A Question of Risk

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

For more than 10 months, U.S. and coalition forces have scoured Iraq for biological weapons and the laboratories that may have produced them. Here at home, with little media scrutiny, the Bush administration is pursuing plans to build advanced labs of its own to experiment with some of the deadliest pathogens known to humankind, including anthrax, bubonic plague, botulism, and Q fever.

In the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the anthrax scare that followed, Congress appropriated $6 billion for defenses against germ warfare. The result: an all-out rush among competing agencies -- from the Centers for Disease Control to the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Energy -- to expand or create new high-security "hot labs" for handling toxic biowarfare agents.

Of the more than two dozen such facilities planned or already in development nationwide, none has alarmed critics more than the one envisioned for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore. The Department of Energy also wants to open a similar biolab at Livermore's sister compound, the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. But Lawrence Livermore's location, 40 air miles from downtown San Francisco, would make it a one-of-a-kind germ and nuclear research hub near a major population center.

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.
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.

DOE officials say it makes sense to engage in germ research at high-security nuclear labs, especially Lawrence Livermore, which already is involved in studies aimed at detecting and identifying biological weapons. They say the existing Biotechnology Research Program at Livermore is helping to develop defenses against biowar agents while undertaking health-related biotech research.

Nonetheless, the national biodefense buildup has critics, including some prominent scientists, worried. "The proliferation of these labs is a recipe for disaster," says Eileen Choffnes, a program manager at the National Academy of Sciences, a private group that advises the federal government on scientific and technical matters. Choffnes fears that the Bush germ defense expansion could perversely end up creating training grounds for would-be terrorists. She also argues that commingling nuclear weapons and biowar research could also make Lawrence Livermore -- which, like Los Alamos, is managed by the University of California -- a prime target for terrorists.

Others object to construction of hot labs at the two fabled atomic weapons facilities on geopolitical grounds, saying that at the very least they create the perception that the United States -- despite treaty obligations and assurances to the contrary -- has secret ambitions to develop a new generation of bioweapons, and that other nations could be tempted to do so as well. "Try and think of a scenario in which you could send a worse signal on this issue than to do this kind of research at Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos," says Edward Hammond, who heads the Sunshine Project, a biodefense watchdog group based in Texas. "I don't think there is one."

But unlike a slew of biowarfare labs that are proceeding apace -- including one at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston and another at the Army's Fort Detrick in Maryland, one of the nation's largest existing biolabs -- the plans for Livermore and Los Alamos have hit a snag. Amid little fanfare, a federal judge in Oakland last month temporarily suspended work on both germ labs pending arguments in a lawsuit brought by two watchdog groups, Livermore-based Tri-Valley CAREs and Nuclear Watch of New Mexico.

The suit accuses Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos of failing to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, a 1969 law that requires federal projects be assessed for their potential ecological impact. Whenever a federal agency engages in action that may significantly affect the quality of the environment, the agency must prepare an environmental impact statement, an exhaustive review that typically takes 18 months or more to complete.

In submitting a much less detailed environmental assessment, the Department of Energy invoked a NEPA provision that relieves it of having to prepare an EIS by declaring that the planned biofacilities at Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos will have no significant environmental fallout -- a claim critics scoff at. "The notion that these biolabs do not represent a significant impact is almost laughable," says Stephen Volker of Oakland, lead attorney for the labs' opponents and a longtime Sierra Club lawyer. Assistant U.S. Attorney Barclay Sanford, the government's point man in the case, declined to comment. U.S. District Judge Saundra Armstrong has set the next hearing for April.

The brouhaha over the biolabs comes at an especially inconvenient time for the University of California. Following security, managerial, and financial scandals, the Department of Energy announced that UC's decades-long management of Los Alamos -- where the first atomic bombs were built during World War II -- is no longer assured, since its contract with the government will be opened to bids in 2005. In November, President Bush signed legislation requiring competition for contracts to manage all six national labs financed by the energy department, including Lawrence Livermore and even Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, overlooking the UC Berkeley campus.

If the energy department is forced to prepare an EIS as the lawsuit requests, it could easily push back the opening of the biolabs at Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos for up to two years. However, a court cannot block the eventual operation of the facilities. That's because, as the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in a 1980 case, NEPA involves strictly procedural matters. Once the government makes a decision on a project subject to NEPA, judges can only make sure that it follows the law and considers the environmental consequences; they cannot reverse the decision itself.

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.

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.

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?"

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.

"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.

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."

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."

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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