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Friday, April 20, 2007  
Radiating Distrust of Bomb Tests

By: Michael Fitzgerald
Published In: Stockton Record

Stockton is an unlikely target for terrorists. Yet some people are worried that Uncle Sam himself poses a danger by exploding radioactive material in the county.

It's been happening for years at a place called Site 300, a 7,000-acre weapons test site for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the hills south of Tracy.

The government says it's safe.

Activists say it's time to take a good, hard look at what's going on down there. Especially since the top-secret lab recently applied to do a lot more of it.

Lawrence lab's job is to develop and to "ensure the safety and reliability of the nation's nuclear weapons." A 1992 test ban forbids real bomb tests. Scientists run simulations.

The lab applied in November to more than triple the amount of explosives it detonates.

Air pollution officials said yes; they changed their minds, though, temporarily at least, upon learning the lab intends to use radioactive materials in the explosions.

The lab, in its first application, left that little detail out. The lab has taken a lot of guff for this. Oh, hey, ha ha, did we forget to mention the radioactivity?

In fact, the lab proposes to explode around 60 toxic and radioactive elements that will be dispersed by the blasts, cautions Marylia Kelley, head of Tri-Valley Communites Against Radioactive Environment, or Tri-Valley CAREs.

"People in Stockton should care, because the prevailing wind goes from the south to the north in the rainy season," Kelley said. "So the people in the Central Valley are in fact the down-winders from Site 300."

One of the materials used in the tests is U-238, also called depleted uranium, or DU. It is radioactive. It can cause cancer and other lethal diseases, sometimes years after exposure.

So just because cancer rates aren't spiking in Tracy, that doesn't mean they won't, Kelley said.

"So the lab can argue that the risk is small, and that the lab believes that it's OK," said Kelley. "But is it OK to the family whose child gets sick and dies?"

There may be a skullduggery-free reason why the lab did not mention radioactivity in its permit application. Air pollution boards don't regulate radioactivity. Other agencies do.

"This information has been publicly reported in many other venues and has been thoroughly reviewed in the past by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency)," said Susan Houghton, a lab spokeswoman. "There was no intention to hide anything."

The big question is whether the tests pose a danger. That comes down to the level of radiation emitted by them. Tri-Valley CARES contends there is no safe level of radiation.

But there is, said James Hetrick, physics department chairman at University of the Pacific.

Bananas are radioactive, Hetrick said. Solar winds are radioactive. Many naturally occurring things are radioactive.

"Essentially, radioactivity is all around us," Hetrick said. It's very low level, "and it's a level we have evolved to be able to tolerate."

That's one benchmark. "If what comes over the Altamont is considerably less than the amount we receive from cosmic rays or naturally occurring minerals in the ground, ... or just potassium in bananas, then no, I wouldn't be worried," Hetrick said.

It's less, said Houghton. "The levels are way below EPA's acceptable standards," she said - more than 100 times less than EPA's 10-millirem standard for exposure to the public at Site 300's fence line.

Air pollution officials decided to march the lab's proposal through the state's environmental impact review process. Instead of administrative approval, there are going to be public hearings and public comment.

Probably scientists at the lab are shaking their heads at the rigmarole. But it's a good thing. After all, Site 300 is a "Superfund" site - meaning it's one of the most dangerously contaminated spots in the country. An open process will reassure the public that history isn't repeating itself.

Contact columnist Michael Fitzgerald at (209) 546-8270 or Visit his blog.

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