Homeland Security to Plague Livermore

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory may soon be home to the Department of Energy’s (DOE) first-ever Biosafety Level 3 lab, which, along with a sister facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory, would conduct defensive research on biowarfare agents—such as anthrax, plague, and hantavirus—that could be used in terrorist attacks against the US.
Davis voters recently defeated a similar bid for a Biosafety Level 4 lab at their University of California campus. That lab would have conducted research on diseases like ebola that are considered even more dangerous than anthrax and plague. “We don’t want these labs in any community,” says Samantha McCarthy of the Davis-based community group Stop the UCD Lab Now. Her group is trying to get assurances from UC President Robert C. Dynes that the entire UC system will not bid on other federal biodefense lab projects.
In Livermore, DOE officials hope to begin assembling the $2.5 million lab structure soon. But if a lawsuit by local watchdog group Tri-Valley CAREs is successful, construction may be delayed pending a more thorough environmental review. A final ruling is expected by May 15. Until then, US District Judge Saundra B. Armstrong has issued an injunction that temporarily prohibits Lawrence Livermore from receiving restricted pathogens destined for the biolab.
“We feel that it’s an affront to the community of Livermore to build the lab without performing a thorough EIS [environmental impact study],” says Loulena Miles, a Livermore resident and Tri-Valley CAREs attorney.
Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the federal government significantly increased funding for biodefense work, culminating in this year’s proposed $1 billion Project BioShield. A rush of proposals over the last two years resulted in a biodefense building boom; applications for federal funds have come from the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, universities, and the DOE.
The 1,600-square foot facility in Livermore would be run by the National Nuclear Security Administration, the division of the DOE responsible for countering threats from weapons of mass destruction including nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. The research agenda, much of it classified, would be controlled primarily by the Department of Homeland Security. This differs from the proposed Davis lab, which would have been funded by the National Institutes of Health. Critics from Tri-Valley CAREs and elsewhere charge that putting a Homeland Security-funded bioweapons lab at Livermore is bound to raise suspicions internationally, and could spark more bioweapons work abroad.
“Throughout the world, Livermore and Los Alamos are known as the homes of thermonuclear weapons,” says Edward Hammond of the Sunshine Project, an international anti-bioweapons organization. “What those guys do in large measure is develop weapons of mass destruction. If that facility were in Sudan, it would probably be cruise-missiled in a heartbeat.”
Livermore officials dismiss such concerns about “co-location” of weapons and pathogen research. “Co-location is not a problem as long as other countries are following their Biological Weapons Convention treaty obligations,” says Lawrence Livermore spokesman Scott Wampler. But, according to Hammond, the US is itself in violation of many reporting requirements in that treaty.
At the heart of the dispute in Livermore is whether the proposed lab has undergone sufficient environmental review. In December 2002, the NNSA completed an Environmental Assessment (EA) for the Livermore site, but this type of review lacks the detail and public-comment requirements of a full Environmental Impact Statement. Tri-Valley CAREs’ lawsuit, which was filed jointly with Nuclear Watch of New Mexico, alleges that the EA is “grossly deficient,” and that an EIS is required under federal law. In addition to extensive public hearings, an EIS would also require a more detailed study of potential earthquake dangers and, the lawsuit charges, it would have to consider the issue of weapons proliferation internationally.
Despite the lawsuit, lab proponents contend that Lawrence Livermore, which currently has a lower-security BSL-2 facility, is an ideal site. “Given the threats posed by terrorists and the security situation after 9/11, it makes sense to go to the next level. There’s lots of expertise that Livermore can offer,” says NNSA spokesman John Belluardo.
But critics charge that Lawrence Livermore’s history of accidents and questionable security, including the recent loss of a set of master keys, make it a poor choice for dangerous and sensitive bioterrorism work. Accidents include an October 3, 2003 incident in which up to 12 workers were potentially exposed to radioactive plutonium, and a history of tritium contamination in areas surrounding the lab.
To retired Lawrence Livermore staff scientist Marion Fulk, that history makes for a particularly disturbing future. “These [pathogens] are potentially more dangerous than anything in the plutonium lab,” he says. “Some can be infectious at exposure levels of even a single organism.”

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