Public Comment

Commentary: LBNL: 75 Years of Science, 75 Years of Pollution

By L A Wood
Friday August 25, 2006

This weekend marks the 75th anniversary of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Established a decade prior to World War II, the “rad lab,” as it was first called, has maintained a strong presence at the UC Berkeley campus since that time. Today the national laboratory is operated by the Department of Energy and it continues with its radiation research. 

The founders’ day activities at this private gala will undoubtedly evoke many memories of the good old days, including scientific advancements, Nobel Prizes, and recognition of those men and women who put the lab and Berkeley on the world map. It’s unlikely that very many will speak about its legacy of pollution and the undeniable impact that has had on the facility and its environs. 

During the 1940s, expansion shifted most the lab’s operations to the hill above the campus. As a result, most of the lab’s research has been hidden from public view. For over half a century, Berkeley’s “stealth” laboratory has operated in a climate that has promoted little thought for the public or environmental management. 

This “scientific” mindset at LBNL has been difficult to overcome and has been accompanied by an academic arrogance that seems to be associated with higher education and Nobel Prizes. Few residents have been able to question the lab’s poor environmental record without feeling the brunt of LBNL’s self-righteous rhetoric and endless recitations of its connections with the Manhattan Project, breast cancer research and solar panels. 

However, there has to be more to science than generating new discoveries. It is also about taking responsibility for the dangers produced by research. Perhaps it’s unfair to point to the lab’s environmental transgressions during the war since little was understood about radiation and its deadly effects at that time. But today, it is fair to look at LBNL’s more recent history and necessary to challenge its failed responsibility to environmental stewardship. 


No buffer, no cleanup, few monitors 

One would have to go back to the late 1980s to find the first attempts to address the impact of LBNL’s research activities. The passage of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) spurred these investigations. Consequently, LBNL was forced to undertake a review of its facility. Back then, DOE’s Tiger Team gathered documentation of the lab’s historic and current research operations. The goal of the RCRA investigation was to define the onsite contamination and then produce a cleanup plan. 

More than 15 years later, the RCRA corrective action report has finally been daylighted. Unfortunately, DOE chose to limit the investigation and cleanup by restricting the funding. Certainly, the current Washington political climate and Bush’s dismantling of the US EPA have helped shape this non-cleanup policy. 

Many US brownfield sites, like the lab’s “old town” area, and Hunter’s Point in San Francisco, are now struggling for local cleanup dollars and to get the federal government to meet its full responsibility. In Berkeley, LBNL’s cleanup has stalled out. In fact, now the lab is proposing that the University of California Regents grant them a deed restriction that would essentially halt any further cleanup on the hill. 

Sometime in the last decade, DOE’s site investigations must have triggered the realization that the rad lab has no buffer zone between it and nearby residents and the adjacent central campus. These evaluations also flagged radiation emissions from two of the lab’s commercial user facilities, the Bevatron and the National Tritium Labeling Facility. Subsequently, both of these labs were forced to close during the 90s. 

The proximity of LBNL to hillside homes has caused residents to question the adequacy of air monitoring at the facility. This public controversy eventually resulted in the City of Berkeley hiring an independent consultant to examine LBNL’s environmental records. Unable to draw very many conclusions from the lab’s scant data, the consultant noted that the radiation laboratories at LBNL were inadequately monitored and clearly not on a par with what is expected of other national research facilities. 

In the last decade, DOE has continued to run the lab as though it’s still the good old days. Operating with a grossly outdated, long-range development plan and a fifteen-year-old environmental assessment, LBNL has refused to consider the growing impacts of lab expansion and research. 

At the same time, DOE is pushing to redevelop LBNL on a scale not seen in many decades, demonstrated most egregiously by DOE’s placement of the new molecular foundry in Strawberry Canyon. It’s criminal that LBNL can force this nano-technology lab onto hill residents, some of whom live within a quarter mile of the stacks, while refusing to invest in a full environmental impact report. This speaks volumes about the current lack of responsible regulatory oversight and what may be in store for Berkeley in the future.  


The Bevatron: quick n’ dirty 

Nothing exemplifies this cavalier attitude more than the recently proposed demolition of the Bevatron, Berkeley’s own particle accelerator. Built in the early part of the cold war, this laboratory was funded by the Atomic Energy Commission. Despite being recently nominated for the National Register of Historic Places, LBNL insists this world famous building must be torn down. 

The proposed demolition has raised more than just preservation concerns. DOE proposes that the Bevatron, constructed of concrete, lead, and asbestos, be crushed on site. If approved, the demolition is expected to last through 2012 and at the cost of 90 million taxpayer dollars! 

During that time, thousands of trucks burdened with hazardous and radioactive demolition debris will snake through the streets of Berkeley before being shipped off to communities in three states. The City of Berkeley has long been opposed to the injustice of sending waste to other communities and has expressed this to LBNL. The responsible solution is to preserve the Bevatron so the structure’s hazardous and radioactive materials will remain safely contained on site. 

In a public review of the proposed demolition of the Bevatron earlier this year, the project’s proponents said that the environmental impact would be limited. They claim the building itself would be used for containment of dust during the removal process. However, it appears that a new demolition plan has been drawn up which, of course, has not been re-circulated for public review. The revised plan calls for a quick n’ dirty knockdown of this historic structure. 

DOE, in typical developer fashion, claims that it is two years behind schedule with the demolition and has used this as justification for throwing all caution to the wind. This new scheme to unleash the Bevatron’s legacy of contamination is nothing short of an environmental atrocity for nearby residents, UC students and those living along the proposed truck routes. 

Clearly, the environmental choices being made reflect the fact that LBNL is in crisis. With seemingly little to lose, the lab is scrambling to meet the future and reinvent itself. There seems to be very little goodwill or concern for the public’s safety. Those at LBNL and in Washington who are driving this unprecedented expansion need to be reminded that research work at the lab is for the public good, and not the other way around. Responsible stewardship is needed now. After 75 years, it’s about time. 


L A Wood is a Berkeley resident.