LBNL: 75 Years of Science, 75 Years of Pollution
L A Wood, Berkeley Daily Planet, August 25-27, 2006
This weekend marks the 75th anniversary of the Lawrence
Berkeley National Laboratory. Established a decade prior to World War
II, the “rad lab”, as it was first called, has maintained
a strong presence at the UC Berkeley campus since that time. Today the
national laboratory is operated by the Department of Energy and it continues
with its radiation research.
The founders’ day activities at this private gala will undoubtedly
evoke many memories of the good old days, including scientific advancements,
Nobel Prizes, and recognition of those men and women who put the lab
and Berkeley on the world map. It’s unlikely that very many will
speak about its legacy of pollution and the undeniable impact that has
had on the facility and its environs.
During the 1940s, expansion shifted most the lab’s operations
to the hill above the campus. As a result, most of the lab’s research
has been hidden from public view. For over half a century, Berkeley’s
“stealth” laboratory has operated in a climate that has
promoted little thought for the public or environmental management.
This “scientific” mindset at LBNL has been difficult to
overcome and has been accompanied by an academic arrogance that seems
to be associated with higher education and Nobel Prizes. Few residents
have been able to question the lab’s poor environmental record
without feeling the brunt of LBNL’s self-righteous rhetoric and
endless recitations of its connections with the Manhattan Project, breast
cancer research and solar panels.
However, there has to be more to science than generating new discoveries.
It is also about taking responsibility for the dangers produced by research.
Perhaps it’s unfair to point to the lab’s environmental
transgressions during the war since little was understood about radiation
and its deadly effects at that time. But today, it is fair to look at
LBNL’s more recent history and necessary to challenge its failed
responsibility to environmental stewardship.
No Buffer, No Cleanup, Few Monitors
One would have to go back to the late 1980s to find the first attempts
to address the impact of LBNL’s research activities. The passage
of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) spurred these investigations.
Consequently, LBNL was forced to undertake a review of its facility.
Back then, DOE’s Tiger Team gathered documentation of the lab’s
historic and current research operations. The goal of the RCRA investigation
was to define the onsite contamination and then produce a cleanup plan.
More than fifteen years later, the RCRA corrective action report has
finally been daylighted. Unfortunately, DOE chose to limit the investigation
and cleanup by restricting the funding. Certainly, the current Washington
political climate and Bush’s dismantling of the US EPA have helped
shape this non-cleanup policy.
Many US brownfield sites, like the lab’s “old town”
area, and Hunter’s Point in San Francisco, are now struggling
for local cleanup dollars and to get the federal government to meet
its full responsibility. In Berkeley, LBNL’s cleanup has stalled
out. In fact, now the lab is proposing that the University of California
Regents grant them a deed restriction that would essentially halt any
further cleanup on the hill.
Sometime in the last decade, DOE’s site investigations must havetriggered the realization that the rad lab has no buffer zone between
it and nearby residents and the adjacent central campus. These evaluations
also flagged radiation emissions from two of the lab’s commercial
user facilities, the Bevatron and the National Tritium Labeling Facility.
Subsequently, both of these labs were forced to close during the 90s.
The proximity of LBNL to hillside homes has caused residents to question
the adequacy of air monitoring at the facility. This public controversy
eventually resulted in the City of Berkeley hiring an independent consultant
to examine LBNL’s environmental records. Unable to draw very many
conclusions from the lab’s scant data, the consultant noted that
the radiation laboratories at LBNL were inadequately monitored and clearly
not on a par with what is expected of other national research facilities.
In the last decade, DOE has continued to run the lab as though it’s
still the good old days. Operating with a grossly outdated, long-range
development plan and a fifteen-year-old environmental assessment, LBNL
has refused to consider the growing impacts of lab expansion and research.
At the same time, DOE is pushing to redevelop LBNL on a scale not seen
in many decades, demonstrated most egregiously by DOE’s placement
of the new molecular foundry in Strawberry Canyon. It’s criminal
that LBNL can force this nano-technology lab onto hill residents, some
of whom live within a quarter mile of the stacks, while refusing to
invest in a full EIR. This speaks volumes about the current lack of
responsible regulatory oversight and what may be in store for Berkeley
in the future.
The Bevatron: Quick n’ Dirty
Nothing exemplifies this cavalier attitude more than the recently proposed
demolition of the Bevatron, Berkeley’s own particle accelerator.
Built in the early part of the cold war, this laboratory was funded
by the Atomic Energy Commission. Despite being recently nominated for
the National Register of Historic Places, LBNL insists this world famous
building must be torn down. The proposed demolition has raised more
than just preservation concerns. DOE proposes that the Bevatron, constructed
of concrete, lead, and asbestos, be crushed on site. If approved, the
demolition is expected to last through 2012 and at the cost of 90 million
During that time, thousands of trucks burdened with hazardous and radioactive
demolition debris will snake through the streets of Berkeley before
being shipped off to communities in three states. The City of Berkeley
has long been opposed to the injustice of sending waste to other communities
and has expressed this to LBNL. The responsible solution is to preserve
the Bevatron so the structure’s hazardous and radioactive materials
will remain safely contained on site.
In a public review of the proposed demolition of the Bevatron earlier
this year, the project’s proponents said that the environmental
impact would be limited. They claim the building itself would be used
for containment of dust during the removal process. However, it appears
that a new demolition plan has been drawn up which, of course, has not
been re-circulated for public review. The revised plan calls for a quick
n’ dirty knockdown of this historic structure.
DOE, in typical developer fashion, claims that it is two years behind
schedule with the demolition and has used this as justification for
throwing all caution to the wind. This new scheme to unleash the Bevatron’s
legacy of contamination is nothing short of an environmental atrocity
for nearby residents, UC students and those living along the proposed
Clearly, the environmental choices being made reflect the fact that
LBNL is in crisis. With seemingly little to lose, the lab is scrambling
to meet the future and reinvent itself. There seems to be very little
goodwill or concern for the public’s safety. Those at LBNL and
in Washington who are driving this unprecedented expansion need to be
reminded that research work at the lab is for the public good, and not
the other way around. Responsible stewardship is needed now. After 75
years, it’s about time.