Rocketdyne Radiation And
Cancer Deaths Linked
By Paul Hefner
Daily News Sacramento Bureau
SACRAMENTO - Health researchers have linked on-the-job radiation exposure to excessive cancer deaths among workers at Rocketdyne's Santa Susana Field Laboratory, the Daily News has learned.
In a long-awaited study set to be made public today, UCLA scientists and state health officials will report that the cancer risk to workers exposed to low doses of radiation at the Simi Hills facility is at least six to eight times higher than previous studies suggested.
Their long-term study of 4,600 Rocketdyne workers found higher than expected death rates from a wide variety of cancers, including leukemia and lung cancer, according to documents obtained by the Daily News.
Though the exact numbers of cancer deaths found were not available, researcher found work place radiation responsible for 27.3 percent of such deaths among workers who inhaled or ingested radioactive particles, the documents state.
"Clearly, if I were a worker at that facility, it would get my attention," said one official familiar with the report. "It's fairly blunt for a scientific study."
The study is the culmination of eight years of controversy since the Daily News disclosed May 14, 1989, that a study for the U.S. Department of Energy found radioactive chemical contamination in the soil at Rocketdyne's Santa Susana Field Laboratory in the hills between Chatsworth and Simi Valley.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stepped in and assumed oversight of the cleanup program at the 2,600-acre facility where nuclear research was conducted for four decades under DOE contracts. A $55 million cleanup is under way.
At the time of the 1989 disclosure, there was no evidence of a health threat to workers or the public.
But under community pressure the epidemiological study was ordered and a key recommendation of the report today is that a second study be considered to determine whether there were any impacts on the health of people living in the vicinity of Santa Susana. Officials emphasized that the findings of the worker study have no bearing on residents living near the facility.
U.S. Safety Review Sought
Among the important findings of the study of Rocketdyne workers was that cancer deaths attributable to radiation exposure occurred even at levels far below those allowed by current U.S. law. This prompted researchers to travel to Washington, D.C., to report their findings to federal regulators directly, sources said.
The report recommends that U.S. and international radiation exposure safety levels be re-evaluated immediately, that the health of Rocketdyne nuclear workers continue to be tracked and that similar studies by conducted on nuclear workers elsewhere in the country.
Researchers and health officials were scheduled to brief Rocketdyne workers on the study's findings at meetings this morning, and the community at meetings tonight and Friday night.
"This study does not show that you have a higher risk of cancer living in the surrounding area," one source said. "This study was strictly done with workers who had individual, day-to-day exposure. Anyone living in the homes and nearby communities should not be alarmed by the study's findings."
However, the report calls for a review to determine if further study of the neighboring community is warranted.
One of the things that prompted the exhaustive worker study was a 1990 review of cancer registry data in the five census tracts closest to the field laboratory that found elevated levels of bladder cancer.
Later analysis of the findings by state epidemiologists found no connection between the elevated bladder cancer levels and Rocketdyne operations. The report said there was no reason to conduct health studies among nearby residents.
However, community activists and state legislators called for the worker study, saying it would help determine whether further health studies of area residents are needed.
Rocketdyne Won't Comment (snips)
Nuclear History
(snips) Among their key findings: 1. Workers exposed to external radiation had higher than expected death rates from leukemia, lymphoma and lung cancer
2. Increased doses of internal radiation raised the death rates for a number of cancers, including of the mouth, esophagus and stomach.
3. Death rates for all cancers increased as external radiation doses increased.
Despite these findings, officials noted that even with the increased risks from radiation exposure, the workers as a group had relatively good health compared to the general population. (KK: Of course, 27.3% WERE dying of cancers directly related to the radiation the workers were exposed to,.)
State health officials would not publicly respond to the study's findings. But one official said they were moving aggressively to address the issue by briefing workers and dispatching researchers to present a report to the Energy Department.
The study could have wide-ranging impacts on the nation's nuclear industry. An oversight panel formed to keep tabs on the study has recommended that the current limits on radiation exposure be reviewed in light of the findings, documents show.
UCLA and state health officials are set to publicly discuss the findings of the study at two meetings at the Simi Valley Raddison Hotel, 999 Enchanted Way, Simi Valley. The meetings are scheduled for 7 p.m. today and 7 p.m. Friday.
The Santa Susana Field Laboratory has served as a main rocket engine testing site for the nation's space programs as well as provided a remote site for decades of nuclear research.
Located in the Simi Hills three miles west of Chatsworth, the 2,600-acre complex was the test site for virtually all the rocket engines that powered humans into orbit and finally to the moon in the 1960s.
During the 1970s and 1980s it was well known in the west San Fernando Valley for its thunderous test of space shuttle main engines.
But for decades a cloak of secrecy shrouded the U.S. Department of Energy's 290-acre nuclear research facility in 20 buildings at the western edge of the field lab on cliffs overlooking Simi Valley,
Nearly all of the nuclear facilities have been torn down, and the radioactive materials and wastes removed to licensed disposal sites out of the state. But at its height, Rocketdyne and its predecessor company, Atomics International, operated as many as 16 nuclear reactors at the site.
The Rocketdyne Division, which was owned by Rockwell International until its sale to Boeing North America this year, also operated Hot laboratory licensed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to strip the plutonium out of spent nuclear power plant fuel rods.
The company also operated a plant to fabricate nuclear fuel rods at its De Soto Avenue complex in Canoga Park during the 1960s.
All of the nuclear facilities at Santa Susana have been retired and most have been dismantled and decontaminated.
The final phase of a $55 million nuclear cleanup at the site will be to dismantle and decontaminate the Radioactive Materials Disposal Facility where nuclear waste was packaged for shipping to disposal sites.

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