Photo by Jack GouldThe time: 1985. The place: inside the Unit 3 containment building at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. Several nuclear engineers are eating lunch, unaware that invisible particles of radioactive fuel are leaking from the plant's plutonium rods, filling the air inside the building and clinging to their unprotected clothing—perhaps even the sandwiches they're wolfing down.
In 1989, one of those engineers, Gregory McLandrich, begins to feel a sharp pain in his belly. Diagnosis: leiomyosarcoma—abdominal cancer. McLandrich didn't drink or smoke; he jogged several miles each morning. Doctors slice a milk-carton-sized tumor from his stomach. The tumor is invincible; it reappears and keeps growing. Two years later, it kills the 42-year-old McLandrich, leaving behind a wife and two kids. McLandrich dies so young that he's ineligible for a full retirement package. Southern California Edison (SCE) cuts his pension from 70 percent of his wages to just $255 per month.
Flash forward 10 years. Thanks in part to California's power crisis, the Bush administration is pushing nuclear energy again. Never mind Gregory McLandrich: nuclear power's reputation has never recovered from Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. But the Bush administration sells nuclear as a safe, clean, cost-effective way to satiate the nation's energy appetite. The stakes are so high that the U.S. attorney general's office recently joined forces with SCE to battle a years-old lawsuit filed by the McLandrich family and five others who claim their loved ones died because they worked at San Onofre.
Linda McLandrich says she won't rest until SCE acknowledges responsibility in the death of her husband and other sick or deceased plant workers. Though the company has acknowledged that faulty fuel rods regularly leaked radiation in the mid-1980s, none of the survivors' families has seen a penny in compensation.
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"My battle with San Onofre has been ongoing for years," McLandrich told the Weekly. "In my case, there is documentation of a radioactive particle of unspent fuel—which has a half-life of 50,000 years—being detected on my husband. Edison never made any effort to track whether these particles were going out into the community and affecting workers' families and other people."
The McLandrich family's claim is just one of five being considered by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Diego. The joint lawsuit also includes a claim filed by the family of Ellen Kennedy, whose husband, Joe, worked at San Onofre when the fuel rods were leaking. Ellen died of chronic myelogenous leukemia at the age of 43, leaving behind four children. Another plaintiff is Glen James, an electrical designer who worked at the plant from 1982 to 1986 and now suffers from chronic myelocytic leukemia. Vicky Rock, who changed the facemasks of workers inside the containment unit, performed her job without protective gear. Over the years, she has suffered from a string of mysterious illnesses, and her son has leukemia. Finally there's Jason Mettler, a San Onofre plant operator who suffered from acute myelogenous leukemia. He died in 1995, just days after filing a personal-injury lawsuit against SCE alleging the company exposed him and other workers to radiation and then conspired to cover it up.
SCE doesn't deny that its fuel rods leaked radiation into the plant or that radiation particles likely "migrated" off-site via its workers. But SCE does deny responsibility for any of the deaths or illnesses suffered by its own workers, arguing that cancer kills one in three Americans and that plant workers' families are simply blaming San Onofre without any real evidence. Three years ago, SCE won the first lawsuit, which involved Ellen Kennedy. Los Angeles-based attorneys Suzelle Smith and Don Howarth appealed that verdict, won, and re-filed the lawsuit on behalf of all five families. The appeals court ruled that the plaintiffs need only prove that radiation leaks inside the plant "significantly contributed" to a higher cancer risk.
In March, all five lawsuits finally went back to court. That's when the Bush administration's Justice Department stepped in to defend SCE. The federal attorneys filed a brief on behalf of the company, requesting the court adopt a new, much tougher standard of proof—specifically, that radiation leaks caused a 51 percent or greater increase in cancer risk among San Onofre workers.
"With nuclear power, the stakes are apparently so high that the attorney general felt he had to send lawyers in to help defend SCE from these families," Smith concluded.
San Onofre spokesman Ray Golden says SCE is confident that it will prevail in the ongoing lawsuit. "We believe the facts and science have and will continue to demonstrate that San Onofre did not cause any employee or family member of an employee to contract cancer," he said.
Four months after the March hearing, the court still hasn't issued a ruling. But McLandrich says her battle against San Onofre will continue whatever the outcome. Describing the San Onofre leaks as a radiation "epidemic," she recently attended a meeting in San Clemente and argued against SCE's plans to keep radioactive waste buried on-site for the foreseeable future.
"They are trying to present this myth to the public that there haven't been any accidents at San Onofre," McLandrich said. "My husband had stomach pains for three years before we found out that he had cancer. We had no idea he had been exposed to radiation because they never told us. Had they said something, my husband would have received the medical care he needed much earlier. He'd still be alive to see his children grow up."
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