Chernobyl in the Ukraine, Windscale in the UK, and... the Santa Susana Field Lab in California. Those incidents are the top three releasers of radioactive iodine in nuclear power history. But number three slipped largely under the radar.
The Boeing-Rocketdyne Nuclear Facility, also referred to as the Santa Susana Field Lab, is located about 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, near the Simi Valley area. And in 1959, a clogged coolant channel in a 20-megawatt nuclear reactor lead to the melting of 30 percent of the fuel elements in the reactor core.
Iodine-131 – that is, radioactive iodine – was released in doses estimated up to 100 times that of Three Mile Island, enough to cause various types of cancers and thyroid abnormalities, particularly in children under the age of 15. And while radioactive iodine only has an eight day half life, that's more than enough time to get into the local dairy cows and contaminate the milk supply.
The facility also released many other radioactive materials, as well as other toxic chemicals, over a period of years. After an eight-year-long court battle, more than 100 local residents reached a settlement with Boeing-Rocketdyne.The Former Sodium Reactor Experiment Containment Building where the 1959 meltdown occurred. (Courtesy of DOE)