Energy Department Secretly Paid Front Group to Dodge Cleanup of California Reactor Complex

People living near a contaminated government nuclear reactor complex in California were outraged to learn that the US Department of Energy (DOE) has secretly been funding a front group that is lobbying to see the agency abandon its cleanup agreement — and that the DOE’s request for secrecy may have been made to avoid attention from Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-California), who supports full cleanup.

The Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) outside of Los Angeles is heavily contaminated with radiation and chemicals from four reactor meltdowns, decades of reactor experiments and thousands of rocket engine tests done by Rocketdyne Corp. for the space program. Ten closed, decaying nuclear reactors and dozens of unlicensed dump sites present a toxic radioactive threat to health and the environment. The July 1959 meltdown of a doomed sodium-cooled reactor may have been the largest in US history, according to Joe Mangano in his book Mad Science (OR Books, 2012). Meltdowns at power reactors in the US have happened at Idaho National Lab (1955 and 1966),Waltz Mill, Pennsylvania (1960), Fermi, Michigan (1966) and Three-Mile Island, Pennsylvania (1979).

In 2010, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), the DOE — which got reactors — and NASA — which got rockets — signed formal agreements (Administrative Orders on Consent) to cleanup all detectable contamination at Santa Susana. Boeing, which now owns most of the site, refused to sign, and is pushing for a much weaker cleanup.

In 2011, the three agencies began backing away from their promises. Ignoring broad-based objections, the DTSC replaced a public participation committee with a co-called “Community Advisory Group” or CAG. The CAG’s leadership is composed of people tied to the parties responsible for the contamination, and the CAG actively lobbies against the cleanup agreements. One CAG flyer is titled: “Why Cleanup at Santa Susana Bad for Our Community.” The flyer claims the agreement will harm the environment and Native American artifacts, which are, in fact, protected under the plan. The CAG also denies SSFL’s health impacts and its members have attacked published and worrisome health studies.

For two years, community groups have demanded to know how the CAG is funded. On August 19, 2015, CAG announced that it would be receiving up to $35,000 from an “anonymous” donor. In December 2015 and in May 2016, cleanup advocates complained to the DTSC Independent Review Panel about the CAG’s anonymous funding and conduct. No action was taken.

Video footage of the August 2015 announcement shows CAG member Alec Uzemeck claiming the donation had “no strings” and was anonymous because, “If you’re the executive of a corporation and you get a call from Barbara Boxer, I’m quite sure that that’s going to have an impact on it. But, we don’t want that. We wanna have the money in hand when we announce who the donors are.” The CAG’s August 2015 minutes make it clear that secrecy was maintained at the DOE’s request, and so corrupt that CAG’s leadership did not inform the CAG’s members — moving one to resign.

At its August 17, 2016, meeting, a full year after announcing its anonymous gift, the CAG revealed it was the DOE. And DOE has confirmed it issued a $34,100 grant in August 2015, as the first of a three-year renewable grant.

According to the Rocketdyne Cleanup Coalition, the DOE refuses to answer questions about what the money is spent on and why the funding was kept secret. Even the grant application and contract are still secret. “For one of the Responsible Parties — DOE — to be funding a group that is trying to help DOE avoid its cleanup obligations, and asking for its identity as the source of the funds to be kept secret, is nothing short of scandalous,” said Denise Duffield of Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles in an August 30 email to Dr. Monica Regalbuto, assistant secretary for the DOE’s Office of Environmental Management.

More shocking still, the DOE sent its grant to CAG the same month that it revoked funding for the final year of a five-year commitment to the New Mexico-administered Community Involvement Fund, which supports independent groups in DOE-polluted communities nationwide. Reneging on its contract and failing to disperse a final $300,000 grant caused more than 12 community groups to lose key funding.

“DOE broke its commitment to provide funding for community groups … through an independent mechanism and hands-off procedures that were intended to assure DOE would not do precisely what it has now done — fund a front group to lobby on DOE’s behalf to get out of its cleanup obligations,” Duffield wrote in the email to Regalbuto.

Bonnie Klea, a retired Santa Susana worker and cancer survivor, said, “I am appalled that DOE funded the CAG so that members can go out and … and deny the cancer risks from the past, present and future exposure from the site. This is disgusting.” Simi Valley resident Marie Mason, who has led grassroots cleanup efforts for 28 years, said, “I find it more than shocking that the DOE would fund this group, and ask to conceal they are the funding source, and especially to not have Senator Boxer find out….”

The DOE’s corrupt effort to avoid radioactive cleanup is a branch that didn’t fall far from Santa Susana’s tree. The site’s history of reactor meltdowns and illegal waste dumping was kept secret from the public for decades. Details of the 1959 disaster were hidden until the end of the Cold War, and have only partially been disclosed.