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Rockwell License Bid Draws Fire : Hearing Urged on 'Hot Lab' Renewal

June 27, 1989|TRACEY KAPLAN | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility said Monday it will contest Rockwell International's bid to renew its operating license for a nuclear fuel recycling facility at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory.

The organization is concerned about the risk of conducting nuclear activities near populated areas and about Rockwell's record at a nuclear weapons plant near Denver, said Dr. Richard Saxon, an orthopedic surgeon in Encino and board member of the Los Angeles chapter.

The anti-nuclear group, which has a membership of about 2,300 doctors, dentists and other health professionals in Los Angeles, will ask the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to hold hearings before ruling on the license renewal, Saxon said. Such hearings are discretionary under NRC regulations.

Rockwell is seeking a 10-year license to operate the facility, known as the "Hot Lab." From the early 1960s until 1986, the lab was used to remove plutonium and other materials from nuclear fuel rods and package them for future use.

License Extended

The firm's license, which expires June 30, has been extended indefinitely while the agency assesses the environmental impact of the facility west of Chatsworth, NRC spokesman Greg Cook said. Rockwell officials said no nuclear work is being done at the lab, which they said contains traces of radioactivity that pose no health threat. The lab is being decontaminated while the firm's Rocketdyne division seeks future contracts.

"Rocketdyne has and will continue to operate all business activities at Santa Susana Field Laboratory in a safe and responsible manner," said company spokesman Pat Coulter. "All reports, tests and surveys by the government and private groups have supported that fact."

Coulter was referring to concerns growing from publicity about a U.S. Department of Energy report on low-level chemical and radioactive contamination at Santa Susana, where the company operated about 16 nuclear reactors between 1947 and 1986.

But Los Angeles members of Physicians for Social Responsibility, which has 35,000 members nationwide, said the laboratory should be prohibited from doing further work with radioactive materials. The chapter will use about $3,000 contributed last week by an anonymous donor to launch the campaign against renewal of the license.

Record Cited

"We oppose the licensing on the basis of the fact that the area has a tremendous number of people," Saxon said. "We have great doubt that Rockwell is capable of doing things properly, given the company's record in Colorado."

Rockwell manages the Energy Department's Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant near Denver, which is the subject of a criminal inquiry by the FBI and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over alleged hazardous-waste violations.

Cook said the agency will probably take months to complete an environmental impact report on the Hot Lab. The report involves reviewing the lab's safety records. After the report is completed, there will be a 30-day public comment period during which individuals or groups may request a public hearing, he said.

Cook said "everybody and his brother at NRC" have received hundreds of letters from residents concerned about future nuclear operations at Santa Susana. But he said an administrative law judge appointed by the agency would not grant a hearing on the Hot Lab unless residents had a "germane and reasonably specific issue."

"We don't renew or not renew based on public opinion; we do it based on safety records and on the impact on the environment," Cook said. "Our experience with this licensee has been good."

But Saxon said the potential risk of an accident at the lab outweighs all other considerations.

Since 1959, Rockwell has had NRC licenses to operate six other nuclear facilities at its Santa Susana and Canoga Park plants, Cook said.

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