Prosperous and 70 percent white, West Hills, California, is one of the communities that have sprouted near the Santa Susana Field Laboratory in the decades since the 1959 meltdown. Unlike the poor, sick, and embittered residents of Shell Bluff, people living in West Hills had until recently only the barest inkling that nuclear power in the neighborhood might have had unwelcome consequences. “Almost no one knew about the Santa Susana Field Lab, or they thought it was an urban legend,” Melissa Bumstead, who grew up in nearby Thousand Oaks, told me recently. In 2014, Bumstead’s four-year-old daughter, Grace, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia. “This has no environmental link,” her pediatric oncologist told her firmly. Childhood cancers were rare, and this was just cruel luck. Then, while taking Grace to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, Bumstead ran into a woman who recognized her from the local park where their young daughters played. The woman’s child had neuroblastoma, another rare cancer, as did another from nearby Simi Valley, whom they encountered while the children were getting chemo. Back at home, someone on her street noticed the childhood cancer awareness sticker on Bumstead’s car and mentioned that another neighbor had died of cancer as a teenager. Bumstead began to draw a map detailing the cluster of cancer deaths in small children just in the previous six years, but stopped working on it in 2017. “I had such severe PTSD when I added children onto it, my therapist told me to stop. ” But it is still happening, she said, mentioning the unusual number of bald children she had noticed in local elementary schools in recent years, as well as the far-above-average rate of breast cancer cases recorded in the area. A cleanup of the field lab was due to be completed in 2017, but it has yet to begin.
I called Bumstead because I had been struck by the fact that TerraPower’s Natrium reactor resembles in its basic features the long-ago Sodium Reactor Experiment at Santa Susana. (Natrium is Latin for sodium.) “That’s exactly what we had!” Bumstead exclaimed when I mentioned that liquid sodium is integral to TerraPower’s project. “The meltdown was in the sodium reactor.” As her comment made clear, such liquid sodium technology is by no means innovative. Nor, in an extensive history of experiments, has it ever proved popular—not least because liquid sodium explodes when it comes into contact with water, and burns when exposed to air. In addition, it is highly corrosive to metal, which is one reason the technology was rapidly abandoned by the US Navy after a tryout in the Seawolf submarine in 1957. That system “was leaking before it even left the dock on its first voyage,” recalls Foster Blair, a longtime senior engineer with the Navy’s reactor program. The Navy eventually encased the reactor in steel and dropped it into the sea 130 miles off the coast of Maryland, with the assurance that the container would not corrode while the contents were still radioactive. The main novelty of the Natrium reactor is a tank that stores molten salt, which can drive steam generators to produce extra power when demand surges. “Interesting idea,” Blair commented. “But from an engineering standpoint one that has some real potential problems, namely the corrosion of the high-temperature salt in just about any metal container over any period of time.”
TerraPower’s Jeff Navin assured me in response that Natrium “is designed to be a safe, cost-effective commercial reactor.” He added that Natrium’s use of uranium-based metal fuel would increase the reactor’s safety and performance. Blair told me that such a system had been tried and abandoned in the Fifties because the solid fuel swelled and grew after fissioning.
In a March 2021 report for the Union of Concerned Scientists, the physicist Edwin Lyman like concluded that there was little evidence that reactor designs like Natrium’s would be safer than water-cooled models. “When I read about many of the current proposals,” Blair said, “it is almost as if they are unaware of all the work that has gone before.” Citing the Navy’s abandonment of sodium reactors, he suggested that companies such as TerraPower “are unaware, or intentionally choose to ignore history.” He recalled that Admiral Hyman Rickover, who ran the Navy’s nuclear program for three decades, would personally command the sea trials of every new nuclear submarine. In that spirit, he suggested, “they should only license a small modular reactor on condition that the head of the corporation that built it takes up permanent residence within a quarter mile of the plant.”
As the sodium saga indicates, the true history of nuclear energy is largely unknown to all but specialists, which is ironic given that it keeps repeating itself. The story of Santa Susana follows the same path as more famous disasters, most strikingly in the studious indifference of those in charge to signs of impending catastrophe.The operators at Santa Susana shrugged off evidence of problems with the cooling system for weeks prior to the meltdown , and even restarted the reactor after initial trouble. Soviet nuclear authorities covered up at least one accident at Chernobyl before the disaster and ignored warnings that the reactor was dangerously unsafe. The Fukushima plant’s designers didn’t account for the known risk of massive tsunamis, a vulnerability augmented by inadequate safety precautions that were overlooked by regulators. Automatic safety features at Santa Susana did not work. This was also the case at Fukushima, where vital backup generators were destroyed by the tidal wave.
