A Question of Risk

Plans for a biodefense "hot lab" at Lawrence Livermore have ecologists, disarmament advocates, and mainstream scientists up in arms

But the real consequence of the legal challenge -- and why opponents of the biodefense buildup are watching it closely -- has more to do with the court of public opinion. Antagonists believe that if the government is forced to provide a full accounting of what they perceive as the unwarranted risks associated with the facilities, there will be a backlash.

"It's analogous to the war in Iraq," says Volker. "Imagine if the Bush administration had had to prepare an EIS on its plans to go after weapons of mass destruction. We might have learned that there were no such weapons and the effort would have fizzled. It's similar with these biodefense labs. If [the government] isn't allowed to promote them behind a veil of secrecy, it can only be to the public's advantage."

Biolabs are classified according to the safety measures required to contain the infectious agents they handle. The most secure labs, designated Biosafety Level 4, contain pathogens for which there are no known cure, such as Ebola. The proposed lab at Lawrence Livermore, a Biosafety Level 3 facility, would enable scientists to work with potentially life-threatening microorganisms such as anthrax, bubonic plague, and Q fever, a rare infectious disease usually transmitted in raw milk.

Biolab opponent Linda Gallegos believes 
her father's death from leukemia was the 
result of radioactive exposure during his 25 
years as a Lawrence Livermore technician.
Paolo Vescia
Biolab opponent Linda Gallegos believes her father's death from leukemia was the result of radioactive exposure during his 25 years as a Lawrence Livermore technician.

There are roughly 300 BSL-3 facilities in the U.S. already, most of them tiny labs on college campuses and in hospitals. The quantity of pathogens these centers handle generally is minuscule compared with what the DOE has proposed for Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos. Critics have seized on DOE documents that reveal, for instance, that the Livermore biolab would be equipped to handle germ cultures in quantities up to one liter, compared to the much smaller amounts typical of medical testing and academic research. But Lawrence Livermore spokesman Stephen Wampler insists larger batches are needed to develop biodefense technologies. "Many of the areas we study for developing detection systems involve either genomes or the proteins those genomes create," he says. "If you're going to study the protein, you need to make enough protein for your research."

Lawrence Livermore scientists have operated biomedical facilities at the lower levels of biosafety -- 1 and 2 -- for several years. Officials say such work has already paid off, with the lab taking a lead role in developing detectors for chemical and biological weapons. But they complain that to carry out research, Livermore scientists increasingly must depend on distant higher-level labs, including one operated by the Centers for Disease Control in Fort Collins, Colo., and another at the Army's Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah.

The Livermore BSL-3 facility would be located in a 1,500-square-foot, "permanent prefabricated" building -- a sort of high-tech mobile home -- atop a concrete slab in what is currently a parking lot next to a BSL-2 lab. One of its three small climate-controlled rooms will be devoted to aerosolizing bioagents and conducting what DOE calls "challenges" on up to 100 rats, mice, or guinea pigs at a time. After being exposed to infectious agents and studied, the animals will be tossed into a high-temperature blender called a "tissue digester." The device, DOE officials say, converts contaminated organic material into a sterile aqueous solution and harmless ash.

But while insisting that the lab will be safe, the energy department's environmental assessment offers few details. For example, it fails to analyze transportation risks such as damaged containers, theft, or sabotage, although the U.S. Postal Service and commercial delivery services will transport potentially lethal bioagents to and from the lab. The document similarly glosses over in-house security risks, such as those posed by terrorists or disgruntled employees.

The assessment is amazingly dismissive of the potential for pathogens to be accidentally released as the result of a catastrophe. Declaring that heat, fire, and sunlight "would potentially" render hazardous materials "innocuous," one passage concludes, "Consequently, catastrophic events such as earthquake, fire, explosions and airplane crashes, normally considered as initiating events in DOE radiological or chemical analyses, [are] viewed as having the potential to actually reduce the consequences of microbiological material releases."

The assessment disposes of seismic risk in a few sentences and curiously asserts that there is no active earthquake fault "in proximity to the location of the proposed site." Yet the energy department's own map included in the document shows that the active Las Positas Fault stretches across the southeast corner of the 850-acre Lawrence Livermore grounds.

A study by the Natural Resources Defense Council, which opposes the BSL-3 facility, takes sharp issue with the DOE's evaluation of seismic risks. NRDC scientist Matthew McKinzie used computer modeling to calculate how quakes of various magnitudes might trigger the release of anthrax from the lab. Assuming a westerly breeze following an anthrax release brought about by only "light" damage to the lab, McKinzie calculates that at least 9,000 people could die in the East Bay and San Francisco; tens of thousands of others, he says, could be sickened.

While taking aim at what they see as the government's shoddy risk assessment, opponents remain frustrated by the dearth of public information about the planned biolabs. Although secrecy comes with the territory at nuclear weapons research facilities, the government has taken pains to keep even the most rudimentary data related to the germ facilities under wraps. The Energy Department declined to make available a spokesman to discuss its environmental findings for this article.

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