A laser accelerator capable of producing large amounts of radiation perched above an earthquake fault in a residential area of Berkeley -- what could possibly go wrong?
Not enough to require a full-blow environmental impact statement, the U.S. government argues in defending a proposed addition to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. A group opposing the plan took its case to the Ninth Circuit on Monday but didn't appear to get very far.
"Why should we presume radiation is going to be released?" Judge Richard Clifton asked Stephan Volker, an Oakland lawyer for an organization called Save Strawberry Canyon. "That seems to be the premise of your question."
Justice Department attorney Allen Brabender, representing the Department of Energy, said there's no chance of radiation being released because the accelerator parts have to be in perfect alignment to produce radiation -- an earthquake or other violent event would automatically shut it down. Plus, the laser will be surrounded nine feet of concrete, three feet of steel and 16 inches of lead to contain radiation from its ordinary use.
There's "no foreseeable risk" that radiation will be released, according to the environmental assessment that was performed, Brabender said.
Although an environmental assessment is less exacting than an environmental impact statement, it was sufficient to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, he said.
Clifton did note that this year marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, and "the specter that hangs over this and many of these cases is, 'What happens if things don't happen as expected?"
An accident "could be one reason" for that scenario, Judge A. Wallace Tashima suggested.
Brabender's assured them that the final environmental assessment included "accident analysis."
Volker insisted that rather than rigorous analysis, the Department of Energy looked only at anticipated levels of radiation. "'Anticipated' simply doesn't cut NEPA's mustard," he declared.