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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.
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:
- What is the rest of the world going to think about us doing this defense research at a lab whose primary mission is the design and development of offensive nuclear weapons?
- Are they going to take the US government’s word for it? Further, the nuclear laboratories are not readily inspectable due to the highly classified nature of much of the work, should a verification protocol be negotiated.
- Could this type of activity further erode biological weapons control efforts or even lead to a global arms race? Absolutely! Some argue it already has.
What does this mean nationally?
- Why does there need to be a biowarfare agent facility at a nuclear weapons lab? Why does there need to be one both at Livermore Lab and Los Alamos Lab?
- Not only are there many more locations that are acquiring and producing biowarfare agents, but there will be 100’s to 1000’s of additional people with access to and knowledge of the means to produce these agents.
- What would be the most cost-effective approach to handle deadly pathogens? On this question, Dr. Robert Gould, President of Physicians for Social Responsibility, argues that we need a comprehensive primary prevention approach towards all forms of infectious disease. The over-investment in high-tech facilities is the wrong emphasis for protecting the public
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:
- Plutonium was found in a park near an elementary school in Livermore;
- Plutonium was washed down the drain at the lab and ended up in the local sewage treatment facility. Over a 15-year period, residents unknowingly picked up plutonium-laden sludge for their gardens;
- There have been many airborne accidents. For example one million curies of radiation have been accidentally leaked from the lab mostly in the form of tritium, which is radioactive hydrogen. This is comparable to the level of radiation to which the people of Hiroshima, Japan were exposed;
- There is a contaminated groundwater plume under the homes near the lab;
- A California Department of Health study indicates that a child born in Livermore has a 600% greater chance of getting malignant melanoma than a child born somewhere else;
- Combine this history with the existence of potentially lethal and contagious biological substances in Livermore and you have the possible specter of a large disease outbreak in the Bay Area. Is this really the best way to enhance our individual and collective security?
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:
- 10,000 gallons of wastewater will flow in the city sewage, yet there are currently no discharge limits for infectious diseases. Nor is there a monitoring system should there be an accidental discharge.
- HEPA filters will be used to prevent exposures due to accidental airborne releases. However, Livermore Lab has a record of negligently leaving filters in place for up to 30 years. Filters become more fragile and brittle with age and therefore less effective.
- Solid waste may be disposed of in a landfill without first going through a commercial treatment facility.
- Livermore Lab is on the FBI list of terrorist targets. No thorough security analysis has been conducted. What happens if they have a mentally unstable or unhappy employee, a delivery vehicle with a bomb or a plane scenario?
- No comprehensive earthquake analysis has been completed, yet the Greenville Fault was considered inactive until 1980, when a 5.5 quake on this fault caused $44 million in damage to the lab.
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]