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Valley Perspective

Rocketdyne Study Fuels Fears

September 14, 1997

For nearly 30 years Rocketdyne built and tested nuclear reactors at its top-secret Santa Susana Field Laboratory on a wind-swept mountaintop between the Simi and San Fernando valleys.

For at least 20 years residents of neighboring communities have feared the lab's radiation could find its way into ground water, air and soil, invisibly spreading the seeds of cancer. A report released last week by a team of UCLA researchers only adds to those concerns, despite Rocketdyne's criticism of the study and its conclusions.

The five-year study found that Rocketdyne workers who were exposed to radiation have an increased risk of dying of cancer. It also concluded that cumulative low-level radiation exposure is more dangerous than previously thought--suggesting that federally mandated "safe" exposure levels are too high.

"If we had found no effect on the workers, then the public could breathe a sigh of relief," said Rocketdyne critic Daniel Hirsch, who co-chaired a panel of doctors, radiation experts and neighbors that oversaw the UCLA study.

But rather than relief, this study merely dramatizes the need to learn more.

Another member of the oversight panel, longtime Simi Valley physician Caesar Julian, said the UCLA report should prompt state legislators to seek a similar study of people living in cities outside the lab. The Times strongly concurs. For peace of mind, at least, the public deserves all obtainable information.

We also support the panel's other recommendations, including:

* Expedite a second phase of the UCLA study, on the cancer risk suffered by Rocketdyne workers exposed to dangerous chemicals.

* Have the UCLA team continue monitoring the 80% of the test subjects who are still alive, to see if cancer mortality patterns continue.

* Urge regulatory agencies to reexamine their "safe exposure" standards.

The government-contract testing that led to these exposures ended in the 1980s, about the same time activist groups revealed the lab's history of radioactive activities and accidents--including a partial meltdown in 1959. Cleanup of the site continues to this day.

The fact that it has taken some 20 years to begin documenting what Rocketdyne's neighbors have long feared is bound to reinforce public suspicion that industry and government are more concerned about secrecy than safety.

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