Breaking a two-month silence on the sensitive issue of future nuclear work at their Santa Susana Field Laboratory, top officials of Rockwell International's Rocketdyne division said next year's planned closure of the "hot lab" at Santa Susana spells the end of the nuclear era at the test site west of Chatsworth.
Rocketdyne President Bob Paster said in an interview Saturday that the firm will need about six months to complete a final experiment on nuclear waste separation before decommissioning the hot lab.
"Once we've done that, that type of activity is done and behind us," Paster said.
"Taking a look at where we were going in the future, it was obvious to me from a business standpoint that we did not have any future plans or business in that area, so why not tell everybody now that, 'Hey, this is our last program,' " said Paster, who became president of the Rocketdyne division in October.
In recent months, neighborhood and environmental groups have pressed Rockwell to shut down the nuclear side of its business at Santa Susana and expedite the cleanup of chemical and radioactive contamination at the site in eastern Ventura County.
In its heyday, Santa Susana was a flourishing center for nuclear work. From the 1950s through the 1970s, the Atomic Energy Commission and its successor, the U.S. Department of Energy, contracted with Rockwell to build and run 16 small nuclear reactors, to fabricate nuclear fuel, and to salvage plutonium and uranium from spent fuel rods for use in atomic weapons and as fuel for nuclear-powered ships.
But in recent years, nuclear work fell off sharply and several key buildings were decommissioned. The only active nuclear job site has been the hot lab, a heavily shielded workshop where radioactive materials are handled by remote control.
Rockwell's request last summer to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a 10-year renewal of the hot lab's special nuclear materials license brought a chorus of protest from neighborhood and anti-nuclear activists.
Then, on Oct. 20, the company stunned and delighted its foes by announcing that it would scale back its request for relicensing to one year--enough time to finish pending work and begin decommissioning the hot lab.
With the hot lab the only building equipped to handle highly radioactive materials, the announcement seemed to spell the end of nuclear work at Santa Susana. But until Saturday's interview, company officials refused to discuss the future.
Set on a rugged plateau in the Simi Hills, the Santa Susana site occupies 2,668 acres, of which 290 acres have been devoted to nuclear and other energy programs.
Except for the hot lab, the area uses land or equipment leased or owned by the DOE, which could authorize nuclear research without NRC oversight. But Rocketdyne officials said they won't do nuclear work in the DOE area either.
"Right now, our intention would be that we would turn down any type of that work if DOE asked us to do it," Paster said. He said the company would only reconsider in a national emergency or other extraordinary event.
The head of one anti-nuclear group reacted cautiously when told of Paster's remarks.
"Were that to be binding, then much of the public concern would go away," said Dan Hirsch, president of Committee to Bridge the Gap.
But, Hirsch said, "there's quite a difference in saying their current intention is . . . to completely stop nuclear activity and making a binding commitment to do so."
Hirsch pointed out that Rocketdyne has not said if it will dismantle or merely decontaminate the 16,000-square-foot hot lab, which would be available for future use if it is not torn down. Company spokesman Pat Coulter said Monday a decision on whether to raze the building will depend on which proves to be the most economical cleanup method.
Rocketdyne officials also said in the interview that they will not do nuclear work at their Canoga Avenue or De Soto Avenue plants as they did years ago.
They said the work they will forgo involves "special nuclear material," which is plutonium and enriched uranium--materials that can sustain a fission reaction in atomic weapons or reactors. However, they said they will continue to utilize enclosed radiation sources, similar to X-ray machines, which they use to examine rocket engines, calibrate instruments and conduct experiments.
In the interview, officials also said the hot lab's final project--known by the acronym TRUMP-S-- does not involve incineration of radioactive material, as some company critics have feared.
The project, undertaken for the DOE and the Japanese nuclear industry, is aimed at reducing the amount of nuclear waste needing perpetual care, by separating the most long-lived and intensely radioactive from the less hazardous elements of the waste. "It is a project that is motivated by environmental" concerns, said Rocketdyne Vice President Clark Gibbs.