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Bevatron Demolition Underway

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday June 18, 2009 - 07:36:00 PM

The unique igloo-domed Bevatron building at UC Berkeley is coming down, the closing chapter in a political battle between city activists and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). 

The structure, formally known as Building 51, once housed the 180-foot-diameter particle accelerator known as the Bevatron. 

Because the structure had been the venue for experiments that led directly to four Nobel Prizes, the federal government had deemed it potentially eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places—an action that could have hampered demolition efforts. 

The late UC Berkeley physicist Owen Chamberlain, who won his Nobel for discovering the antiproton in experiments using the Bevatron in 1955, had fought to preserve the structure until his death in Berkeley on Feb. 28, 2006 at the age of 85. 

A group of Berkeley preservationists and citizens worried about possible radiation exposure from the transit of debris through the city had waged a losing battle to landmark the structure under city laws in an effort to block demolition. 

But after months of discussion, a sharply divided city Landmarks Preservation Commission voted on Aug. 3, 2006, to landmark the site and not the building, clearing the way for demolition. Several current UC Berkeley researchers spoke in favor of demolition during the commission’s hearings. 

Ben Feinberg, the last head of Bevatron operations, argued against declaring the building a landmark, telling commissioners the best monument to the history of the site would be construction of new labs equipped with the latest hardware to conduct more groundbreaking research. 

Crews at the site have already stripped the structure of asbestos, commonly used in insulation materials before its cancer-causing role was acknowledged, and other interior materials have been removed and metals shipped off for recycling, according to the lab’s website on the project. 

Lab spokesperson Paul Preuss said Wednesday that work continues at the site, and that a nearby traffic island had been removed to ease truck access to the parking lot at the rear of the building for eventual removal of concrete and other construction debris. 

“We are presently surveying all the concrete blocks that constituted the igloo, which are currently stacked up inside the structure,” he said. 

Preuss said that he expects 90 percent of the debris will not contain any traces of radioactivity above normal background levels, while the remaining 10 percent is expected to exhibit low levels of radioactivity resulting from work conducted at the site. 

“That 10 percent will have to be handled in a different way,” he said, including disposal in a federally approved site. 

Eventually, according to the environmental documents prepared by LBNL for the demolition, the lab expects to remove a total of 4,700 truckloads of debris, which will be hauled through city streets en route to final disposal in landfills. 

The trucks now hauling material from the lab don’t come from the Bevatron, but are instead the result of work on a second project, the construction of the Seismic Upgrade Building. 

“We expect to go from five trucks a day at the beginning of July to 20 a day by the end of the month,” Preuss said. 

Removal of the blocks from the Bevatron building is set to begin later this month and continue through fall, according to the notice posted at the lab’s project construction updates site, Workplace/siteconstruction. 

The Bevatron building and the attached office building total 126,500 square feet, according to the environmental impact report the university prepared as part of the demolition project. 

Completed in 1953, the Bevatron—named after the billion electron volts it produced—was in operation for the next 40 years, shutting down for the final time on Feb. 21, 1993, outmoded by far larger and more powerful particle accelerators built since its inaugural run.