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Tritium facility gets OK to burn radioactive materials

By John Geluardi Daily Planet staff
Thursday January 03, 2002

Despite community concerns, the California Department of Toxic Substance Control has given Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory the green light to treat radioactive hazardous waste in Berkeley. 

Those uneasy with the treatment process point out that the method is the same one that was used in 1998, when an elevated level of tritium was accidentally released. 

Although the City Council asked formally that the treatment not take place in Berkeley, the DTSC issued a written response on Dec. 28 condoning the disposal of five liters of mixed waste that contains tritium – a radioactive isotope commonly used in pharmaceutical research.  

The National Tritium Labeling Facility, overseen by LBNL, created the waste as a byproduct of its primary function of attaching tritium to pharmaceutical products.  

The NTLF closed down last month when, according to lab officials, the National Institutes of Health withdrew its funding. The closure was first announced in September. 

The disposal process, also referred to as a “treatability study” because of its experimental nature, heats the mixed hazardous waste through a process known as catalytic chemical oxidation. The heat burns off the organic hazardous materials leaving the tritium, which is captured in water.  

“As we read the closure plan for the Labeling Facility, the exhaust ventilation system for the oxidation process would remain operational and radiological monitoring of its emissions would continue until the oxidation process study is completed,” wrote Rick Robison, DTSC Unit Chief in the investigations branch, in a Dec. 28 letter to LBNL officials. 

Once the tritium is isolated, it can be shipped to a low-level radioactive storage facility, where it is buried in sealed containers and allowed to decompose naturally. 

City officials and neighbors say they are alarmed by the DTSC approval because of an accidental tritium release in July 1998 during a similar NTLF process. The accident resulted in a release of between 35 and 50 curies of tritium into the atmosphere. Normally the facility released 50 to 100 curries over the course of an entire year.  

But Lab officials downplay the importance of this release. They say the accident was a minor one and the release was far below acceptable federal and state levels.  

Further, DTSC officials reject calls for moving the treatment process to another location. In a Dec. 28 replay to Al Hadithy, Antonette Benita Cordero, chief counsel and deputy director in the Office of Legal Counsel & Criminal Investigations of the DTSC, said the DTSC does not have “the legal authority to order the Laboratory to transfer the treatability study, or even the mixed waste at issue, to another DOE facility, as you and other persons who have communicated with the department have requested.” 

And the disposal process has been improved, said LBNL Environmental Attorney Nancy Shepard, contending there is little chance of another accidental release occurring.  

But members of the Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste, a community group that opposes the treatment of the waste in Berkeley, said they were disappointed in the DTSC’s decision and that they are skeptical of the lab’s claims. 

“The DTSC has ignored the City Council, the community and more importantly the history of this facility,” said CMTW member Pam Shivola. “This process is too experimental and it is not appropriate for it to be carried out next to a children’s science hall and a dense residential neighborhood.” 

Shivola said the stack through which the accidental release was emitted is 500 feet from the Lawrence Hall of Science, visited by an average of 150,000 children each year. 

In addition to CMTW concerns, city Hazardous Materials Supervisor Nabil Al-Hadithy sent a letter to DTSC at the behest of the City Council asking that the disposal process take place elsewhere. The letter requested that the lab “discontinue future treatability testing on mixed waste and (that the lab) ship the remainder of the mixed wastes, equipment and funding to another Department of Energy site that is less dense and seismically more stable.” 

The city and community concerns were taken into consideration, said DTSC Senior Hazardous Substance Engineer Robert Aragon. “We did some investigating, visited the site and ultimately came to the conclusion that the lab met state and federal requirements to conduct the study,” he said. 

After an investigation of the 1998 release, the DTSC halted all mixed-waste treatability studies at the tritium facility. 

Shepard and LBNL Radiological Control Manager Gary Zeman are scheduled to give the CEAC a presentation about the disposal process and the scheduled decommissioning of the tritium facility at a CEAC meeting tonight. 

In a September press release, LBNL spokesperson Ron Kolb said the tritium facility was closing due to the National Institutes of Health withdrawal of $1 million in annual funding because of a lack of tritium-related research. But at least two city councilmembers point to the closure as the direct result of CMTW efforts. The group began advocating for the facility’s closure in 1996. 

Lab officials said dismantling and decontaminating the tritium facility will take over a year and cost at least $1 million. 

The CEAC meeting will take place at 7 p.m. at the first floor conference room of the Planning and Development Department, 2118 Milvia St.