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Report challenges lab’s assessment of tritium safety

By John Geluardi Daily Planet staff
Thursday September 06, 2001

The final risk-assessment report for Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s tritium facility was released last month and indicates the largest danger of exposure to radioactive material would be during a fire or other disaster.  

The report, prepared by Dr. Bernd Franke of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, in Heidelberg, Germany, was requested by the City Council after aggressive lobbying by the Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste, which largely consists of neighbors of the LBNL facility.  

The report will be discussed at the Community Environmental Advisory Commission meeting tonight. 

The $33,000, 53-page report, assessed possible public exposure to tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen used primarily as a marker in medical research. The National Tritium Labeling Facility, which is managed by LBNL, has special clearance from the Department of Energy to warehouse large quantities of the radioactive material. 

In the report, Franke challenged LBNL’s 1996 hazard assessment, known as the Safety Analysis Document, that claimed a “full release” of the facility’s tritium inventory during a fire would not have “significant localized consequences.” The SAD approximated a total inventory of 15,000 curries of tritium, according to the report. 

The SAD estimated that exposure to members of the public within 125 feet of the facility’s tritium stack would be 4.8 millirems, which is far below the Environmental Protection Agency’s limit of 10 millirems per year. 

“The preliminary review indicates that this claim may be incorrect,” Franke wrote in the report.  

Franke suggested that under a variety of scenarios the exposure could be as high as 2,900 to 18,000 millirems or 600 to 3,700 times higher than LBNL’s estimate. Franke reached similar conclusions in his initial draft report, which was released in March.  

Franke said in the report that his estimate of potential exposure should be further studied by an independent consulting firm. 

The LBNL Community Relations Office defended the 1996 findings in a press release Wednesday. “The high dose postulated by (Franke) is based upon flawed assumptions,” the statement said. 

Nevertheless, LBNL’s group leader for environmental services, Ron Pauer, said the lab plans to comply with Franke’s recommendation and contract with an outside company to conduct another hazard study some time in approximately one year. He said the report would be made available to the public once completed.  

The Franke report also stated that annual tritium releases, based on 1998 data, were well below the EPA standard of 10 millirems. According to the report, the facility released 115 curries of tritium in 1998 which would have resulted in .28 millirems of exposure to a person standing at the Lawrence Hall of Science, located about 500 feet from the tritium emissions stack. The hall sponsors a variety of youth workshops and exhibits, visited by nearly 150,000 children each year. 

Despite Franke’s low-risk assessment, LBNL has announced plans to move the stack farther away from LHS about a year. 

Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste member Gene Bernardi was quick to point out the 1998 data was collected with only six ambient air monitoring sites and that Franke recommended at least 16 in his draft report.  

LBNL has deployed another eight air monitoring sites for a total of 14. Most of the recent sites were put into place in response to Franke’s recommendation. 

But Bernardi questioned the locations of the monitors. “While LBNL has increased its sampling locations from six to 14, the present locations seem to bear little relation to the expected tritium concentrations in the air,” she said. 

Another CMTW member Pam Sihvola said she reviewed the proposed locations of the air monitors and said there are no monitors in areas where there have been traditionally high measurements of tritium. She said LBNL did not place a monitor in the Corporation Yard, which has a history of high levels of tritium. 

“This is a place where lab employees park their cars and wait for buses,” Sihvola said.  

The Community Advisory Environmental Commission will discuss the results of the final report at its meeting tonight at 6 p.m. in the First Floor Conference Room in the Planning and Development Department at 2118 Milvia St.