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Study Says Lab Meltdown Caused Cancer

Scientists say details about the 1959 accident near Simi Valley continue to be withheld. Other contamination at the site is much clearer.

October 06, 2006|Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writer

The report also disclosed little-known information about lab operations: It was home to 10 nuclear reactors and numerous low-power reactors, plutonium and uranium carbide fabrication plants and a "hot lab" used for remotely cutting up irradiated nuclear fuel shipped in from other federal nuclear plants.

About 150 people attended a public meeting Thursday night to discuss the report's findings. Many of those in the audience are residents or former residents of the area surrounding the field lab.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday October 07, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Rocketdyne: An article in Friday's Section A about Boeing's Santa Susana Field Laboratory identified Dan Hirsch, co-chairman of a panel overseeing health and environmental studies at the former nuclear testing site, as a physicist. Hirsch is a lecturer on nuclear policy at UC Santa Cruz.

They said they appreciated the findings and hoped the report would spur regulators to force a thorough cleanup of the site.

Marjorie Weems, who lives on property adjoining the site, said her daughter, Priscilla, 34, had to have part of her thyroid removed 13 years ago and worries about a possible connection to the lab's operations.

"It's been such a coverup for so many years," said Weems, 62, whose husband, now retired, worked at the lab. "They lied and lied and lied and said there was no contamination. But now we know that's not true."

At the time of the 1959 nuclear accident, little information appeared in the media. Lab officials released a statement saying "no release of radioactive materials to the plant or its environs occurred, and operating personnel were not exposed to harmful conditions."

The advisory panel overseeing the most recent study accused the lab's operators of maintaining a pattern of deception and secrecy ever since.

For instance, it said researchers discovered that a meteorological station was atop the nuclear reactor on July 13, 1959, when fuel rods ruptured and partially melted, emitting radioactive gases into the plant and the atmosphere.

When the researchers requested the station's weather data to try to determine how far radioactive gases may have traveled from the hilltop lab, Boeing officials refused, asserting that the information was "proprietary -- a trade secret," the panelists said in the report.

"How can you possibly declare a trade secret which way the wind blew on a certain day?" Hirsch said.

Boeing officials said they do not recall any specific requests for weather data, adding that such information might not even exist.

amanda.covarrubias@latimes .com

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Santa Susana Field Laboratory timeline

1959: Fuel rods in the first nuclear reactor in the country to produce electricity for a commercial power grid rupture and partially melt, releasing radioactive gases into the atmosphere. But the accident is not widely publicized until 1979.

1989: A Department of Energy study finds widespread radioactive and chemical contamination at the 2,850-acre Rocketdyne field lab.

1997: A UCLA health study, which reviewed the records of employees of Rocketdyne and predecessor North American Aviation from 1949 to 1994, finds elevated cancer deaths among workers exposed to high levels of radiation.

2005: A health study by lab owner Boeing Corp. concludes that overall cancer deaths among nearly 47,000 employees who worked at the Rocketdyne lab and its Canoga Park facilities between 1949 and 1999 were lower than in the general population.

2006: An independent panel of scientists releases a report that finds the 1959 nuclear accident appears to have been much worse than previously suspected and could have resulted in hundreds of cancers in surrounding communities. It also finds that chemical contamination from rocket engine testing at the site continues to threaten area soil and groundwater.

Source: Santa Susana Field Laboratory Advisory Panel

Los Angeles Times

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