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Berkeley's Bevatron Blues

Anti-tritium crew finds a fresh fight in national lab's plans
to demolish an aging particle-accelerator facility

DAVE GILSON / East Bay Express 7aug02

Almost everything about the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's Bevatron seems big. When it started running in 1954, it was the world's largest particle accelerator. It cost $9 million to build, measured 180 feet in diameter, and was housed in a building bigger than a football field. The Bevatron was named for its ability to charge atomic particles to more than six billion electron volts, or BeVs. At maximum performance, it could speed a beam of protons around a loop four million times in less than two seconds. By the time the beams reached their top energy, they had traveled 300,000 miles. Research thrived in the supercharged atmosphere surrounding the facility. "It was an exciting period," recalls 88-year-old Edward Lofgren, the accelerator's chief of operations from its launch until 1979. "It was very satisfying to the spirit to know you had a device that was unique and attractive to scientists from all over the world." The Bevatron helped crank out discoveries in particle physics and nuclear medicine and produce four Nobel Prize winners.

LBNL Bevatron

Overall view of Bevatron  

Lofgren officially flipped the accelerator's "off" switch in 1993, ending the facility's four-decade run, and workers have finally begun to dismantle the old Bevatron complex, which sits on prime real estate above the UC Berkeley campus. But the lab's demolition plans are now accelerating a controversy among local environmental activists.

The same folks who for years have been up in arms over the lab's tritium facility now see a new peril in the tons of radioactive materials that need to be hauled off from the Bevatron site.

Claiming these shipments could endanger East Bay residents, the activists want the lab to halt demolition; they also accuse lab officials of hiding from the public the plan's details and potential risks.

At a recent meeting of the Berkeley City Council, their organization, the Berkeley-based Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste, teamed up with another die-hard lab opponent, Councilwoman Dona Spring, to publicly take the lab to task.

Since the end of June, workers have removed more than 2,500 tons of materials from the Bevatron site, of which 1,600 tons were deemed nonradioactive and hauled to landfills in Richmond and Livermore. The remaining nine hundred or so tons of what the lab calls "slightly activated" items -- mostly concrete, metals, and magnets -- were loaded onto flatbed trucks and shipped to a hazardous waste dump at the Nevada Test Site outside of Las Vegas.

There's plenty more where that came from. Clearing the entire site could take seven years and cost $70 million. But lab representatives say the activists are exaggerating the potential dangers. They maintain that the Nevada shipments contain extremely low levels of radioactivity, and pose no risk to the public during transit. "This project is routine," says spokeswoman Terry Powell. "It has no significant environmental impact."

This finding has been affirmed by the US Department of Energy, which declared that the lab did not have to submit an environmental impact report.

But Pamela Sihvola, co-chair of the Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste, says the project's impact can't be fully known until the lab submits details for public review. "The committee is asking for the demolition to stop until the lab prepares proper environmental review documents," she says. Until then, she says, there's no way to be sure that the Nevada-bound materials aren't contaminating Berkeley streets or that the rubble being dumped in local landfills is truly harmless.

Given the lab's longtime feud with its neighbors, the controversy over the Bevatron demolition isn't particularly surprising. Since 1996, the committee has doggedly scrutinized the lab's use of tritium, a radioactive hydrogen isotope used to trace biochemical processes in medical research. In a 2000 report, a consultant hired by the city of Berkeley vindicated the lab, which had insisted that its tritium releases fell below legal limits. The activists, however, declared victory last year when LBNL announced it was shutting down the facility, but that wasn't their last word on the subject. Activists still insist the lab is not doing enough to clean up possible contamination left behind.

This latest uproar, however, caught the lab off guard. In May, its representatives met with Berkeley's fire department and toxics division to explain the demolition project. They neglected, however, to contact the Berkeley City Council until June, when a city employee leaked news of the project. Thus while the lab thought it was being a good neighbor, the activists felt they were being kept in the dark. As truckloads of debris quietly headed for the landfills, lab-watchers found themselves with a brand-new raison d’ętre. "The lab should have been talking to us about this six months ago," says Dona Spring. "There would be less suspicion if they would just come clean in the beginning."

