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Cleanup and Complexity: Nuclear and Industrial Contamination at The Santa Susana Field Laboratory, California

Abstract

Environmental contamination, a legacy of industrial activity borne by numerous sites around the world, poses health risks for surrounding communities and presents serious cleanup challenges. One such site, the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL), served as an aerospace and nuclear energy research facility for over 50 years, during which time radioactive and other hazardous materials were unintentionally and intentionally released into the surrounding environment. These releases, including the partial meltdown of a sodium reactor, were hidden from the public for three decades. The site is now located in suburban Los Angeles, with 730,000 people living within a 10-mile radius. This paper evaluates the technical and social challenges underlying site cleanup at SSFL, including a complex geological setting, uncertain contaminant information, and a convoluted, evolving regulatory framework. These challenges, paired with historical secrecy on the part of responsible organizations and unclear layers of responsibility, have led to uncertainty and distrust within the surrounding community. Lessons learned from other remediated sites are assessed and recommendations for the SSFL cleanup are provided.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Effectiveness can be defined numerous ways, e.g., cleanup to relevant regulatory standards, cleanup to a level satisfactory to activist groups, or cleanup that minimized community discomfort. We do not prioritize a single definition, but arguable the SSFL case has not met any of these.

  2. 2.

    Burn pit disposal may also have been motivated by frustrations with acquiring permits and the costs of dumping materials in the ocean (Miller 1958).

  3. 3.

    Human activities, such as cleanup efforts relocating dump trucks full of contaminated sediment, could easily exceed geologic sediment movement, but are highly dependent on short term changes in policy or management decisions.

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The authors thank two anonymous reviewers for extremely detailed and thoughtful suggestions on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Nicola Ulibarri.

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Ulibarri, N., Tracy, C.L. & McCarty, R.J. Cleanup and Complexity: Nuclear and Industrial Contamination at The Santa Susana Field Laboratory, California. Environmental Management 65, 257–271 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00267-019-01239-7

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Keywords

  • Nuclear contamination
  • Industrial contamination
  • Remediation
  • Environmental regulation