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Molecular Foundry Foes Protest Groundbreaking

Friday January 30, 2004

About 30 protesters withstood steady drizzle early Thursday morning, worried that once Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) completes its newest laboratory complex, far smaller, more dangerous particles could rain down on them. 

“We don’t know anything at all about the health effects or environmental impact of what they’re doing here,” said Tom Kelly of the Community Health Commission. 

This morning (Friday, Jan. 30), LBNL breaks ground on its Molecular Foundry. The six-story, 94,000-square-foot facility, financed by $84 million from the Department of Energy, will catapult the lab into the forefront of nanotechnology, one of the fastest-growing but least-understood disciplines of physics. 

Nanoparticles are up to 100,000 times smaller than a human hair, but when properly manipulated, they have applications in every field from environmental preservation to repair of spinal tissues and creation of weapons of mass destruction. 

Demonstrators assembled outside the lab’s entrance questioned how the new building—planned to sit just above a watershed 600 meters from an earthquake fault—could have evaded a rigorous environmental review. They doubted the lab’s capacity to keep nano-particles from escaping into air and possibly drifting into their lungs, and they questioned the lab’s will to keep potential contaminates from seeping into nearby creeks that feed the Bay. 

“They’re wearing blinders on this project,” said Community Environmental Advisory Commission (CEAC) member LA Wood. “Not only do they not know the science, but they’re disregarding the environmental contamination of the hill.” 

Last year the city council rejected CEAC’s call to request the lab perform an Environmental Impact Report on the project. Aware that nanotechnology is too new for an EIR to analyze potential inhalation risks, CEAC has called for the lab to hire an independent auditor to perform an annual review of the foundry’s operations, as well as clean up soil and ground water contaminated with radioactive tritium just uphill from the foundry sight and bar new construction while other buildings on their 200-acre Berkeley Hills campus remained vacant.  

Lab spokeswoman Terry Powell has said in previous interviews that tritium levels were within federal standards and the lab would consider annual external reviews for work at the foundry.