarly blame the hazardous waste facility for recent birth defects in their community do not want to see the contaminated dirt anywhere near their community.

"Get the cesium out of there," Marie Mason, who lives near the Santa Susana site, said during a recent presentation on the cleanup. "I don't care if it has to go to the moon. Take it to Utah."

Global Network