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Synthesis/Regeneration 34   (Spring 2004)

Nuclear Labs Move into the “Biodefense” Business

by Inga Olson, Tri-Valley CAREs

Tri-Valley CAREs is a community watchdog group started two decades ago by neighbors and employees of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Our mission is to end the development of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction at Livermore Lab and promote disarmament.

Background on the Department of Energy

Before I tell you why we oppose the construction of a biodefense or biowarfare agent facility at Livermore Lab, I want to give you some background on the Department of Energy (DOE)’s nuclear weapons complex. Livermore Lab, located in Livermore, California and Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico are the two primary nuclear weapons laboratories in the country. Los Alamos Lab is also currently constructing a biodefense facility.

These labs are part of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semi-autonomous organization within the DOE. The NNSA has a dozen major nuclear facilities across the country. These facilities research, design, test and produce nuclear weapons. Today, our government spends one and one-half times the amount we spent at the height of the cold war, and that is adjusted for inflation. Currently, both Livermore Lab and Los Alamos Lab are competing to come up with the best design for a weapon commonly referred to as a nuclear bunker buster. It is our view that the development of this nuclear bunker buster is illegal under Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1970, to which the US is a signatory.

Currently, both Livermore Lab and Los Alamos Lab are competing to come up with the best design for a…nuclear bunker buster.

The alarming nature of this nuclear buildup goes hand-in-hand with an environmental legacy and public health record that is devastating. Most of these nuclear facilities across the nation are Superfund sites. This means they are some of the most contaminated locations in our nation. Many Livermore Lab workers and community members around the facility are sick due to exposures to toxic and radioactive substances, as is true at nuclear facilities around the country.

I wanted you to know about the aggressive nuclear buildup and the concurrent environmental and health impacts as you consider the nuclear weapons laboratories’ role in the biodefense business. I should mention that the biolabs’ budget has been moved to the Department of Homeland Security—this will add another layer of secrecy to an already top secret lab.

So what does this mean?

So, what does it mean to have a declared facility that designs nuclear weapons of mass destruction building a biodefense facility? The DOE can’t understand why the community is not just willing to take their word that this facility will be used solely for defensive research. What it does mean is that lethal biological substances will be worked on at this nuclear weapons design lab. Biowarfare agents will be genetically modified. For example, you could take something deadly like the Plague and cross it with something extremely contagious like Legionnaire’s Disease.

International concerns

Even if this work is being done for defensive research, the potential for developing these new “designer” diseases—in addition to raising concerns about environmental contamination and public health—has international implications:

National implications

What does this mean nationally?

The biosafety Level 3 facility

Livermore Lab proposed to build a biodefense lab last June. The BSL-3 permit issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would allow work on a broad spectrum of biotoxins and agents including anthrax, botulism and plague. The safety Level-3 allows work on agents with the potential for respiratory transmission—diseases that can cause serious and lethal infection. The Energy Department’s cursory Environmental Assessment says the biofacility would—among other things—and I quote, “produce small amounts of biological material such as enzymes, DNA, ribonucleic acid using infectious agents and genetically modified agents.”

For example, you could take something deadly like the Plague and cross it with something extremely contagious like Legionnaire’s Disease.

The Livermore Lab proposal includes plans to aerosolize bioagents, which makes those agents more dangerous. The lab will conduct small animal challenge tests—which means they can kill up to 100 small animals at a time with these bioagents. The facility is allowed to work with up to one liter of a single agent and up to ten liters total at the facility. To make these numbers more meaningful, lets take an example of a likely experimental agent—coxiella burnetti. This agent causes Q fever, an infectious disease in animals and humans. If you could evenly distribute one liter to every person on earth—if this were possible—it would be roughly enough microorganisms to potentially infect every living person.

Another concern is that Livermore Lab is the home of a bioreactor with six fermenters ranging in size from two liters to 1500 liters. These fermenters are used to grow micro-organisms. While there is no known connection between the biolab and the fermenter, the co-location is controversial. The BSL-3 permit allows work on live strains of anthrax which, theoretically, could be grown in the 1500 liter fermenter. Were this to be done, it would give the lab the capacity to produce enough anthrax for a theater-scale war. The lack of openness and accountability at a nuclear lab causes grave consternation about these fermenters.

Livermore Lab has a 50-year history of leaks, spills and accidents.

Livermore Lab’s history of leaks, spills and accidents

Livermore Lab has a 50-year history of leaks, spills and accidents:

No environmental impact statement will be conducted

What is particularly shocking about this is that the Energy Department has bypassed the more comprehensive environmental review process called the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and instead used a fast-track process called an Environmental Assessment. This means they do not have to conduct an in-depth process to assess potential harms to humans and the environment, nor determine how to mitigate potential harms. They did not complete a non-proliferation review, in spite of the co-location at a nuclear weapons lab and the fermenters on site.

In this fast-tracked assessment process, they said public exposure was such a remote possibility it did not merit further analysis.

Other examples of deficiencies with the environmental assessment process include:

What we are doing

Construction and operation of a BSL-3 at Livermore Lab represents a new direction and program for the lab—one that could have serious health and environmental consequences locally. We have filed a lawsuit in the federal district court to force the Energy Department to conduct the more thorough environmental review process that requires public hearings.

Nationally, we want to see increased funding for public health and freeze funding for these high-level biodefense facilities until there is a national evaluation of what, if any, additional facilities might be needed.

Internationally, we support speeding up the negotiation of strict verification protocols to the Biological Weapons Convention.

What you can do

Print one of the biopetitions off of our website at www.trivalleycares.org and help us collect signatures. To learn more you can read a Bulletin of Atomic Scientists article about the DOE and their biodefense labs at the Tri-Valley CAREs website or sign up for Citizen’s Watch, a free monthly newsletter.

Go to the Sunshine Project’s website at http://www.sunshine-project.org and see what biodefense facility is located near you. Join our national bio-coalition advocating for an open and transparent public process for all proposed and existing biodefense facilities.

Join the call for a national moratorium on the construction of new high-level (BSL-3’s and BSL-4’s) biodefense facilities until a national assessment has been conducted to assess the need, if any, for new facilities.

This article is an edited version of the author’s presentation at Biodevastation 7, held May 16–18, 2003 in St. Louis, Missouri.

[10 apr 04]

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