University Begins Gill Tract Radiation Decommissioning

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday December 04, 2007

UC Berkeley needs to clean up any remaining radioactivity at a laboratory in the Gill Tract where biologists combined cancer cells with lymphocytes to produce antibodies a decade ago. 

State law requires the cleanup before the university can take the site—and the Gill Tract—off of its radioactive materials handling license. 

“The facility’s recent history included the use of radioactive material in biomedical and environmental research,” said Ken August of the Radiological Health Branch state Department of Public Health. 

“The research was conducted under a broad scope license issued to UC Berkeley,” he said. “Currently the site is pending decommissioning, and the only activities authorized are those needed by UC to prepare the decommissioning plan.”  

The Gill Tract research facilities are located near the southwest corner of the intersection of San Pablo Avenue and Buchanan Street in Albany, adjacent to UC’s family housing units.  

Radioactive isotopes were used as tracers at the Hybridoma Center, and two nearby sheds were used for temporary storage of radioactive wastes, said Greg Yuhas, the university’s radioactive safety officer. 

Hybridoma cells, which are essentially immortal, are used for the production of monoclonal antibodies, produced by the lymphocytes—the body’s infection-fighting cells. 

The resulting antibodies and another class of compounds called lymphokines are used in treating a variety of diseases. 

Experiments were conducted in the one-story wood-frame stucco-covered center from 1988 through 1997, Yuhas said, while the wastes were stored in a plywood shed and a shipping container. 

Before the university can drop the property from the list on its radioactive materials license, the state administrative code requires a complex decommissioning survey. 

Yuhas said there are two isotopes which create ongoing safety concerns: carbon 14 and tritium, an isotope of hydrogen. Other isotopes used had much shorter half-lives. 

The first stage of the survey involves preparation of a proposal for how the survey will be conducted, covering all aspects of the sites that need to be examined for residual traces of radioactivity.  

Yuhas took would-be survey contractors on a tour of the site Wednesday, and they have until Dec. 14 to prepare their proposals. 

The decommissioning survey must include measurements of radiation on floor surfaces, the surrounding soil and nearby agricultural plots, walls above sinks, laboratory hoods and sink traps, floor drains, ducts, intake and exhaust vents and refrigerators and freezers. 

Once prepared and reviewed by Yuhas and the university’s office of Environmental Health and Safety, bids will be forwarded to the university’s capital projects office, and the winner will be sent to the state radiological office. 

State officials can approve the survey or require additional survey work by another contractor or its own scientists. 

The survey itself could take from one to six weeks, depending on its complexity, and the resulting cleanup could take “from months to years,” Yuhas said. 

Once completed to the state’s satisfaction—and also according to the requirements of the federal Nuclear Regulation Commission—the site and the Gill Tract itself could be removed from the university’s nuclear materials license. 

Any radioactive wastes found would be removed to a designated disposal facility, Yuhas said.