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Committee seeks delay of tritium workshop

By John Geluardi Daily Planet Staff
Monday March 05, 2001

The Community Environmental Advisory Commission was finally able to take action regarding a workshop on a controversial report that says the National Tritium Labeling Facility may pose a health risk to Berkeley residents. 

On Thursday the new CEAC chair, Jami Caseber, assigned a subcommittee to begin organizing a workshop on the $30,000 report draft prepared by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Heidelberg, Germany.  

But the commission sent a request back to the City Council asking for more time and money to ensure that the workshop is as effective as possible. 

The CEAC has had the tritium report workshop on its agenda for the last month but has been unable to consider it because of internal conflicts that have resulted in the abrupt end of two of its last three meetings. 

The draft report indicated that the National Tritium Labeling Facility, which is part of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, may pose a danger to Berkeley residents in the event of a serious fire or natural disaster such as an earthquake. 

Tritium is a glowing radioactive isotope of hydrogen used primarily as a marker in drug research. The National Tritium Labeling Facility has special clearance to warehouse large quantities of the radioactive material. 

The report is still in the preliminary stages and the final report is not due until June, 2002.  

The workshop was originally scheduled for April 2, because the reports author, Bernd Franke, was scheduled to be in the California on unrelated business. If the workshop was held on that date the city would be able to save the cost of flying Franke from Germany. 

But both sides of the controversial issue agree that the April 2 date does not provide enough time to arrange the perimeters of the workshop or chose a panel of experts, all of whom will have to familiarize themselves with the complicated documents related to the study. 

“It is important that the community technical experts have time to research available information so they can be effective at the workshop,” said Pam Sihvola, a member of the Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste, which has long advocated the closing of the tritium facility. 

Commissioner Gordon Wozniak, who has been a lighting rod for controversy on the commission because of his employment as a senior scientist at LBNL, agrees the workshop date should be rescheduled. 

“I share the concern that April 2 is too close and we should send it back to the Council to request more funds,” he said. 

Wozniak added that these studies must be approached carefully and thoughtfully because the presence of radiation no matter how safe, he said, “touches a deep primordial fear in people.” 

Additional funds will be required because a rescheduled workshop means a separate trip to the United States for Franke. He is under contract with the city to make the trip and report presentation for $3,500. But Franke recently stated in an e-mail to the city’s hazardous materials supervisor, Nabil Al-Hadithy, that it will now cost, “significantly more to make the trip.” Al-Hadithy said Franke did not say how much more he had in mind. 

The City Council will likely consider the request for additional funds and a delay of the workshop at its March 13 meeting.