 

At the center of the dispute is a pile of massive building blocks -- thousands of concrete shields meant to protect lab workers from radiation emitted during the old experiments. In Building 51, where the accelerator is located, these shields are stacked in a ring nearly twenty feet tall and just as thick. Dr. Gary Zeman, a radiation control manager for the lab, says the radiation produced by the Bevatron was extremely low. The particles absorbed by the shields, according to Zeman, were primarily neutrons with half-lives shorter than a blink of an eye. "The word short-lived doesn't even apply to them," he says. "It's on and then off."

Today, the Bevatron's concrete fortress has a tomblike feel. Though the main facility is still intact, the lab is currently removing four thousand tons of blocks from an adjacent building. Margaret Goglia, an architect who is managing the demolition, emphasizes that the current phase of the project ends in September when a $2.5 million grant from the DOE runs out. After that, she says, the project will be on hold, pending further funding.

The lab, Goglia assures visitors, follows strict procedures for sorting radioactive from nonradioactive materials prior to their removal. Workers check all materials twice for radiation, she says, first scanning them with portable radiation detectors and again with gamma spectrometers calibrated to detect low-level radiation in concrete. The radioactive items are grouped together before being double- and even triple-checked, she says.

But this doesn't necessarily mean the stuff is dangerous, Goglia points out. Walking through the Building 51 complex, she passes an area cordoned off behind small blue-and-white signs that announce, "Notice: Controlled area for radiation protection." Gesturing toward the equipment behind these signs, she says, "If you slept on that stuff you'd be okay. I'm more concerned about people tripping or being hit by a forklift."

So far, she has shipped nearly forty truckloads of these materials to Nevada for indefinite storage.

Near the cordoned area sit a 7,800-pound concrete block, a file cabinet, and an air conditioner, all of which have been declared free of radiation. They're destined for landfills in Richmond and Livermore, where more than seventy truckloads of materials have been taken to date.

The Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste has suggested that the lab is allowing radioactive metals to be recycled, in violation of DOE policy. Goglia insists, however, that no radioactive materials are being sent to the dump and adds that local landfills, as an added precaution, have agreed not to recycle any metals from the Bevatron site.

Members of the committee say the lab's track record, including its handling of the tritium issue, undermines claims that the demolition will have minimal environmental impact. Sihvola says that the Bevatron emitted more radiation than the lab will acknowledge.

She also points to the decommissioning of the lab's 184-inch cyclotron in the late 1980s as an example of how such a project might contaminate public dumps. That demolition sent 2,300 tons of concrete blocks to a Livermore landfill for burial. A LBNL internal report described the blocks as "very slightly induced" with radiation, while a DOE paper found them to be nonradioactive. "Our concerns are based on looking at the history of the facility," says Sihvola. "History repeats itself unless there is extensive external oversight."

 

One benefit of independent oversight would be to make sense of the competing and often contradictory claims offered by both sides.

The lab bases its safety assurances on what it claims is a stringent criterion for measuring radioactivity. "Anything above one picocurie per gram we consider radioactive and treat it as such," says Zeman. As a point of comparison, he says, natural radiation emitted by the potassium in our bodies is 1.3 picocuries per gram.

These figures are misleading, says Sihvola, arguing that the lab is trying to downplay the amount of radiation on the site. She prefers to think of it in terms of kilograms, not grams. "That's a thousand picocuries per kilo. This is a very big number," she says.

Neither number, however, really addresses the potential for public exposure, which would depend on a number of variables, including the types of radioactive molecules, the form and density of the materials being hauled, and the amount of shielding.

The lab offers few specifics and won't say exactly how hot its "slightly activated" materials are. But the matter has been further clouded by the lab critics' proclamation that any amount of radiation is worth worrying about. Dona Spring even assails the lab's ability to measure minute amounts of radiation. "Just because it isn't picked up by detectors doesn't mean there's no radioactivity in it," she says.

As with the lingering tritium debate, much of the Bevatron dispute comes down to a profound lack of trust between the two sides and a seemingly irreconcilable difference between the environmentalist and scientific worldviews. The lab's miscalculation on how local rabble-rousers would react to the Bevatron demolition and the activists' alarmist statements when they learned of the plan have only intensified that rift.

While the Bevatron may have sat idle in the Berkeley Hills for a nearly a decade, the old accelerator has managed to reenergize a local battle that won't be so easily disposed of.

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