On the eve of a retrial, the operators of the San Onofre nuclear power plant reached a monetary settlement Monday with a former inspector who claims she got cancer from leaking radiation at the plant.
In a joint statement, both sides said the unpredictability of a second jury trial and the declining health of 44-year-old Rung C. Tang made a settlement advantageous.
Both pledged not to reveal how much money Southern California Edison agreed to pay Tang and her heirs in exchange for her dropping her negligence lawsuit against Edison. Before the first trial, which ended with a federal court jury deadlocked 7 to 2 in favor of Tang, her attorneys had offered to drop the suit for $15 million.
One of Tang’s attorneys, Suzelle Smith, from the Los Angeles firm of Howarth & Smith, said Tang is “delighted with the outcome.”
“She is still recovering from her bone marrow transplant and a second trial would have been very taxing on her,” Smith said.
Richard Rosenblum, an Edison vice president, said the company decided to settle because of the “unique aspects” of the case. Still, the company remains confident that Tang’s chronic myelogenous leukemia was not caused by exposure at San Onofre and that the plant is safe for workers and surrounding communities, Rosenblum said.
“In no way is this settlement an admission of responsibility for Ms. Tang’s illness,” Rosenblum said.
But leaders in the anti-nuclear movement hailed the settlement as a victory and predicted further cancer lawsuits against the nation’s 109 nuclear plants as a result.
“I think it’s marvelous that somebody has finally been able to stand up to them,” said Dr. John W. Gofman, founder of the San Francisco-based Committee for Nuclear Responsibility. “The nuclear industry doesn’t back down easily and so they must have known they had a big problem here.”
James Riccio, co-author of a nationwide report scalding the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for alleged laxity in overseeing the nuclear industry, said the Tang settlement, while not as definitive as a jury verdict, “shows that science is beginning to catch up to the nuclear industry.”
As more is known about the dangers of low-level doses of radiation, more lawsuits will be filed, he said.
“As the nuclear industry matures, more cancers are going to occur,” said Riccio, a staff member with the Washington-based group Public Citizen. Edison “says it is not admitting liability, but a settlement is certainly a tacit admission that the other side had a very strong case.”
Tang’s suit was the first time a nuclear worker had sued a plant on grounds that he or she had contracted cancer. As such, the case was closely watched by the industry, governmental regulators and the anti-nuclear movement.
Tang worked as a Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspector at San Onofre during a period in 1985 and 1986 in which the plant was plagued with defective fuel rods and “fuel fleas,” microscopic particles of radiation that seeped into supposedly safe areas of the plant. Edison is the operator and majority owner of the plant, which is on the coast north of Oceanside.
Smith’s partner, Don Howarth, said the law firm has been contacted by a dozen San Onofre employees about filing similar lawsuits. He said no decision has been made on taking any of the cases but that nothing in the Tang settlement would prevent it.
The trial of Tang’s suit ended Feb. 8 with a majority of jurors believing that Edison’s sloppiness had allowed Tang to receive an unsafe dose of radiation, assertions that the company vehemently denied.
Jurors interviewed after the trial expressed anger at Edison and admiration for the plaintiff’s star witness, Dr. Harry Demopoulos, a New York pathologist and cancer causation specialist who testified that Tang’s leukemia was the direct result of her San Onofre exposure. Edison had countered with testimony by a UCLA professor, Dr. Robert Gale.
Between trials, Edison officials took reporters on tours of San Onofre, talking freely about Tang and her years at the plant. Included in the tour was a stop beneath a water pipe where Tang alleged that she had been splashed with radioactive water.
Edison had also sought to block Tang’s attorneys from discussing the case out of court. News organizations had geared up to fight the request for a gag order, which was to have been heard today by Federal Magistrate Rudi Brewster before jury selection.
Tang was one of the first women hired as a Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspector. A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she left the NRC after her tour at San Onofre to join her sister’s insurance agency in Pasadena.
Her leukemia was diagnosed in late 1992 and she remains bedridden. Radiation treatments caused her to lose her hair. Doctors have given her a 50% chance of living five years.