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Rockwell Workers Overexposed to Radiation in '60s, Records Indicate : Settlements Also Negotiated in Cancer Deaths of 3 Employees

June 16, 1989|MYRON LEVIN and TRACEY KAPLAN | Times Staff Writers

Rocketdyne spokesman Pat Coulter said none of the employees involved in this incident later filed for workers compensation.

"To the best of our knowledge, they have all continued on with their normal lives," Coulter said. "Some of them are still working for Rockwell; some of them have retired; some of them have died and some have left the company.

"Those kind of unusual occurrences are going to happen when a company does business--I don't care what kind of company it is," Coulter said. "We fully recognize we have a very serious responsibility to the public, and that's why we monitor our activities so closely. That's why when there is a deviance, we record it and make sure it doesn't happen again."

Most of the unusual occurrence reports involved minor equipment malfunctions with no apparent impact on workers or environmental safety.

One overexposure in 1974 and another in 1982 were not mentioned in any of the reports. In both cases, workers sustained excessive radiation exposures to a hand.

Incidents Exempt

But Tuttle of Rocketdyne said both incidents were exempt from the DOE reporting system--one because it involved an employee of an outside contractor and the other because it occurred in a part of the Santa Susana complex that is licensed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The files included no reports dated before 1960, and therefore made no mention of the partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor at Santa Susana in 1959.

There were no unusual occurrence reports for 1968-1973, but DOE and Rockwell officials said they believed there were no reportable incidents because nuclear work was at a low ebb. Nolan said Rockwell was directed by the DOE to make an exhaustive search for documents, but that it is possible some were lost.

Rockwell officials acknowledged paying three claims since 1987 to survivors of workers who died of cancer. They said that in settling the claims, they were not admitting the employees got cancer as a result of working conditions.

The widow of John F. Zaverl of Sepulveda, who died of lung cancer at age 59 after 18 years with Rockwell, claimed the cancer resulted from occupational exposure to radiation and asbestos, although Zaverl also smoked. She got a settlement of $11,500 in 1987, according to records on file with the state Workers Compensation Appeals Board.

Rockwell paid a $90,000 settlement to survivors of William D. Lane of Canoga Park, after a doctor hired by Rockwell's lawyers agreed it was "more probable than not" that radiation exposure "played a role at least" in Lane's fatal leukemia, according to state records.

Cleanup Work

Lane, who was 49 when he died in May, 1986, worked from 1959 until the year he died at the Santa Susana lab. According to his family's claim, he "was physically engaged" during part of this time in cleanup work resulting from the 1959 reactor accident at the lab.

According to the claim, Lane's widow sought pension benefits that Lane would have received had he lived to age 50.

But Rockwell "refused to make an exception in this situation, showing a callous indifference" to the family, according to the claim.

Rockwell produced data showing that Lane's radiation exposures were always within health limits, never exceeding the annual maximum of 5 rems.

Over the years, Rockwell operated 16 nuclear reactors at Santa Susana, most of them small research reactors and none as large as commercial power reactors run by electric utilities. Most of the reactor work was done in the 1960s, with the last reactor shut down in the early 1980s, according to Tuttle.

A small reactor, known as the L77, operated at the De Soto plant from about 1960 through the mid-70s, Tuttle said.

It was the largest of the Santa Susana reactors--the 600,000 watt "Sodium Reactor Experiment"--that suffered a partial meltdown in 1959 that was not widely publicized for twenty years. At the time of the accident, company officials issued a highly technical press release in which the words "accident" and "meltdown" did not appear.

The Atomic Energy Commission later criticized Rockwell for running the reactor despite weeks of abnormal behavior by the device before and after the accident.

Rockwell and AEC officials have said the accident did not expose workers or the public to radiation hazards.

Industrial Radiography

Rockwell currently does industrial radiography at the Canoga plant, using powerful X-rays to examine engine components of rockets and the Space Shuttle. The company also uses radioactive material there to study the effects of cosmic rays on computer chips.

At the De Soto plant, the company operates a gamma irradiation facility to test the effects of radiation on electronics.

Tuttle said the firm does not use plutonium at either plant. Plutonium is a man-made radioactive material that does not emit penetrating radiation but is considered a potent carcinogen if inhaled.

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