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Health Studies of '59 Rocketdyne Nuclear Accident to Be Released

A panel of scientists is promising unbiased answers about the partial meltdown.

October 05, 2006|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

After decades of questioning over the long-term health effects of a nuclear accident at an energy research lab near Simi Valley, a team of scientists today will release the results of several studies that promise some answers.

The report should provide unbiased proof of the dangers the lab's neighbors faced after a partial meltdown of a test reactor in 1959 released radioactive contaminants into the atmosphere, said Dan Hirsch, co-chairman of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory Advisory Panel. The accident was not widely publicized until 20 years later, and the operator said that there was no danger to the public or workers.

"These studies are remarkable because they were initiated by the community, which wanted some independent answers about the Rocketdyne site and potential off-site impacts," said Hirsch, a lecturer on nuclear policy at UC Santa Cruz.

The advisory panel was created in the early 1990s to study the potential health effects of the Rocketdyne field lab, where the federal government conducted nuclear research for four decades before ceasing operations in the late 1980s. Rocket engine testing is still conducted at the lab, owned and operated by Boeing Corp.

Panel members include Steven Wing, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Sheldon Plotkin, a safety engineering expert with the Southern California Federation of Scientists; David Huntley, retired professor of geological sciences at San Diego State; and David Lochbaum, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Union of Concerned Scientists' Nuclear Safety Project.

"These are national experts coming to Simi Valley to give their presentation," said Jonathan Parfrey, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility. "This will not be the Boeing Co.'s spin.... This will be the voice of independent scientists who have no financial stake whatsoever in the findings. Their opinions will be impartial and fair."

State Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), a longtime critic of the thoroughness of the ongoing cleanup at the field laboratory, helped secure much of the $200,000 in funding for the studies.

"I'm very anxious to see the results," Kuehl said. "The community has the right to know about the potential health impacts of this site."

Some topics that will be covered in the report:

* The amount of radioactivity that could have been released by the damaged reactor in 1959.

* Whether water runoff has carried contamination from the lab site, particularly ammonium perchlorate, a component of rocket fuel.

* The potential for radioactive and chemically contaminated groundwater to migrate off-site.

* The potential for radioactive and chemically contaminated soil to migrate down into groundwater.

A 1997 UCLA study, which reviewed the records of employees of Rocketdyne and predecessor North American Aviation from 1949 to 1994, said "all available evidence ... indicates that occupational exposure to ionizing radiation among nuclear workers at Rocketdyne has increased the risk of dying from cancers of the blood and lymph system."

It also found elevated cancer deaths among workers exposed to high levels of radiation.

But last year, a $3.5-million study funded by Boeing concluded that overall cancer deaths among nearly 47,000 workers at the Rocketdyne lab and its Canoga Park facilities for at least six months between 1949 and 1999 were lower than in the general population. "No cause of death was significantly elevated," even among those exposed to radiation and toxic chemicals, the study also said.

The Santa Susana Field Lab Advisory Panel will hold a community meeting tonight to discuss the findings of the latest studies. It will be held at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, 3050 E. Los Angeles Ave., Simi Valley, from 6:30 to 10 p.m.

greg.griggs@latimes.com

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