Ailing Ex-Worker’s Suit Blames San Onofre

(San Diego Union Tribune)

For more than two years, workers at the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant carried dangerous radioactive particles outside the plant on their shoe heels, their clothes and on their cars, a federal jury was told yesterday.

The microscopic but highly charged particles, called nuclear fuel fleas, were not detected by the plant’s exit-monitoring equipment or by badges that monitored the radiation level of employees, according to Los Angeles lawyer Suzelle Smith.

Smith contends that her client contracted a rare and deadly form of leukemia as a result of working at San Onofre.

The particles also posed a danger to the public, Smith contended yesterday in her opening statement in the case in San Diego’s federal court.

Smith is seeking millions in damages for Rung C. Tang of Pasadena, a former Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspector who worked at San Onofre in 1985 and 1986. Her lawyers had asked for at least $15 million during unsuccessful settlement meetings.

Attorney Smith told the jury yesterday that in early 1985 the company knowingly continued to operate its reactors with 105 leaking fuel rods. She said company officials also knew that personal monitoring badges were not detecting radiation caused by fuel fleas.

"If a flea jumped up and hit the badge it would register," Smith told the jury. People in charge of health and safety didn’t know that the fleas had spread throughout the plant. The fuel fleas infected the laundry so that employees were being given contaminated protective clothing."

At the same time, she said, Tang was being told that "she had less radiation exposure at San Onofre that she would have gotten in the sunlight on the courthouse steps."

Before her bone-marrow transplant last month, Tang, 44, had a life expectancy of six months, Smith said. If she survives the transplant, she will have a 50-50 chance of living five more years, the lawyer added.

Tang has been diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia, a cancer that Smith said has only one known cause: exposure to nuclear radiation.

Rosenblum said that if Tang’s lawsuit is successful, it will "obviously have an impact on our ability to manage the plant."

The suit also seeks damages from Westinghouse Electric Corp., Combustion Engineering Inc. and Bechtel Corp. – the companies that supplied the fuel rods to the plant.