When Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) was founded in 1952, Livermore probably contained more horses and cattle than people. The lab, built in the southern flats of Alameda County, was meant to research nuclear weapons and radiation. Despite the end of the Cold War, it is still very much concerned with deterrence and defense, including biodefense. The lab is responsible for safe-keeping the nation’s nuclear stockpile, so its scientists investigate such questions as how plutonium behaves under different conditions and how to safely dismantle nuclear weapons.
Conducting biodefense and nuclear weapons research in a crowded suburban setting has embroiled the lab in decades of controversies, with the same question at the bottom: What are the health risks to Bay Area residents and to the environment? After all, the lab investigates dangerous pathogens and detonates toxic substances, and now it’s being considered to research even deadlier pathogens in a Biosafety Level 4 lab. Moreover, it’s applied for a permit to increase its open-air explosives testing by a factor of eight.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines four Biosafety Levels based on the lethality of the pathogen, its infectious potential, and what types of experiments are performed upon it. The CDC has developed a protocol for each level, from wearing protective equipment at BSL1 to complete isolation of the facility from its surroundings at BSL4. BSL3 precautions are taken for work done on potentially lethal organisms that can be transmitted through the air. Included are anthrax and the bacteria that cause tuberculosis.
Though construction of a BSL3 facility at LLNL was completed in December 2005, the facility has never been used. Livermore-based activist group Tri-Valley CAREs (Communities Against a Radioactive Environment) began contesting the facility in 2002, when the Department of Energy proposed siting it at LLNL. In 2005, the group sought an injunction to prevent the facility from opening, and it has been caught up in litigation ever since. Despite this, LLNL is on the short list for a BSL4 facility funded by the Department of Homeland Security.
Tri-Valley CAREs staff attorney Loulena Miles has concerns about the level 3 facility beyond its possible health risk to Bay Area residents. She worries that conducting advanced biodefense research at a site that also engages in classified nuclear weapons research invites suspicion, since bioweapons research and biodefense research look very similar. “LLNL is not a neutral agency,” she says. “It looks bad because the US is putting an advanced biodefense lab together with a super secret nuclear research lab.”
Moreover, the Bush administration refused to sign the international Verification Protocol in 2001. The protocol would give an international oversight group the authority to enforce the Biological Weapons Convention. LLNL itself lacks a transparent oversight committee that would ensure that biodefense research doesn’t cross the line into bioweapons development. Miles believes the research planned for the BSL3 facility is more appropriate for a civilian lab, and that much of the research LLNL scientists want to pursue could be conducted at a BSL2 level, such as the work that went into developing BioWatch.
The lab’s BioWatch system is used in 30 cities across the nation to provide authorities with early warnings of a bioterrorist attack. The system, which uses air filters, tests for the presence of pathogens; each pathogen contains stretches of unique DNA sequences that can be used to identify them. Other research deals with quickly differentiating between different strains of a pathogen, such as anthrax; determining the ability of certain microorganisms to survive under a variety of environmental conditions; and developing a detection system similar to BioWatch that would alert people to the presence of mosquito-borne diseases.
Miles says there are a number of ways that pathogens could be accidentally released. To prevent contamination from the lab into the environment, High Efficiency Particulate Air filters, more commonly called HEPA filters, are used. Miles explains, “HEPA filters are prone to fail if they’re damaged by heat, smoke, explosions, or fire. LLNL seems to think that the HEPA filters will just work.” Lab workers can make human errors. A scientist exposed to a pathogen could carry it into his community, and the lab has a spotty history of minor incidents involving mislabeled or inappropriately stored materials. Then there’s the earthquake danger: LLNL is close to the Las Positas and Greenville fault lines. And it seems a tempting target for a terrorist attack.
Lab officials respond that BSL3 labs have operated safely with HEPA filters for decades—and in crowded areas. A BSL4 lab is located in Atlanta. Thankfully, there have been no major incidents or epidemics of lab-acquired infections spreading to a surrounding community. LLNL acknowledges that it has a history of accidents but says that none have had a significant impact on the community or the environment.
And lab officials point out that researchers at LLNL have been using strains of plague and anthrax since 2000. According to CDC guidelines, anthrax in clinical materials or in diagnostic quantities can be used at BSL2 labs. Guidelines for plague are similar. LLNL officials believe the new facility is earthquake-secure and that the risk of a terrorist attack is not significant. Plus, if there were an explosion due to a terrorist attack or a lab accident, the heat generated would kill most of the microorganisms around, says LLNL.
While the events leading to a breach in the BSL3 facility’s containment seem unlikely, a release could expose millions of people to dangerous microorganisms. The Environmental Impact Assessment defines a 50-mile radius around LLNL as the affected zone, and about seven million people live in that area. Nuclear physicist Matthew McKinzie developed computer simulations that show anthrax spores released into the air from LLNL spreading to San Francisco or further depending on weather conditions. Anthrax is one of the organisms that would be used in the facility, and its spores survive very well under extreme conditions.
Miles points out that research at the facility would be concerned mostly with pathogens that are “the most pernicious, the ones historically associated with weapons.” For obvious reasons, these tend to be hardier and more infectious than your run-of-the-mill germs. If an accident did take place, the results could be catastrophic.
