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Thursday, April 23, 1997


Pipe Dreams

In the Berkeley hills above Strawberry Canyon, where my children used to pretend they were Daniel Boone or Luke Skywalker, warning signs have appeared: YOU ARE ENTERING MOUNTAIN LION HABITAT. Below the picture of an intently staring lion is a list of explicit instructions for traversing the area without unpleasant incidents. Clearly, the University of California, which posted the signs, has opted for a policy of respectful co-existence here, rather than one of suspicion and extermination.

Another struggle for co-existence is being waged far less pacifically in the same part of the East Bay. Beginning in 1982 the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has occupied an ever-expanding portion of the hillside, engaging in high-level medical and environmental research and burying a cache of hazardous waste nearby. Recently local residents, who had become concerned about radioactive emissions from the smokestack of the lab's tritium-labeling facility, received the passionate support of the anti-nuclear activist and physician Helen Caldicott and her son Will, an environmental researcher who lives in Berkeley. Speaking at King Middle School to a well-filled auditorium of the converted--who else would pay 12 dollars to attend an educational event?--the Caldicotts detailed the dangers of tritium, especially to the hundreds of thousands of children who come every year to the Lawrence Hall of Science, perched just above the facility.

It's not a pretty picture. Tritium, controllable as a gas because it can only travel about five millimeters (less than half an inch) through the air, becomes a carcinogenic monster when it bonds, as it does easily, with water. The laboratory has noted that the creeks flowing down the canyon do not supply drinking water, but it has paid little public attention to the famous fog that swirls in the area, settling on and dripping from trees. The water vapor provides a natural moisturizer for the skin and carries its insidious cargo into the body through the lungs. Helen and Will Caldicott--as well as local organizations such as the Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste and Citizens Opposed to a Polluted Environment--take the position that even small doses of tritium are unacceptable: the lab has got to go.

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Not surprisingly, the City of Berkeley itself is starting to question the wisdom of this particular town-gown symbiosis. Other Bay Area governments would be wise to monitor developments closely as well. In addition to tritium, the laboratory has accumulated barrels of highly volatile and flammable waste materials such as plutonium and radioactive cesium and cobalt. The storage sites are carefully maintained and regularly inspected, but even so, especially in a region that is susceptible to fires and earthquakes, accidents happen.

The tritium controversy, which has generated conflicting estimates of contamination from the lab and local citizens' groups, may cool down later this year when an independent research group makes its own findings public. But underneath lies a layer of smoldering distrust that will be more difficult to douse. The publications issuing from each side reveal a situation that the novelist C.P. Snow foresaw in the early 1960's--the creation of two cultures, one scientific and one humanistic, existing side by side and employing different languages, different logic, and different values.

The lab speaks optimistically of scientific progress and discovery; in the case of tritium labeling, it expresses justifiable pride in its unique contributions to the conquest of breast cancer and Alzheimer's disease. Its procedures are deliberate and rational, relying on the efficacy of what Director Charles Shank describes as "extremely rigorous monitoring" and "nationally accepted safe exposure levels." Beset by public suspicions, it has instituted a wide-ranging information and consultation program, but it has no intention of moving its world-renowned multimillion-dollar operation elsewhere just because the natives are restless. The lab takes seriously its responsibility to provide reasonably safe working conditions for its employees; it would be counterproductive not to. But its definition of a risk-free environment seems far removed from one where Daniel Boone and Luke Skywalker--or mountain lions and other creatures--can roam safely.

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The worldview of the Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste is much less rosy. Aware of the harm that radiation inflicts at present on even the average citizen, the committee dreads the disastrous consequences of releasing more into the atmosphere. Press releases describe, in many thousands of picocuries, the tritium found in water samples taken from trees near the National Tritium Labeling Facility and graphically explain how its dispersion can affect humans and animals. Because the committee's mission is to alert the public to potential danger, it portrays the world of science as unremittingly destructive and frequently malevolent. It has done its homework--the statistics it presents are as carefully researched as the ones produced by the lab, but like many statistics they seem arcane, remote from the world we inhabit. Radiation is a fact of life--and death. Could the members of the committee explain to a ten-year-old what radiation is, and how it is able both to cure and to kill?

As the two cultures follow their separate paths, they diverge ever more widely. Somewhere in the middle, increasingly ignored, lies an ordinary world where scientific knowledge and humanistic values might work together to improve daily lives. Perhaps the university should post a new set of warning signs, visible to everyone going into or out of the lab: YOU ARE ENTERING HUMAN HABITAT.

--Copyright Betsey Culp 1997
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