Page One

Letters to the Editor

Tuesday February 13, 2001

Tritium danger debated 


Can’t trust lab to evaluate hazards 


The report by IFEU, Berkeley’s independent science consultant hired to evaluate radiation related hazards from Lawrence Berkeley National Lab clearly shows that the lab is not to be trusted with determining risks to the public from its operations.  

IFEU has calculated that that a full release of the Tritium Facility’s inventory during an earthquake or fire would expose nearby people, the children and workers of the Lawrence Hall of Science museum and other downwind residents, to 3,700 times more radiation than LBNL admits. The report also concludes that overall the data on the past 20 years of tritium dumping and storage is so shoddy that we will never be certain whether huge amounts of unaccounted tritium inventory got dumped along with the declared releases and who may have been exposed. LBNL, desperate for any silver lining in this damning document, holds up their irresponsible and inadequate monitoring practices as evidence that there are no records of anyone receiving a dose of this penetrating radioactive carcinogen which is also linked to infertility and other genetic defects.  

And now LBNL , through their own Sampling Task Force, says that we can trust them to test their facility (which has been virtually shut down for almost four years).  

The only purpose of this farce is to get the Tritium Facility off the Superfund-eligible list and return to business as usual. The locale around the Tritiun site was nominated for Superfund status when random sampling showed the area to be highly contaminated.  

The air inside the LHS was found to be too radioactive for adults, nevermind children who are much more sensitive. How radioactive is this site? Early on, members of the Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste sent a random sample from the museum site to an independent lab in Ohio for analysis.  

One has to look far and wide to find technicians untainted by Dept. of Energy contracts or other affiliations. Not used to receiving samples with such high levels of radioactivity, that lab complained that their whole operation became contaminated and alarmedly wanted to know where the sample had originated from. And this is where we allow tens of thousands of children annually to visit. The Alameda County Board of  

Education still stands by their advisory that parents and teachers investigate and decide for themselves before traveling to the LHS, despite intense pressure from LBNL. The Berkeley  

City Council has repeatedly demanded closure and clean-up of the Tritium Facility.  

Where does LBNL get all the money it spends on its phony Task Force and other public relations scams? One way is to underpay their own firefighters who are understaffed with a high turnover rate.  

Facing some of the worst hazards that require special technical expertise, these workers can’t afford to live here and leave for better jobs. Those who remain live 2-3 hours away and are not available for emergency call-in. The firefighters are having an informational picket March 1. Heaven help us if the Tritium Facility should catch fire.  


Mark McDonald  



Tritium is all around us: look at exit signs 


I have read with interest your article entitled “Lab poses health risk in fire, report says” (Feb. 7) where you trumpet the possible health risk associated with a hypothetical tritium release from a major fire at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Although such a major fire is very improbable and tritium at LBNL is stored in a chemically inert form as uranium tritide, one can always imagine a worst case scenario. 

Doubtlessly, you believe that such an exotic substance as tritium would only be found in secure research laboratories. What most people do not realize is that tritium is quite common and regularly encountered in every day life. Since tritium is one of the least dangerous radioactive substances, it is used widely in EXIT signs, luminous watches, luminous instrument dials, and airplanes. In fact, one distributor of tritium-filled EXIT signs, claims that his company sells 100,000 curies annually in the Bay Area. Since tritium has a twelve-year half life, the total inventory of tritium in the Bay Area probably exceeds one million curies. An informal survey indicates that tens of thousands of curies of tritium are being used in EXIT signs in Berkeley alone, a use that is sanctioned ironically under the State fire code. This tritium is stored in fragile glass tubes susceptible to breakage in a major fire or earthquake. 

Since Dr. Franke (author of the IFEU article) has postulated a worst case scenarios for the tritium stored at LBNL, I would like to postulate the same scenario for the EXIT signs. 

In this case the chemical form of the tritium is predominantly hydrogen which burns readily and can even react explosively with air. Since tritium-filled EXIT signs are widely used in buildings throughout Berkeley, large numbers of the public would be exposed in a major disaster. 

Since you may not be familiar with the tritium hotspots in downtown Berkeley, let me give you a few examples. One of my favorites is the bright red EXIT sign containing about 10 Curies of tritium that hangs over one of the exquisitely carved wooden doors of the downtown Berkeley Post Office. Suite 100 of the US Postal Service is one of the best places to view green tritium-filled EXIT signs up close, located throughout this building. If you look carefully, you can see the tiny yellow sticker with the radioactive warning label on the bottom right. With a magnifying glass, you can read the date when the ten or twenty year warranty on the sign expires on the bottom left. On the back side of each sign is a label stating that since the sign contains tritium, it should be returned to the manufacturer for proper disposal as radioactive waste when its warranty expires. Unfortunately, over 90 percent of the signs end up in the local dump. 

If you want to experience tritium at a basketball game, I recommend the UCB Haas Pavilion. If you would like to combine banking with with tritium, I recommend Citibank on Shattuck Ave. If browsing through a bookstore is more your style, try Barnes & Noble on Shattuck. If shopping is your pleasure, you may want to visit Ross Movie theaters are also a good place to experience tritium. If you want to see children at play next to tritium visit the Hall of Health or Habitot. Finally, one can even encounter tritium at newspaper offices, e.g the Berkeley Daily Planet office. 

In summary, tritium is not an exotic substance only used at LNBL, but rather common in our fair city. If downtown Berkeley were to be destroyed in an earthquake or in major fire, this tritium would be released and a large segment of the public would be exposed. For my part, I worry about the 90 percent of those tritium-filled EXIT signs that get thrown in the local dump. 


Gordon Wozniak, “acting chair” City of Berkeley's Community Environmental Advisory Commission, Scientist, LBNL.