Public Comment

Lab Snookers Council Over Tiny Laser Accelerator’s Big Wallop

By Gene Bernardi
Thursday July 16, 2009 - 10:49:00 AM

With its typical modus operandi, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) mailed the BELLA High Energy Laser Accelerator environmental assessment notification such that it was received circa June 23, when many concerned citizens are vacationing. (Look for next lab environmental assessment at Christmastime!) The notice stipulated that the cut-off date for public comment is July 18, just 25 days after receipt of notice. Furthermore, the lab sent a contingent to lobby councilmembers prior to the July 7 meeting at which this proposed High Energy Laser Accelerator was on the agenda. The agenda recommendation was that residents near the project be notified, the comment period be extended, and that city staff comment on the project. 

Lab public relations personnel mollified our council “representatives” by emphasizing the size of the BELLA laser and laser plasma accelerator. They did not mention that what is so unique about the small size of the accelerator is the fact that, although only one meter in length, it will generate 10 billion electron volts (GeV) as much energy generated by current accelerators of 300 meters. Ten billion electron volts (10 GeV) is 60 percent more powerful than the lab’s Bevatron accelerator which reached 6.2 GeV. (See Franke and Greenhouse, “Review of Radiological Monitoring of NBNL: Final Report” City of Berkeley, 2001, p.37) 

The Lab’s making hay over the 450 notices they sent out means little when the individual households located within less than one-tenth of a mile (138m) of Building 71 (to house the accelerator) and all schools and parents, potential visitors to the Lawrence Hall of Science just one-tenth of a mile (159m) from Building 71, have not each been notified of the project: an accelerator which converts energy to radiation in the form of gamma-rays, neutrons and photomuons. This flies in the face of the Precautionary Principle and surely does not allow for informed consent or dissent. 

If the tiny “nano” BELLA accelerator is nothing to worry about, why will the Experimental Cave in which it will be housed have a “concrete wall…three feet thick at the west end where the electron beam would terminate… and an additional 16 inches of lead, 36 inches of steel, and another six feet of concrete to absorb radiation to reduce exposure levels outside the Experimental Cave for LBNL personnel…” (p.27, US Department of Energy environmental assessment, June 18). Please note: employees are allowed a higher exposure level than the general public. Is the exposure level for the general public at or below that which is allowed? Do you want to be exposed at all? The hazard of greatest concern is eye injury (p.28, Ibid); also skin burn and ignition of worker’s clothing. 

How is it that the majority of our so-called representatives, the city councilmembers, voted that the city staff not study and comment on the environmental assessment for the proposed BELLA Laser accelerator, a radiation producing project next to Berkeley residents’ homes and not call upon the lab to mail notices to these homes? 

Is it respectful, to say nothing of cost effective, for commissioners, members of the public and city councilmembers to spend hours in public facilities discussing and voting for resolutions such as “The Precautionary Principle” and “Stop Cancer Where It Starts” as well as discussing implementation of “The Nuclear Free Berkeley Act,” only to have the City Council ignore their own resolutions and the law? 

Should not the current city councilmembers suspend judgment on an issue until they have studied it and determined the Council history on the issue? In this case, thousands of dollars approved by the City Council spent for a report “Review of Radiological Monitoring at LBNL” (Aug. 23, 2001). In this report it is stated that radiation doses from the Bevatron accelerator, measured at the Olympus Gate monitoring station located a few meters below a residence at Olympus Avenue and Wilson Circle exceeded the allowed annual dose by 60 percent. Why is it that this monitoring station no longer appears on the lab’s yearly site environmental report maps? Has the monitoring stopped despite the extraordinarily long half-life of many of the radioactive materials associated with accelerators? 

Call, mail or e-mail the LBNL director and/or Kim Abbott: 486-4000, LBNL 1 Cyclotron Road MS 90-1023 Berkeley, CA 94720. Or e-mail: 

Demand a full blown environmental impact report and environmental impact statement and demand notification of neighbors, schools and Lawrence Hall of Science patrons and an extension of the public comment period on the EA which is now scheduled to end at 5 p.m. Saturday, July 18. 


Gene Bernardi is a resident of Berkeley and lives near the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.