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Lab Promises Answers on Bevatron Contamination, Demolition

By Judith Scherr
Thursday July 24, 2008 - 09:51:00 AM

Fearing adverse health effects related to toxic debris from dismantling the Bevatron and the associated Building 51 at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and trucking the materials through the streets of Berkeley over several years, the City Council Tuesday voted 7-1 for the city manager to write a letter to the lab demanding information on more than 25 issues related to the demolition of the Bevraton.  

Councilmember Gordon Woz-niak, a former lab employee, voted in opposition. 

The information the council wants to see includes the complete demolition plan, the sources of funding for the demolition, plans for hazardous materials abatement, details on the chemicals used at the site and more. 

The manager’s letter will further ask the lab to follow through on its plan to demolish the exterior of the building before dismantling the equipment inside and request a “contribution” towards the wear and tear on city streets from the anticipated 4,700 truck trips to and from the lab associated with the demolition. 

The Bevatron is a particle accelerator brought to the lab in 1954 and decommissioned in 1993. While it is a city landmark, the City Council approved its demolition last year. The site contains lead, asbestos, mercury and low-level radiation. The lab is owned by the Department of Energy and managed by the University of California. 

The resolution “is an outgrowth of [recently deceased Council-member Dona Spring’s] commitment to protecting the environment,” said Councilmember Max Anderson, introducing the resolution. 

Speaking to the council at the meeting, Don Medley, lab spokes-person, promised that the lab would respond to all the questions. Reached Wednesday with questions on the lab’s “contribution” to the city for wear on the streets, Medley said he wouldn’t be able to respond until he had seen the language in the city manager’s letter. 

On Monday, Medley issued a letter to the council that responded to a number of issues that the original resolution raised, including truck routes, the way hazardous debris would be contained on the trucks, and the demolition dates. 

In the letter, Medley promised that the Bevatron would be dismantled before the surrounding building was, explained that the process would go on between August 2008 and October 2011, that tarps would cover non-hazardous debris and that “all hazardous and radioactive material that is in the form of dust will be fully enclosed in containers.” 

Asked to comment Wednesday on the mayor’s request for a “contribution” to the wear on the streets, Medley said he had to wait until he saw the specific language in the city manager’s letter. 

While members of the Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste (CMTW) had wanted the lab to seal the Bevatron and surrounding building to let it decay in place—since the lab did not want to turn it into a museum—they said the lab’s response to the 25 questions would be satisfactory at this point. 

“There is no safe dose of radiation,” said Gene Bernardi, of the CMTW, speaking to the council on the danger of trucking the debris through the city. 

“This is a city that says how green it is,” Mark McDonald, of CMTW, told the Planet earlier in the week, arguing that trucking toxics through town is contrary to the city’s “green” policies.  

The extent of mercury at the site is just coming to light, McDonald said, pointing to a May 20, 2008, letter to the City Council by Otto J. A. Smith, professor emeritus in the UC Berkeley Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences Department. Smith was professor in the department from 1950 to 1954, at the time the Bevatron was shipped to the university.  

“Every time that the system was operated with both inverters connected, one Mercury Arc Ignition tube exploded,” he wrote the council. “The public deserves to know what tests have been made on mercury liquid in floors, walls, ceiling and tests of mercury vapor in the power room at the Bevatron.”  

“We don’t know what happened to all that mercury,” McDonald said, adding, “How would you feel about 4,700 truckloads with low-level radiation, mercury and asbestos going by your house?”  

Among the questions asked of the lab in the resolution, one specifically speaks to the mercury contamination. It asks, “During the early years of the Bevatron operations there were several explosions of tanks that contained liquid mercury. How is the presence of mercury from these explosions inside the Bevatron building being assessed? What are the testing results? What are the mitigation plans?” 

For a number of documents and articles on the Bevatron see 

For environmental assessment documents, see