Synopsis: In 1959, an unconfined partial meltdown of a sodium reactor at the Santa Susana Field Lab caused such a devastating radiation leak that many consider it to be the worst nuclear disaster in U.S. history. Studies have shown that the radiation released at SSFL was 459 times greater than the radiation released at Three Mile Island. Located just 30 miles from Downtown, Los Angeles, the meltdown was concealed from the public eye for 20 years before being uncovered and the contamination never fully eradicated. The partial meltdown unveiled decades of negligence and unsafe handling of extremely toxic radioactive and chemical materials.
After 30,000+ rocket engine tests, three separate nuclear reactor accidents, a history of radioactive laboratory fires, and decades of open air burning of radioactive waste; SSFL is now believed to be one of the most significantly contaminated sites in the world – and many are arguing that the contamination has been migrating off-site and into the surrounding communities for nearly 60 years.
The affected community has demanded a full cleanup of the area for decades, but they’re receiving pushback from the sites corporate and government landowners, as these juggernauts and their persuasive lobbyists have successfully stalled any hope of a cleanup. Until Recently.
Led by Melissa Bumstead, whose daughter was twice diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia, the movement towards protecting the community has found new life. This once shy and timid mother-of-two has now become the biggest threat to Boeing, DOE and NASA. Her leadership has created a wave of resistance against corporate and government interest.
As the fight takes a toll on Melissa’s mental state and her relationship with her family, she begins to realize that there are other sites like SSFL spread across the country; and that her community may not be the only one at risk.
Brandon Scott Smith
In February of 2018, we stood in Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, waiting to speak with yet another mother. Yet another mother who would describe how her daughters cancer had torn her family’s life apart. Yet another mother who believed that her home’s proximity to the mysterious Santa Susana Field Laboratory in Simi Valley could have been the cause. Another mother who lived within a growing cluster of rare childhood cancers beneath the site. We waited with our lights on and cameras ready, until we received word that she would not be coming. Her daughter Hazel’s cancer had relapsed. Two months later, Hazel passed away at just 7 years old. In the three years it took to make this film, we heard stories like this time and time again – spanning multiple generations. With each story, our hearts would break a little more, and we would ask ourselves “how could they let this happen for so long?” And we hope this film will be able to provide some of those answers. We did not make this film for profit or for the excitement of red-carpet galas. We made this film so that stories like Hazel’s would not have to be told ever again.
Originally from Denver, Colorado; Nicholas graduated with a BA in Film Production from Arizona State University. He has directed and edited commercial work and short documentary films for many major brands and organizations.
In the Dark of the Valley is his first feature film as a director and editor.