Thursday, September 19, 1996,
Vol. 14, No. 50
Letters To the Editor
Unsafe in any dose
By way of introduction I should say that I earned my Ph.D. at UC Berkeley in 1942 in nuclear/physical chemistry. I am co-holder with Glenn Seaborg and Raymond Stoughton of the patent for the slow and fast neutron fissionability of uranium-233, with its application to production of nuclear power or nuclear weapons. For the Manhattan Project, I led the group which irradiated a ton of uranyl nitrate by placing it around the Berkeley cyclotron, and then reduced that ton to a half cc of liquid containing 1.2 milligrams of plutonium, urgently requested by J. Robert Oppenheimer for some measurements at Los Alamos.
I am also a physician, and after the war, I led the group at the Donner Lab on campus which discovered the diverse lipoproteins involved in heart disease. In 1963, I was invited by the Atomic Energy Commission to establish its Biomedical Research Division at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and I did. Since retirement, I have written five books about the health effects of ionizing radiation.
In short, I am no enemy of physical and biomedical research, nor am I an opponent of using radioisotopes in research. I have used many myself. But the privilege of doing interesting and beneficial research with the help of radioisotopes and other dangerous substances must be very tightly linked to the duty to take the utmost care to protect public health from those substances. Even small releases into the environment contribute to the nation's total pollution. If the totality of nuclear pollution matters biologically -- and it does -- then citizens must oppose each small contribution to that totality.
Unfortunately, the track record of the Dept. of Energy's National Laboratories often reflects a disgusting disregard for public health. Thus, the citizens of Berkeley, Oakland, and the whole Bay Area need to behave with a high level of suspicion about the past and proposed handling of radioactive substances and "mixed waste" at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Citizens of California would be crazy not to insist, even belatedly, on credible proof that the radioactive and "mixed" inventory at LBNL will remain contained -- not only during routine operations, but also through earthquakes, mud slides, and especially fire such as the terrible conflagration which might have consumed the lab just a few years ago. Can a good hot fire and its wind lift and then drop the radioactive and chemical poisons as "fallout"? I am astonished to be told that this question seems not to have been answered in a straightforward, persuasive manner yet.
Credible assurance cannot be obtained from anyone with a conflict of interest -- like the lab itself or DOE. It would be ridiculous for the lab to tell the public and its state and local officials, "Just trust us," and it would be the purest arrogance to tell the public "it's none of your business." The public always has a huge stake in the proper handling of hazardous wastes, both radioactive and nonradioactive. People who operate facilities with the potential to pollute need the humility and goodwill to recognize that the public has every right to impose preemptive measures for self-defense against such poisons before they escape.
This is especially unarguable when the potential pollutant is radioactive, since it is clear that there is no threshold dose-level (no safe dose, no risk-free dose) of ionizing radiation. Thus, nuclear pollution, in the aggregate, causes premeditated random murder.
It is high time that potential and current pollution from the lab should receive very close public scrutiny. The first step is to postpone any expansion of the total on-site inventory (either pure or mixed), until citizen-watchdogs are funded by the state, or by the cities of Berkeley and Oakland, to hire some independent, credible evaluation of the routine and worst-case health hazards.
I was a personal friend and colleague of Ernest O. Lawrence, and I feel that I honor his memory and his devotion to health and to public service when I say: I am in favor of research proceeding at the LBNL -- provided that the lab meets the demands of the public for protection, not vice versa. With enough good will, the needs of the lab and the public can both be met, but the needs of the public come first. Let us never forget that the lab's justification for existence is service to the public.
John W. Gofman, M.D.