A Question of Risk

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

"The safety record at the lab over the years does not inspire confidence," says Jack Truher, a retired physicist who worked at Lawrence Livermore in the '60s before spending 20 years at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. In 1963, he helped clean up after a so-called criticality accident, in which a chain reaction went out of control during an experiment and, he says, released radioactive tritium, an element used in nuclear weapons. Truher says he strongly opposes expansion of the lab's biodefense facilities.

"There's not a demonstrated ability to handle that level of research at Lawrence Livermore," he says. "It's the kind of thing where if you make a serious mistake, it could be irreversible."

Truher and others express as much concern about security lapses as health and safety issues. Although less notorious than Los Alamos, where computer disks and other highly classified materials have vanished, Livermore has had its share of problems in recent years with equipment, computers, and even a laser disappearing.

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.

Last year, the DOE's inspector general ordered the reinstatement of two whistle-blowing Livermore security officers who were fired after revealing numerous deficiencies. Among them were poor training and supervision in handling radioactive materials, breakdowns during security drills, and management's alleged mishandling of a bomb threat at the lab's plutonium facility -- which stores more than 1,500 pounds of radioactive metal -- in 2000. Twice in the last three years, the inspector general has lambasted the lab after keys disappeared. In one instance, a lab gate was left open, allowing vehicles to enter unmonitored for hours. In three incidents last year, security personnel lost master keys, exposing numerous doors and gates to potential penetration.

"Biodefense work should be done in government labs, but Livermore isn't the place for it," says retired chemical physicist Marion Fulk. As a young University of Chicago scientist, he worked on the Manhattan Project to build the first nuclear bomb before spending the last years of his career at Lawrence Livermore working on the so-called Star Wars missile defense system, which was ultimately shelved. "Even if [the lab's] track record for safety and security were what it should be, which it isn't, it's too close to a major population center [for germ warfare research]," says Fulk.

Linda Gallegos, who grew up in the shadow of the lab, holds a similar view. Although not a party to the lawsuit over the biolabs, her family has a claim against the government for damages in connection with the 1985 death of her father, a former Lawrence Livermore supply technician. Gallegos believes her father's death from leukemia was directly attributable to his exposure to radioactive materials during 25 years of working there. "I don't trust Lawrence Livermore to be putting that kind of facility in people's backyards," she says, referring to the biodefense lab. "When I see how unforthcoming they are about the risks involved, I think, 'Where have I seen this before?'"

The government's biodefense buildup, which includes the DOE's ambitions for Lawrence Livermore, has resulted in a veritable gold rush among competing government agencies and academic institutions, with inevitable winners and losers.

Among the losers is UC Davis, which in September failed in its bid to house a highly controversial BSL-4 lab when the National Institutes of Health decided to give $120 million grants to the University of Texas and Boston University instead. It didn't help that just as the debate over the Davis lab heated up, a rhesus monkey escaped from a campus research facility. University officials tried to keep the breakout under wraps, but a whistle-blower disclosed it 10 days later.

The federal National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has been a big winner in recent years, its budget zooming from $2 billion in 2001 to almost $4 billion last year. The competition for federal dollars extends beyond such obvious recipients to include the agriculture department, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Food and Drug Administration.

Lawrence Livermore spokesman Wampler says installing a new bioresearch facility there is critical to post-9/11 efforts to "rapidly develop biotechnologies to protect the nation against terrorism." But the sheer number of hot labs either under construction or on the drawing board around the country has raised eyebrows not only among environmental and disarmament groups, but from within the mainstream scientific community.

The National Academy of Sciences' Choffnes says her opposition to the building boom is based partly on personal observation. As a former senior scientist for a U.S. Senate oversight committee chaired by ex-Senator John Glenn of Ohio in the early '90s, she got a close look at security and safety issues at Livermore and Los Alamos and wasn't impressed. "I'm speaking simply from my own experience, and that tells me that the [safety] record and history of these labs has not been good. And they want to put pathogens there?" she asks sarcastically.

Her skepticism is shared by Jonathan Tucker, senior researcher at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Washington, D.C., a think tank affiliated with the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Like Choffnes, he supports limited biodefense research, but objects to it being conducted at either of the country's preeminent nuclear weapons labs. "It troubles me that the labs should be involved in this," Tucker says. "As for Livermore, the fact that it is still designing and maintaining offensive nuclear weapons should rule it out as a logical site for biodefense work. That should be unequivocally defensive in orientation."

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.