The recent outcry over Alameda County school children visiting the Lawrence Hall of Science and being exposed to tritium emissions from DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory should FINALLY awaken the university community to this local radiation health hazard. Cal students must understand that the debate over radiation up at the children’s museum is but the tip of the iceberg. Concerns over tritium exposure reach down into the Central Campus and its radiation labs, raising additional questions about radiation exposure and Cal students.
Nearly three decades ago, I walked onto the campus and became a Cal Bear. Overwhelmed by the beauty of the campus setting and the grandeur of the architecture, I was completely unaware of the more than 2,500 labs on the Central Campus, or the tonnage of hazardous and radioactive waste generated each year at the university site. It took me years to discover that I had been exposed to radiation daily from the DOE laboratories located on the Central Campus.
Radiation came to the Berkeley Central Campus sometime in the early 1930s. The radiation work of Professor E.O. Lawrence and others made UCB an important research center. This led to the Manhattan Project, and ultimately, to the creation of the atom bomb. After World War II, the campus’ radiation facilities expanded their operations. Today, these DOE research laboratories and their emission stacks stretch across the Central Campus and up the Lawrence Hall of Science.
Most students have a difficult time finding part-time work within a school schedule I was fortunate, I thought, to be able to work on campus with the university’s custodial services. My first assignment was three months at Etcheverry Hall, at Hearst and Euclid, dumping trash cans from offices, labs and classrooms. No one warned me of the vault in the basement, or that the large doors that I worked around were housing a nuclear reactor and radiation lab. (Many years later, the Berkeley community forced its removal.)
In the next several years, my job designation was custodial fill-in, and consequently, I worked in or around a number of radiation labs funded by DOE, both on the hill and on the Central Campus. One of my work assignments took me to the DOE Donner Lab, near the Campanile. It’s difficult to ascertain past emissions at this or other DOE/LBNL labs because of the lack of documentation. However, a recent environmental site report identifies over a dozen source points of radiation coming from Donner, primarily uncontrolled lab fume hoods.
Eventually, I worked around DOE’s Melvin Calvin labs at Bancroft and Piedmont. Environmental reports from the mid-’70s document releases of hundreds of curies of tritium annually in that area of the Central Campus. To my own grief, I used to eat the plumbs from the trees around that lab during the summers, as did many students. Since that time, I have learned much more about radiation exposure, and the shocking fact that tritium when organically bound in plants is 25,000 times more harmful to human tissue than tritium gas. Some in the radiation industry would like to ignore the dangers of low-level radiation, but the fact remains: there is no safe dose.
In the last half century, the potential for UCB student exposure to lab radiation has grown exponentially. This growth is now being aided by the biotech radiation industry. Such commercial influences on both the university and DOE-LBNL will mean increased use of radioactive materials and a greater possibility of radiation exposure for the students, faculty and employees of UCB. Moreover, today’s tritium emissions on the Central Campus and Upper Campus will still be radioactive a century from now when the class of 2100 enters UCB. It’s time to address this growing crisis of UCB student exposure to radiation.
Finally, this ex-Bear reminds the Berkeley lab and university that science should exist primarily for the betterment of humanity and not the other way around. I would suggest that the health notice being posted by the Alameda County Board of Education on the door of the Lawrence Hall of Science should be placed on Sather Gate as well. Everyone, including students, has a right to know.
L.A. Wood is a Berkeley resident active in environmental issues.