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Rockwell Agrees to Settle 2 Cancer Claims : Lawsuit: Without admitting liability, the company agrees to pay a total of $102,500 to two former workers.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rockwell International will compensate two former workers who claimed they got cancer from radiation decades ago at the company’s Canoga Park plants and its Santa Susana Field Laboratory west of Chatsworth.

Without admitting liability, Rockwell agreed to pay $17,500 to Billy Irvin Johnson, 63, a former radiation safety officer living in Simi Valley, and $85,000 to Roger N. Beam, 78, a former lab technician and task engineer who lives in Victorville. Both settlements, arising from workers’ compensation claims, were approved within the past two weeks.

Rockwell, whose local plants once were hubs of government-sponsored nuclear work, in recent years has settled six other claims of radiation-induced cancer. The company did not admit that any of the cancers were job-related.

“They drug it out a long time,” Beam said Friday. But “half of something is better than a half of nothing. If I didn’t settle . . . it might be another three or four years. By that time, I might be pushing up daisies.”

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Neither Johnson nor Rockwell officials were available for comment.

Beam, who worked for Rockwell from 1957 to 1968 and years later contracted cancers of the colon and lung, claimed the cancers stemmed from his work making nuclear fuel.

Beam spent much of his time at Rockwell’s De Soto Avenue plant, where his work included sawing and breaking metallic uranium to make fuel for atomic reactors. He said the job required visits to “the powder room,” an area of the plant sometimes plagued by excessive levels of airborne uranium dust, according to Atomic Energy Commission reports.

During a two-day trial that ended in February, Rockwell lawyers contended that Beam’s radiation dose, measured by film badges he wore, was quite low and consistently within government limits. They attributed his illnesses to other factors, including a nearly lifelong smoking habit.

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At the end of the trial, the case was taken under advisement by State Workers’ Compensation Judge Abel Shapiro. Shapiro never reached a decision but in the summer suggested that he might rule for Beam by instructing compensation officials to estimate the benefits Beam would receive if declared 100% disabled.

At that point, attorneys began negotiations leading to the $85,000 settlement, which Shapiro approved Nov. 25.

Johnson, who worked as a Rockwell health physicist, or radiation safety officer, from 1963 to 1971, lost a kidney to cancer years later. A career radiation safety officer, Johnson had worked at an Air Force research reactor in Ohio before joining Rockwell.

His $17,500 settlement was approved earlier this week.

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Under contracts with the AEC and its successor, the Department of Energy, Rockwell’s local plants formerly performed a key supporting role for U. S. nuclear research and weapons production. Besides making atomic fuel, the company dismantled spent fuel rods to remove plutonium and other dangerous elements for shipment to government weapons production sites.

The heyday was the 1950s and 1960s. The work slowed to a trickle by the end of the 1980s. A final nuclear research project at the Santa Susana lab in the Simi Hills was canceled last year after strong community opposition.

In response to community requests, state officials are planning to study whether Rockwell employees have suffered unusual patterns of illness stemming from radiation or chemical exposures.

The Department of Energy has agreed to provide $341,000, but health officials are seeking additional funds they say would be required for a meaningful study.

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