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Community claims victory in tritium facility closure

By John Geluardi Daily Planet staff
Saturday September 15, 2001

Causing a citywide sigh of relief, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory officials announced Friday that the lab’s radioactive tritium facility has lost funding and will close by early December. 

According to a joint press release from LBNL and the National Institutes of Health, the NIH has withdrawn the facility’s $1 million annual funding because of a shortage of physicists, too few tritium-related research projects and the NIH’s intention to invest in other forms of cell-imaging techniques.  

But several city officials said the announced closure was the result of intense public pressure put on the lab by the Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste, an organization spawned from a Berkeley neighborhood group.  

LBNL spokesperson Ron Kolb said the facility will close in December after which a six-month dismantling of tritium labeling equipment, much of it radioactive, will begin.  

“It will take another year after that to decontaminate the place before the building can be used again,” Kolb said. 

He added the facility’s four employees have been given their severance notices and that the laboratory is trying to place them in other laboratory departments.  

The National Tritium Labeling Facility, which is managed by LBNL, provides medical researchers with the radioactive isotope tritium. The lab attaches the tritium to pharmaceuticals and other medical compounds, in a process known as labeling, so they can be accurately traced as they course through the human body. 

The facility, which opened in 1982, has been controversial since 1996 when a neighborhood group, the Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste, began asking questions about how LBNL stores and disposes of tritium. The group was also concerned about the labeling process which requires the release of varying amounts of tritium through an emissions stack. The stack is located 500 feet from the Lawrence Hall of Science, which is visited by an average of 150,000 children each year. 

Last year the City Council commissioned a study of the tritium facility by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, in Heidelberg, Germany. The $33,000, 53-page report, evaluated the level of public exposure to tritium and assessed potential health risks. The final version of the report was released on Aug. 23. 

Dr. Bernd Franke, who prepared the report, concluded that data, provided by the facility, showed tritium emissions were lower than the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended exposure levels. But Franke suggested the laboratory deploy more tritium air monitoring equipment around the facility. 

Franke also challenged an LBNL report that claimed the labeling facility posed no, or very little, risk in the event of a fire, earthquake or other disaster. 

The City Council unanimously approved a resolution calling for the closure of the tritium facility in 1996 and again in 1998.  

“I’m really greatly relieved that we will have this potential danger closed down,” said Councilmember Polly Armstrong, who represents District 8 where the facility is located. “Nobody doubts the good work being done with tritium, but it doesn’t belong in a dense urban area known for fires, earthquakes and landslides. It belongs in the desert where less damage is possible.” 

Mayor Shirley Dean also expressed relief. “I can’t help but feel relieved by (the news),” she said. “I had been reassured by recent studies that the facility wasn’t a huge threat, but the City Council took the stance that the facility should be closed.” 

Councilmembers Kriss Worthington and Dona Spring said the closure is a victory for the neighbors who were tireless in their efforts to close the facility. 

“The Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste wrote countless letters, visited congresspeople, senators and lobbied and lobbied and lobbied,” Spring said. “This is just a tremendous victory for the community.” 

CMTW member Gene Bernardi, who began challenging LBNL activities in 1992 over hazardous waste storage, said the news was stunning. “I’m incredulous, but delighted if it’s true,” she said. “I think they must have finally come to their senses.” 

Pam Sihvola said the committee has been working day and night to close the facility since 1996. She said she was very grateful to the City Council and all the other organizations that have lent their support.  

“Victory, victory for the community,” Sihvola said. “The message here is that great things can be accomplished when the community holds together.” 

Sihvola added that the dismantling process will be closely monitored by the CMTW. 

Community Environmental Advisory Commissioner L.A. Wood, who has worked for the closure of the facility, said at first it was difficult just learning about the complexities of tritium and the procedures involved with the labeling process.  

“In 1996 no one understood anything about tritium,” Wood said. “But all the work over the years finally reached a critical mass and closed the facility.” 

Both Dean and Armstrong said the closure of the tritium facility will allow the good work the LBNL does to be put in the spotlight. Armstrong commended the lab’s breast cancer research and its development of energy efficient technology.  

“There are a lot of good people there who are doing a lot of good work,” she said.