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Laser-Powered Accelerator Plan Gets Boost From Recovery Act

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday July 16, 2009 - 10:38:00 AM

A strangely colored beam pouring out a quadrillion watts of peak power spewing out subatomic particles juiced up by a ten-billion-electronic-volt laser plasma accelerator housed in a facility dubbed the “experimental cave”? 

While it may sound like Dr. Frankenstein’s lab, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) officials are calling it BELLA—short for Berkeley Lab Laser Accelerator and not for that Lugosi guy who played Dracula, though he, too, lurked in dark, cavernous places. 

To be built with the help of $20 million in funding from the Obama administration’s Amer- 

ican Resource and Recovery Act, the project is part of the lab’s $115.8 million in Recovery Act funding awarded the lab in March by former LBNL director and now Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. 

The total cost of the laser facility will be $28 million, with the balance of funding also coming from Department of Energy accounts. 

Designed to replace vastly larger particle accelerators used in the study of the fundamental properties of matter, the research equipment will be housed in an existing structure, Building 71, on the northern edge of the lab’s campus. 

Construction of Building 71 was begun in 1957 to house the lab’s Heavy Ion Linear Accelerator (HILAC), according to the environmental assessment released by the lab to cover the BELLA project. 

The Department of Energy in 2007 listed the structure as eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places “because of the important role that the building had played in the nuclear physics and accelerator development” at the lab, according to the environmental assessment. 

But the removal in 2008 of the last equipment used in the HILAC experiments represented the disappearance of the building’s last remaining historic elements, the environmental assessment concluded. 

Unmentioned is the fact that building interiors are expressly excluded from the city of Berkeley’s Landmarks Preservation Ordinance, which evaluates buildings solely on their exteriors and precludes designating interiors. 

Likewise, interiors aren’t mentioned in the criteria for designating an official California state landmark, which include: 

• Association “with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of local or regional history or the cultural heritage of California or the United States.” 

• A connection with “the lives of persons important to local, California or national history.” 

• Embodiment of “the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, region or method of construction or [that] represents the work of a master or possesses high artistic values.”  

• Documentation that the site “has yielded, or has the potential to yield, information important to the prehistory or history of the local area, California or the nation.” 

To be considered for designation, structures need only meet one of the four criteria, according to the state Office of Historic Preservation ( 

Neither the city nor state landmarks laws are mentioned in the environmental assessment, which was prepared by a Berkeley private planning firm, Design, Community & Environment, which also prepared the environmental analysis for the university’s controversial Long Range Development Plan 2020. 

The city has designated landmarks on the UC Berkeley campus and at LBNL, but the sites are outside the city’s official jurisdiction, though sometimes at least within the state’s purview. The BELLA itself is exclusively a federal project, and LBNL’s status as a federal lab operated under contract by the university adds to the legal complications of the environmental review process.  

“The Proposed Action would not affect cultural resources,” the environmental assessment states, though the assessment also notes that the project would make one significant alteration to the building’s exterior—a 2,000-square-foot rooftop structure housing a utility room and stairwell. 

While the lab’s project review has been conducted under the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), project critics like Pamela Shivola and Mark McDonald of the Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste said at least a preliminary review—a document formally entitled an initial study—should be conducted under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). 

In a June 10 letter, Shivola told city Planning and Development Director Dan Marks that a broader review was needed because of the site’s “proximity to residential neighborhoods ... and the Lawrence Hall of Science, a children’s school and a museum just a few hundred yards away.” 

“This is very important,” Shivola told a reporter before a recent city Planning Commission meeting. 

In addition to the lab’s relative nearness to residences and places where children congregate, McDonald and Shivola point to the area’s seismic faults, and the predictions of state and federal geologists that the Bay Area’s next major shaker is most likely to come from the nearby Hayward Fault, which runs directly beneath Memorial Stadium. 

The heart of the new facility is the experimental cave, from which much of the equipment mentioned in the environmental assessment has already been removed. The environmental assessment notes that, of an estimated 100 truckloads of material involved in the project, one will be filled with hazardous material destined for a licensed waste facility. 

“Most of the material will be what you find in any old building, including asbestos and lead,” said LBNL spokesperson Paul Preuss, though some traces of other hazards might be present, including possible spills of small quantities of radioactive materials. 

The environmental assessment acknowledges that “several instances of low-level surface radioactivity have been detected in Building 71 equipment,” include americium-241, cesium-137 and curium-244, as well as subsequently cleaned-up traces of beryllium and PCBs. 

Experiments will be conducted by new equipment surrounded by heavy radiation shielding, including three-foot-thick concrete walls plus “an additional 16 inches of lead, 36 inches of steel and another six feet of concrete to absorb the radiation and reduce exposure levels.” 

The environmental assessment also states that the beam will produce subatomic gamma rays, neutrons and photomuons, and that even workers standing near the beam’s terminus—the point of most potential exposure—would receive less than a fifth of the allowable exposure level over the course of the year. 

But McDonald is skeptical, noting that federally set levels of radiation have changed over the years. He also cites a 2001 city-commissioned review of radiological monitoring at the lab prepared by researchers at the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Heidelberg, Germany. 

That report concluded that radiation levels from lab accelerators had exceeded permissible levels 40 years ago at the lab’s border at the Olympic Gate monitoring station. 

Preuss and the environmental assessment both insist that the new accelerator won’t emit unsafe levels of radiation. 

The new accelerator will produce a beam about a million times more powerful than that emitted by the last-generation television’s cathode ray tube, he said, “so you definitely would not want to stand right in front of it.” 

But, “energetic as they are, none of the electrons in BELLA’s hair-thin beam are going to get out of the experimental area,” he said, “and no one can get through the interlocked doors when it’s on—it will shut down if anybody tries.” 

The device also stops abruptly in the event of an earthquake, Preuss said.  

In addition, the device, which is a mere three feet long, isn’t expected to irradiate other materials in the cave. 

McDonald and Shivola remain skeptical. 

The environmental assessment is available at