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What Happened At The Santa Susana Nuclear Site During The Woolsey Fire? via

The Woolsey Fire, now one of the largest recorded fires in L.A. County’s history, has burned a good portion of the former Santa Susana Field Lab, which was once home to several nuclears reactor and the stie of numerous rocket tests. The site is still riddled with radioactive waste and other toxic compounds.

Many of our audience members want to know if there’s a risk of those hazardous materials being spread by the fire. You’ve reached out to ask us…

  • “The fire burned the contaminated Santa Susana Field Laboratory, a former nuclear testing site. Who is making sure that air is not toxic?”
  • “Did the radioactive waste at #rocketdyne burn and what is the status of chemicals at the facility”
  • “Is Santa Susana safe?”

Here’s what we know. Public health officials say they found “no evidence of discernible radiation” in areas they tested. Still, experts who have studied the site say there are many unanswered questions.


In July 1959, one of those reactors suffered a partial meltdown. Workers tried to repair it. When they couldn’t, they were ordered to open the reactor’s large door, releasing radiation into the air. It likely spread to nearby communities such as Simi Valley, Chatsworth and Canoga Park.

Six weeks after the meltdown, the Atomic Energy Commission issued a statement saying that there had been a minor “fuel element failure” but there had been “no release of radioactive materials” into the environment. That wasn’t true.

In 2017, reporter Joel Grover of NBC4, our media partner, documented all of this in “L.A.’s Nuclear Secret,” an eight-part series exposing the reactor incident and subsequent cover-up.

NASA and aerospace company Rocketdyne continued to use the Santa Susana facility for thousands of rocket tests through 1990. Those activities also released all sorts of toxic chemicals into the air and deposited them into the groundwater, the surface water and the soil.

What’s Up With Santa Susana Now?
Boeing bought most of the site in 1996 and soon closed the Santa Susana Field Laboratory. The company says it’s turning the area into an “open space habitat” although the site is still a toxic mess.

2012 EPA report didn’t paint a pretty picture. Approximately one out of every seven samples contained “concentrations of radioactive materials exceeding background levels.” More than 80% of these were man-made radionuclides. This echoed a 1989 Department of Energy reportthat found there were contaminants in both the soil and the plants.

“The soil, groundwater and surface water that’s in the center are all heavily contaminated,” says Dan Hirsch, who retired last year as the director of UC Santa Cruz’s program on environmental and nuclear policy. He’s also the president of Committee to Bridge the Gap, a nonprofit nuclear policy organization.

He says Santa Susana has maybe 100 different toxic chemicals in the soil. They include “a mix of radioactive materials like plutonium, strontium-90 and cesium-137 and a witch’s brew of toxic chemicals such as PCBs, dioxins, heavy metals like mercury and chromium-6 and volatile organic compounds like PCE.”



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