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Friday 28th October 2016

Lab leak linked to cancer

11th October 2006

09082006_radioactivesymbol1.jpgRadioactive emissions from a 1959 nuclear accident at a research lab near Simi Valley appear to have been much greater than previously suspected and could have resulted in hundreds of cancers in surrounding communities.

The nuclear meltdown, which remained virtually unknown to the public until 1979, could have caused between 260 and 1,800 cases of cancer "over a period of many decades," the study concluded.

But the advisory panel that oversaw the five-year study, conducted by an independent team of scientists and health experts, said it could not offer more specifics about potential exposure to carcinogens because the Department of Energy and Rocketdyne's owner, Boeing Co., did not provide key information. Boeing officials vigorously disputed the findings, saying the study was based on miscalculations and faulty information. A Boeing-commissioned study released last year found overall cancer deaths among employees at the field lab and at Canoga Park facilities between 1949 and 1999 were lower than in the general population.

The lab was opened on a craggy plateau in Ventura County in 1948 as the nearby San Fernando and Simi valleys were on the cusp of a post-war population boom. Originally operated by North American Rockwell, it conducted nuclear research for the federal government for more than four decades before ceasing those operations in the late 1980s. It has also been the site of more than 30,000 rocket engine tests, the thunderous explosions serving as a Cold War-era hallmark for nearby residents.

The 2,850-acre site has been the source of much controversy since the nuclear accident was first widely publicized in 1979. A team of UCLA graduate students obtained documents through the Freedom of Information Act detailing the meltdown.

The report also found that as much as 30% of the most worrisome compounds associated with nuclear testing at the lab, iodine-131 and caesium-137, may have been released into the air. But Boeing's Rutherford said data from the site's own airborne monitoring system refutes that claim.

Unable to obtain weather data from Boeing, scientists made calculations based on varying assumptions about wind speed and direction and estimated the number of potential cancers at 260, with the rare possibility that the number could be as high as 1,800, within 62 square miles surrounding the field lab.

"These cancers, if they occurred, would have been amidst a population of several million people and over a period of many decades," the report said. "The ability of epidemiological studies to identify these cancers, if they exist, in a population that large, is limited, given the uncertainty of where the exposures occurred."

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.

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.


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