No one knows exactly how much radiation was released by Santa Susana—it exceeded the scale of the monitors. Nor was there any precise accounting of the radioactivity released at Chernobyl. Fukushima emitted far less, yet the prime minister of Japan prepared plans to evacuate fifty million people, which would have, as he later recounted, the end of Japan as a functioning state. Another common thread is the attempt by overseers, both corporate and governmental, to conceal information from the public for as long as possible. Santa Susana holds the prize in this regard: its coverup was sustained for twenty years, until students at UCLA found the truth in Atomic Energy Commission documents.
Most striking of all is the success of official campaigns asserting that even the most serious accidents have caused little or no harm. The spectacular scale of the Chernobyl disaster, with its mass evacuations and radioactive clouds wafting across borders, made it difficult to downplay health effects. Yet, as Kate Brown, a historian of science at MIT, details in Manual for Survival: An Environmental History of the Chernobyl Disaster, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Health Organization helped promote the notion that the disaster’s health effects had been minimal. In 2005, the UN settled on a figure of 4,000 deaths among those most exposed in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia—a number at the low end of a strikingly wide range, Brown observed. The IAEA had earlier reported “no health disorders that could be attributed directly to radiation exposure.” It was only when Keith Baverstock, a scientist with the World Health Organization, defied a superior and publicly disclosed a sharp increase in extremely rare thyroid cancers among Belarusian children that there was some grudging acceptance of the disaster’s deadly consequences. Even so, Baverstock says, he was threatened with firing unless he withdrew his findings; Others in receipt of WHO funding claimed the jump in cases was merely the result of intensified screening.
Brown spent ten years in archives across Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia, disinterring records of what happened to the millions of people exposed not only to the invisible cloud, but to its residue in the landscape from which they drew their food. That residue had global reach—a truck carrying Ukrainian blueberries to the United States from Canada was so radioactive it was stopped at the border. Traveling around affected areas, some far from the plant itself, Brown encountered evidence of communities shredded by radiation, such as women who sorted wool from sheep slaughtered in the radiation zone. Toting bales of radioactive wool, Brown has said, “was like hugging an X-ray machine while it was turned on over and over again.” Many got sick and died. Yet amid the tens of thousands of pages Brown perused, just one obscure official document furnished a hard figure for Chernobyl-related deaths: 36,525. That was the number of women in Ukraine who received pensions because their husbands had died as a result of the disaster—a toll far in excess of anything reported by Western officials. But that stark number must represent only a small fraction of the total. “That’s just Ukraine,” she told me, “which received only 20 percent of the radiation. There’s no comparable figure for Belarus, which got far more.”
While Brown mined records of Chernobyl’s effects on humans, Timothy Mousseau of the University of South Carolina and his Danish colleague Anders Møller spent decades studying its consequences on the landscape around the plant. “It’s not a complete void of life. It’s much more insidious than that,” Mousseau told Harper’s Magazine in 2011. “Because everything’s still there, it’s just being modified at some low level.” Birds, animals, and plants suffer the baneful effects of radiation to some degree. Early on, Mousseau was struck by the near absence of spiderwebs, normally abundant in forests. Studying the area around Fukushima, he saw many of the same results. This conclusion was not popular with the Japanese authorities. “One reason we don’t know as much about Fukushima as we should,” he told me, “is that the Japanese—the government, academia, the corporation, it’s all the same thing—really discouraged research. I was certainly pressured not to publish my findings. It was in the form of sticks and carrots, carrots being, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have an institute for studies of Fukushima, and by the way, you really don’t want to publish those papers that you’ve written recently .’ He published them anyway.
In light of the evidence of post-Chernobyl researchers thyroid cancer, mounted a major effort to screen children in the area around Fukushima. Year after year, the numbers steadily ratcheted up, eventually reaching twenty times normal levels. (As with thyroid cancer in Belarus, officials from UN agencies claimed the rise in cases was merely the result of intensified screening.) Meanwhile, local authorities began a campaign to discourage children from getting screened, advising them of “the right not to know. ” The campaign had some success, and the number of participating children dropped. Not coincidentally, from 2016 on, the number of reported child thyroid cases started to decline.
“The right not to know” about the effects of nuclear power is currently embraced far beyond Fukushima. In the face of escalating alarm about climate change, the siren song of “clean and affordable and reliable” power finds an audience eager to overlook a business model that is dependent on state support and often greased with corruption; failed experiments now hailed as “innovative”; a pattern of artful disinformation; and a trail of poison from accidents and leaks (not to mention the 95,000 tons of radioactive waste currently stored at reactor sites with nowhere to go) that will affect generations yet unborn. Arguments by proponents of renewables that wind, solar, and geothermal power can fill the gap on their own have found little traction with policymakers. Ignoring history, we may be condemned to repeat it. Bill Gates has bet a billion dollars on that.