Hold Your Breath
LLNL is a top contender for the Department of Homeland Security’s National Bio and Agro-defense Laboratory, a BSL4 facility, which would be housed at the lab’s Site 300, an explosives testing area near Tracy. According to the CDC, BSL4 precautions are used to work with “dangerous and exotic agents that pose a high individual risk of life-threatening disease, which may be transmitted through the aerosol route and for which there is no available vaccine or therapy.” In other words, if you breathe them in, you’re in deep trouble. The primary purpose of the facility would be to conduct research on diseases that affect agriculture and livestock, such as foot-and-mouth disease. However, it could also handle the most dangerous pathogens, including Ebola.
A number of groups involved in California agriculture, such as the Farm Bureau, the California Veterinary Association, and the Poultry Federation and Cattlemen’s Association, as well as Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, welcome the lab. Siting the lab in the Bay Area gives researchers access to scientists and prestigious research institutes such as UC Berkeley, Stanford, UC Davis, Lawrence Berkeley Lab, and others that would foster a rich environment for scientific inquiry. Proponents argue that since California’s agricultural products feed much of the nation, plant and animal diseases here are a national food security risk and that the lab would provide a valuable resource to the state’s agriculture.
But others, including Tracy city councilmembers and Tri-Valley CAREs, oppose the lab. The planned BSL4 facility is much bigger than the lab’s BSL3 facility—according to Miles, “five Wal-Marts could fit inside it”—in order to provide space to house and experiment on large animals and birds. If these animals (mostly livestock) were to escape, they could carry diseases to animals and humans in surrounding areas. Since Tracy stands at the gateway to the Central Valley, the goal of protecting California’s agriculture could instead wreak havoc. Critics argue that siting the BSL4 lab in a place where there is a geographic barrier to agriculture makes more sense. Tri-Valley CAREs is considering bringing another lawsuit to prevent construction if the Department of Homeland Security chooses to house the Bio and Agro-defense Lab at Site 300.
Says UCSF assistant researcher Dr. Judith Flanagan, “In my experience of 20 years spent as a researcher, I am keenly aware that no matter what safety procedures are enforced accidents will happen.” Flanagan points to incidents discovered by investigative journalists, such as those involving a lab worker testing positive for anthrax and a package containing West Nile exploding in the Columbus, Ohio airport. She points out that accidents that occur under a culture of secrecy are likely not to be reported or admitted.
“Even when mistakes are not made,” she says, “unforeseen consequences of genetic modification of pathogenic organisms can produce devastating new super-bugs. For example, Australian researchers recently engineered a mouse disease to make the animals sterile. They inserted a new gene into the mouse pox virus as part of the genetic engineering process to create the bug that would make the mice sterile. But the extra gene did more than that; it transformed the mouse pox into a super strain that killed almost every mouse it came across. Now that’s a frightening bio-weapon if you’re a mouse—but mouse pox is very close to its human equivalent, smallpox.”
But the majority of LLNL’s research continues to be nuclear, some of which requires explosives testing. Currently, most of this testing is done in an enclosed facility at Site 300. Now LLNL is applying for a permit to increase the amount of open-air detonation of depleted uranium (DU) at Site 300 by a factor of eight, from 1,000 to 8,000 pounds per year.
DU is the uranium remaining after enriched uranium is formed from natural uranium. It can also come from reprocessing spent reactor fuel. Since most of the radioactive uranium has been removed, it is only weakly radioactive, which means it can be stored as low-level nuclear waste. Because it’s more expensive to store than to use, scientists have developed uses for DU. The military uses it for ammunition and in armor plating because of its high density. Non-military uses include counterweights in aircraft, dental porcelain, and as shields during medical imaging.
It becomes much more dangerous when detonated. When temperatures reach 3000 ¡ F, uranium catches fire, burns, and aerosolizes. Early studies assumed that DU particles would quickly settle out of the air so that people more than a few kilometers away would be unaffected. But nine days after the US began its 2003 “shock and awe” campaign in Iraq, DU particles were found in an air filter in England.
DU damages the reproductive system, causes birth defects, mutates DNA, and acts as a neurotoxin. Some suspect it of causing Gulf War Syndrome—immune system disorders, chronic fatigue, headaches, memory problems, loss of balance, and muscle and joint pain—as well as some cancers, though only circumstantial evidence exists. The US used DU in ammunition during the first Gulf War. Data from the Basra hospital and university show a 426 percent increase in cancers and a 600 percent increase in birth defects after the war, but other pollutants, such as those released from burning oil wells, could cause this spike as well.
It is unclear whether Livermore and Tracy residents are exposed to levels of DU sufficient to cause health problems, and it would be difficult to prove a causal relationship between DU exposure and health problems. Miles says she’s talked to a lot of residents who feel they have health problems because of the (DU) testing. Data showing high levels of uranium present in a child’s hair was presented at a Tracy city council meeting; the parents believe that uranium exposure is responsible for their child’s autism.
How much and how necessary is the risk? Very few of the seven million or more who might be at risk have participated in debate or even know about it. As with the DU drift, conventional wisdom and assurances can turn out to be best-case scenarios or unrealistic assessments. The political question is a matter of public policy, as lab sitings should be. A more thorough public process and transparent oversight of biodefense research would go a long way towards calming people’s fears. But ultimately we must decide what kind of research our tax dollars should fund.