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Radiation may have sickened hundreds

Radioactive emissions from a 1959 nuclear accident at a California 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, according to a study released Thursday.

Chemical contamination from ongoing rocket engine testing at the site continues to threaten soil and groundwater in the area around the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, the study also found.

The nuclear meltdown, which remained virtually unknown to the public until 1979, could have caused between 260 and 1,800 incidences of cancer “over a period of many decades,” the scientists who conducted the study concluded.

But the 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 the lab’s owner, Boeing Co., did not provide key information.

“This lack of candor … makes characterization of the potential health impacts of past accidents and releases extremely difficult,” the panel concluded.

Boeing officials vigorously disputed the findings, saying the study was based on miscalculations and faulty information.

“We disagree entirely with the report’s conclusion,” said Phil Rutherford, a health, safety and radiation manager for the company. He cited a Boeing-commissioned study released last year that found overall cancer deaths among employees at its Simi Valley Rocketdyne lab and Canoga Park facilities between 1949 and 1999 were lower than in the general population.

The Boeing report contradicted findings from an earlier University of California, Los Angeles, study that found elevated cancer deaths among workers exposed to high levels of radiation.

Critics chided Boeing officials Thursday for failing to provide information for the new study.

“The pattern of secrecy and misrepresentation that began at the time of the accident continues to this day, where sloppy practices are done under a cover of darkness,” said Dan Hirsch, a physicist and co-chairman of the advisory panel.

The lab was opened on a craggy plateau in easternmost Ventura County in 1948 as the nearby San Fernando and Simi valleys were on the cusp of a postwar population boom. Operated by North American Rockwell, and later Rocketdyne, 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 disclosure resulted in a number of environmental studies that found widespread radioactive and chemical contamination at the lab, which in turn triggered several investigations into the potential impact on the health of lab workers and area residents.