Judge to Decide Cancer Claim : Rockwell: A former employee contends his work making nuclear fuel was a factor in his illnesses. The company blames his smoking.


The case of a former Rockwell International worker who claims he contracted cancer from radioactive exposures in the 1950s and ‘60s at the firm’s Canoga Park plants will be decided by a state workers’ compensation judge following the conclusion Thursday of a two-day trial.

Roger N. Beam, 77, who has been treated for cancers of the colon and lung, contends that his work in the manufacture of nuclear fuel caused or contributed to the illnesses.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. March 7, 1991 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 7, 1991 Valley Edition Metro Part B Page 4 Column 6 Zones Desk 2 inches; 59 words Type of Material: Correction
Radiation doses--An article Friday incorrectly described an Atomic Energy Commission report about the amount of uranium in the lungs of several Rockwell International workers in the 1960s. The AEC concluded that the workers temporarily had one to four times the maximum permissible amount of uranium, which would have gradually reduced over time. Rockwell officials say the dose did not exceed annual safety limits.

Rockwell says that Beam’s radiation dose was actually low, and that his cancers stemmed from 50 years of smoking. State Workers’ Compensation Judge Abel M. Shapiro said he does not expect to rule in the case for at least two months.


After a day of testimony in November, the trial concluded Thursday at the Van Nuys State Office Building with the appearance of a last witness--former Rockwell radiation safety officer Billy I. Johnson, who lost a kidney to cancer and has filed his own claim against Rockwell.

The dispute comes at a time of increasing interest in working conditions at Rocketdyne’s Canoga Avenue and De Soto Avenue plants in Canoga Park and its Santa Susana lab in the Simi Hills west of Chatsworth. Operated by Rockwell’s Rocketdyne division, all three plants once were hubs of government-sponsored nuclear work, particularly in the 1950s and ‘60s.

State health department epidemiologists last week began examining Rocketdyne records in Canoga Park as the first step of a proposed study to see if company workers over the years have experienced unusual patterns of disease from chemical or radiation exposure.

Company officials say the safety of workers and neighbors has always been a top priority.

Without admitting liability, Rocketdyne in recent years has paid between $2,500 and $90,000 to settle six worker claims of radiation-induced cancer.

Beam, who lives in Victorville, worked for Rockwell from 1957 to 1968, first as a lab technician at the Canoga Avenue plant, then as a task engineer at De Soto, and briefly at Santa Susana--before losing his job in a layoff.

Beam spent much of that time at De Soto, where his work included sawing and breaking uranium metal used in making atomic fuel.

Beam’s lawyer submitted reports from two doctors concluding that radiation exposure probably was at least partly to blame for Beam’s colon cancer, diagnosed in 1982, and a lung tumor found in 1989.

Two other physicians retained by Rockwell said that Beam’s cancers were unrelated to his work. They relied mainly on Beam’s 50-year history of smoking and on the radiation exposure records Rockwell kept throughout his years with the firm.

Those records showed that Beam’s radiation dose was consistently below government limits. In fact, the doctors maintained, Beam’s dose was not much greater than what the average person gets from radioactivity given off naturally by soil, rocks and the sun.

But Johnson, the former Rockwell health physicist who testified Thursday as a witness for Beam, said that Rockwell’s dose measurements did not tell the whole story. The readings were taken from the film badge Beam wore to measure external radiation and urinalyses showing how much radioactivity he excreted from his body.

These tests, however, would not measure any insoluble uranium particles that would not be excreted but instead lodge in the internal organs if inhaled, Johnson said.

Johnson, 62, who worked at Rockwell from 1963 to 1971, said workers in certain dusty operations “were constantly exposed to low, chronic exposures” of enriched uranium. He said that respirators were used when airborne dust was too high, but that there was no assurance they provided “a good tight fit” over workers’ mouths and noses.

Beam previously testified that he sometimes worked in one area of De Soto known as “the powder room,” where crushed uranium was handled in sealed glove boxes to keep it out of the air. But Johnson said that “from time to time there were leaks in the system” that created airborne uranium dust.

Although never mentioned during the two-day trial, Rockwell’s work with uranium powder created serious safety problems during parts of 1966 and 1967, according to old Atomic Energy Commission reports. Beam and Johnson each worked at the De Soto plant during those years, but both said after the trial that they did not recall any of the particulars.

According to the AEC reports, obtained by The Times under the Freedom of Information Act, dozens of workers were exposed to excessive levels of uranium dust, and a handful received a dose to the lungs that equaled or exceeded a lifetime permissible dose.

The AEC investigation found that Rockwell had observed a standard for airborne uranium six times weaker than the proper limit for the type of uranium involved.

Insoluble uranium, the type actually being used, was subject to a tougher air standard, because it tends to remain in the body once inhaled. The standard incorrectly adhered to by the company was for soluble uranium, which tends to dissolve and be excreted by the body. Because the wrong standard was observed, according to the AEC documents, dozens of unnamed workers were overexposed.

If Beam wins his case he would receive compensation payments of $224 per week, medical care for the rest of his life and reimbursement of past medical costs.