A Question of Risk

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

Other critics take a similar tack, arguing that placing biolabs alongside facilities that design nuclear arms is ill-advised if for no other reason than that it breeds suspicion about U.S. motives among nations that might be tempted to develop biological weapons. That suspicion grew in late 2002 after the Bush Administration withdrew support of protocols meant to give teeth to the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention.

The treaty, which the United States signed, bars germ research for offensive purposes, but doesn't proscribe biological research that is ostensibly defensive in nature, such as vaccines and antidotes. But experts say the difference often comes down to a question of intent. Is a vaccine being formulated to protect civilians from potential bioattack, or to inoculate soldiers preparing for war? For outside observers, it may be hard to tell. In 2001, the New York Times revealed that the CIA had secretly built and tested a model of a Soviet-designed "cluster" bomb with potential biowar applications. The paper also reported that the Pentagon may have carried out the genetic engineering of a new, potent variant of anthrax bacteria and had built a bioweapons plant from commercially available materials, to see if it could be done.

Biodefense watchdog groups accuse the U.S. government of skirting the 1972 treaty requirements, and suspect that is a main reason why it is so interested in tucking high-level biolabs inside the super-secret Livermore and Los Alamos sites. "The proposed BSL-3 lab [at Livermore] is alarmingly close to a large bioreactor facility," says Hammond of the Sunshine Project. "It will work with a large number of bioweapons pathogens. The overlay amounts to the unmistakable signature of an offensive biological weapons program, capable of the production of weaponized pathogens." Lawrence Livermore spokesman Wampler denies any offensive intent, noting that germ research for weapons purposes is illegal. "The U.S. is a signatory to [the Biological Weapons Convention] and does not conduct bioweapons research," he says, adding that, at Livermore, "We don't and we won't."

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.

The treaty protocols that the Bush administration resisted would have stiffened requirements that governments provide details of their biological defense programs, including specifics about certain kinds of research and production facilities. The administration, which has accused North Korea, Iran, and other nations of having or seeking offensive biological weapons capability, has taken the position that the treaty is inherently unverifiable.

Critics say the American biodefense buildup sends an especially bad message in view of the administration's turning away from the treaty. "This approach of building more and more biodefense labs, and especially at Livermore and Los Alamos, really leads to nowhere except for the proliferation of a kind of arms race at the development level," says Susan Wright, a University of Michigan science historian who has written extensively about biological warfare. "It makes the world a far more dangerous place."

Even microbiologist and Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg, who insists that new biolabs at Livermore and Los Alamos would be "no big deal," sees problems with the way the energy department has promoted them. The president emeritus of New York's Rockefeller University and an adviser to four presidents, Lederberg says the federal push into biological research two decades after the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic is long overdue. "I think these [new BSL Level 3 and 4] labs [around the country] are going to be managed by competent people. I have no problem having a BSL-4 lab across the street," he says. But Lederberg says there needs to be greater transparency at Livermore and Los Alamos, adding, "The problem with DOE is that it has a legacy of secrecy, and I think that legacy in this case is not helpful."

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