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July 16, 2007 |  6:24 am



1957_0716_reactor_pix July 16, 1957
Los Angeles

At a field lab in the Santa Susana Mountains, an experimental nuclear reactor has begun generating electricity for San Fernando Valley housewives, thanks to our friend, Mr. Atom, the Mirror says.

Housewives "wouldn't know it if it sparked before their eyes, for electricity is electricity the world around," the Mirror says. "It's just that the source of the heat which generates the juice is different." The reactor "marked a peacetime application of a terrifying scientific fact--that when you split an atom, a lot of power, a lot of heat is generated."

After explaining how a nuclear reactor works, the Mirror noted: "The small amount of uranium in the reactor will last three years!"

Of course, it's impossible today to say "Santa Susana Field Lab" without adding "Superfund site," a subject far too complex for this humble blog.

But let's take a look the Sodium Reactor Experiment that began in 1957. Before it was deactivated in 1966 and eventually dismantled at an expense of $13 million (more than twice its original cost), the reactor suffered a meltdown in 1959 that released 260 to 459 times the radioactivity spilled at Three Mile Island.




According to a story from 1979, when officials of Atomics International--a division of Rockwell International--acknowledged the 20-year-old meltdown, "13 of the reactor's 43 uranium fuel rods ruptured or suffered some degree of melting in the July 13, 1959, accident."

Although technical publications had discussed the incident for years, the meltdown was never reported in the news media.

"It was a messy accident, but I'm not aware of any evidence that it endangered the public," Theodore B. Taylor of the President's Commission on Three Mile Island, said in 1979. "It was nothing like Three Mile Island."

(I'm assuming Taylor was not referring to the magnitude of the release but the fact that the spill occurred at a remote site rather than in a populated area).

Briefly, the reactor's coolant system became clogged due to a leak, the fuel rods overheated and spilled a "massive" amount of radioactive fission products, The Times said in 1979.

"Despite numerous indications that something was wrong inside," The Times said, "Atomics International continued to run the reactor at low power for two weeks after the accident, shutting it down July 26, 1959.

Many original documents on  Santa Susana Field Lab are available here.

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