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,
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.
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
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.