May 30, 2014

Photo Essay: Boeing Rocketdyne Santa Susana Field Lab, Declassified & Decontaminating

In the absence of being able to visit Chernobyl, I'll take my stateside radioactive wastelands where I can get them.

Having first visited the atomic bomb testing site in Nevada, I was ready for an initial exploration of the infamous Rocketdyne site in the Santa Susana Mountains, primarily owned and managed by Boeing, with some parcels operated by the Department of Energy, and even NASA.

It's only recently that everything has become declassified and is allowed to be photographed.

But that place is so contaminated, and in the process of being cleaned up, that you can really only see it by bus.

The ultimate goal is to clean it up enough to turn it over to some land management organization, whether it's the National Parks Service, State Parks, Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, or some other.

But the clean-up has been organized for over 25 years, and parties still disagree as to how clean is clean enough...

...without posing a health risk to the community.

Supposedly it's already safe for hikers and casual visitors.

Many of the contaminated structures were razed in the early 2000s, taking special precautions during demolition, but many still remain.

In fact, they're keeping the most contaminated structures for last, so they have somewhere to store radioactive materials in the meantime. After that, they'll end up at some California hazardous waste landfill (in Buttonwillow or Kettleman Hills).

Headquartered on 56 acres in Canoga Park in the West San Fernando Valley's Simi Hills area...

...the Santa Susana Field Laboratory was used by North American Aviation's Rocketdyne division starting in 1955... test rockets and guided missiles in the wake of World War II. It even once put electrical power out to the commercial grid (namely, the nearby community of Moorpark) thanks to the Sodium Reactor Experiment (SRE), which was first successful in 1957.

The location had to be remote so as not to disturb anybody as it became the country's first liquid-propellant high-thrust rocket engine test facility.

Having shifted from a primarily military mission, Rocketdyne engines became essential to U.S. space exploration: launching our satellites and our first crewed spaceflight, and powering every major U.S. space program.

Many of the tests were viewed by staffers from a underground control center containing a periscope, for their safety.

Its last test was in 2006, over 20 years after energy research was phased out, and four years before the end of laser research.

Now, the site's employees are primarily tasked with environmental cleanup and compliance, as well as storm water management.

One of the few opportunities to get off of the bus is to explore the two remaining ALFA test stands.

ALFA 2 is already gone, but ALFA 1 will probably be preserved...

...and, for the timebeing, ALFA 3 is also decommissioned and declassified.

There used to be huge flames shooting out of these things...

...blackening the surrounding rock formations, which kept the tremendous noise out of the neighboring communities.

Among the chemical compounds spilled around these testing sites was TCE (trichloroethylene)..

...which was used to flush the engines and the fuel systems prior to testing.

In the age of the Space Race...

...every rock engine featured a standard design...

...but each one was treated like a one-off.

Every single rocket engine was tested as though none had ever been tested before.

A lot of astronauts have visited this site over the years, too.

Tours are given by former Rocketdyne engineers...

...and other Boeing employees.

Nothing is quite so top-secret anymore.

But it still all feels very mysterious.

And they don't want you wandering off too far, for fear of injury.

There are a lot of rusty hazards poking out from everywhere.

And although everything has been rendered INACTIVE... still feels like something could blow up on you...

...or that you might step into some seepage.

After all, there are lots of exotic chemicals that have made their way into the groundwater here.

They say that in the spot most contaminated with radiation, you'd have to sit there for two weeks straight before experiencing any negative effects...

...but that is not very comforting.

After all, at least four of the ten nuclear reactors had accidents, and there were numerous fires throughout the field lab in its history. Chemicals used to be illegally disposed of in fire pits and by shooting metal cans that would explode, releasing the contaminants into the air.

In a 1959 incident involving a partial meltdown of the SRE power plant, radioactive gasses were emitted into the atmosphere. Cleanup for that didn't even start until 1975. (The site was demolished and removed in 1999.)

At another test stand in the Coca area...'s hard to really understand how groundbreaking the development of propulsion engines was at the time.

But everything that was done here...

...has been used in successful space exploration operations.

Now, of course, it's in a state of beautiful decay, gorgeous ruin... an abandoned oil refinery...

...but eligible for landmark status.

The real test of the success of the cleanup will be the evidence of nature once again thriving on the property.

It was once a successful ranch before being purchased in 1947...

...and before that, a sacred Native American site...

...still full of artifacts, three-color pictographs, and 60+ archaeological sites of Chumash villages, not yet fully documented.

Apparently there's even a pristine cave somewhere.

They say that it continues to be an important wildlife corridor, with a healthy deer population, coyotes, foxes, mountain lions, and even the endangered legless lizard. None of them were visible here.

As part of their public affairs' outreach program, Boeing hosts occasional bus tours, "rocket walks," and nature walks throughout the property to educate the community and, I suppose, gain support for their efforts. One day, hopefully this will be a huge open space for hiking and recreation with a significant history.

In the meantime, you can go hiking now next door at Sage Ranch, and peek through the fence at some of the areas where just nothing grows...

...where the cleanup is active...

...and where no one must go (for now).

Related Posts:
Nevada Test Site: A Matter of National Security
Photo Essay: The Hidden Ruins of the Super-Secret Spy Plane Test Project, Suntan
Photo Essay: Test Pilot Crash Sites in the Mojave Desert
Photo Essay: Crashing & Bleeding on the Trails at Sage Ranch

1 comment:

  1. I worked here in 1994-1996, maybe 1800 feet from the dead reactor. It was a rustic, beautiful site.