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Crews Rush To Clean Up Former California Nuke Lab

"We want to make planes, and that's our mission. We want to get this site cleaned up as quickly and as safely as possible," said Boeing project manager Art Lenox.

On a recent July morning, loud drills echoed from the Boeing section where workers fetched soil samples that were then transferred to stainless steel containers and placed in a cooler for later analysis.

In the area of the nuclear meltdown, another team used shovels to dig into the dirt like archaeologists. The goal: determine the amount of volatile organics, heavy metals and other possible carcinogens left from the rocket testing and nuclear age.

The work, expected to continue through the end of the year, is the prelude by the three parties to sketch out their final cleanup script, which should begin in 2016.

"We're doing everything we can to keep to a 2017 schedule. It will be a hard push," said Mark Malinowski of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, which oversees the cleanup.

Meanwhile, state regulators are hoping Boeing will commit to a stricter cleanup standard by appealing a judge's decision that sided with the company.

Before Santa Susana became known as a polluted eyesore, it roared with the noise and glow of engine tests.

Founded in 1947 by North American Aviation, Santa Susana quickly became an aerospace hub. For four decades, workers tested thousands of rocket engines that later flew on missions that included Apollo. The site also hummed with nuclear research and was once home to 10 reactors.

In 1959, a reactor partially melted, belching radioactive gases. The reactor was shut down but later restarted. The government at the time said there was no dangerous radioactive release. Full details of the meltdown were not made public until two decades later by a group of University of California, Los Angeles, students.

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