A Question of Risk

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

The tight lips have fueled the suspicion, whether justified or not, that the research DOE wants to do at Livermore and Los Alamos may not be purely defensive, as the government contends. By law, an Institutional Biosafety Committee, consisting of Lawrence Livermore staff members, community health-care providers, a DOE representative, and members of the public, is supposed to review issues related to the biolab proposal. Indeed, the energy department's environmental assessment highlights the committee's existence as a reason the public should be reassured about its intentions for the facility.

But its meetings are closed to the public and lab officials refuse to divulge the identities of its 20 members, including three reportedly chosen from the public. Wampler, the lab spokesman, says members aren't identified because "they don't particularly want to be. They aren't compensated. They're just providing a public service." He says meetings are closed because the subject matter usually "involves planned scientific experiments. There is intellectual property that has not been patented and scientists want to publish their data."

In September, Tri-Valley CAREs, the Livermore-based watchdog group, petitioned Lawrence Livermore and the Energy Department for details of the committee's agendas, minutes, rules, and members. "Four months later, we've received no information," says Marylia Kelley, the group's executive director. "The government is essentially saying, 'Trust us' when it comes to the lab. So why do they act like they have something to hide?"

Physicist Jack Truher says Lawrence 
Livermore's safety record doesn't inspire 
Paolo Vescia
Physicist Jack Truher says Lawrence Livermore's safety record doesn't inspire confidence.
Scientists would experiment with anthrax, 
bubonic plague, and other infectious agents 
at the proposed biolab.
Paolo Vescia
Scientists would experiment with anthrax, bubonic plague, and other infectious agents at the proposed biolab.

Such opposition isn't surprising, considering Lawrence Livermore's less-than-stellar track record for environmental safety and security. The military and scientific advances that have occurred there over the last half-century have exacted a toll. There is severe soil and groundwater pollution at the lab's main campus on the southeast outskirts of Livermore and at its Site 300 testing range 15 miles to the east, near the Central Valley town of Tracy. Both are on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund list of the most contaminated sites in the country.

Government records indicate that since the 1960s the lab has released at least a million curies, the basic unit of radioactivity, of radiation into the environment -- roughly the amount deposited by the A-bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. Health agencies have reported contamination in the Livermore area from plutonium, the highly radioactive man-made element produced in nuclear reactors. During the 1950s and '60s, plutonium-laden sludge from the lab was distributed to local gardeners and ranchers as a soil enhancer.

Health studies in the 1980s found significantly higher levels of malignant melanoma among Lawrence Livermore employees, consistent with exposure to radiation or chemicals. A 1995 state health study found elevated cancer rates among Livermore children and young adults. The rate of malignant melanoma for youngsters born in the area, for example, was six times higher than for the rest of Alameda County.

The lab was placed on the Superfund list in 1987 after freon, trichloroethylene, and other carcinogens were discovered in local groundwater. A half-mile-long plume of the chemicals was oozing west toward Livermore's municipal drinking water wells. Efforts to cleanse the water table -- by pumping contaminated water to the surface, treating it, and injecting most of it back into the ground -- began in 1992 and are expected to take at least 53 years.

Not all the damage is the lab's fault. During World War II, well before Lawrence Livermore opened in 1952, the site was home to a naval air station, which experts say dumped enough chemical pollutants to later qualify the area as a Superfund site even if the lab had never existed. (Decommissioned after the war, the air station was slated as the future home of the U.S. Air Force Academy as late as 1950. The military ultimately chose Colorado Springs, Colo., instead.)

Still, the lab's environmental and safety practices have long drawn critics' ire -- even if the critique has often been ignored. "In the '50s and '60s and even in the '70s, before there was greater consciousness, there was a 'dump it now and ask questions later' kind of attitude that existed out there," says Peter Strauss, an environmental consultant who has advised the EPA on the Livermore Superfund cleanup.

There are so many abandoned earthen pits in which harmful substances have been discarded, including ones over which lab buildings were later constructed, that it is now almost impossible to identify them all, Strauss says. "For years you had liquids that were simply poured into the ground and allowed to evaporate. After about 1972 the practice was changed and the pits were lined with asphalt shingles on the bottom. When the liquids evaporated, workers would roll up the shingles, stick them in a drum, and haul them off to the Nevada Test Site or some such place [for disposal]."

Strauss says the lab has tightened waste practices "a lot" since then. But problems persist.

While digging the foundation for the National Ignition Center -- a facility unveiled last year which houses the world's most powerful laser -- workers discovered a large number of discarded electrical capacitors containing suspected carcinogens called polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.

Last May, a federal oversight board pressed the Department of Energy to resolve "significant" safety issues at the lab, including its failure to address potential accident scenarios at its plutonium facilities. In a sharply worded report, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board said that the DOE had been aware of some of the issues for years but had failed to crack down on the University of California, the lab's operator. Radioactive vapors were still wafting from an old treatment plant and waste barrels continued to be piled in tents long after the completion of a new $62 million nuclear-waste plant in 2001, while the DOE dallied over safety studies. The plant finally went on line last year.

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