The DOE Inspector General released Audit Report on “Management of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Biosafety Laboratories” that calls for a re-evaluation of the proposed needs for Biolabs at nuclear weapons facilities such as Los Alamos.
The report stated that Los Alamos National Laboratory was considering a $9.5 million expansion of bio-laboratory capabilities even though the Lab could not assess current usage or future needs. Apparently the Lab based facility-planning decisions on perceptions about future demand.
From the report –
[DOE] identified the development of a BSL-3 facility at LANL as its preferred alternative for meeting biosafety laboratory needs even though it had not fully considered the need for and cost effectiveness of additional capacity. Nor, had it developed a sound basis for measuring the utilization of existing facilities – a critical factor in determining the need for additional capacity.
Biological containment levels range from BSL-1, which handles only agents not known to cause illness in humans, to BSL-4, which houses agents for which there are no known cures, such as Ebola. A BSL-3 designation permits work with virulent pathogens used in both defensive and offensive biological warfare research.
Although the BSL-3 building has been constructed, the need is very questionable. From the report –
Specifically, we contacted two of the three Federal agencies that LANL told us were prospective [Work For Other] WFO customers and officials representing those potential customers stated that they did not have any specific plans to contract for BSL-3 research at LANL. Further, officials at both agencies indicated that other existing BSL-3 facilities could satisfactorily meet their needs. In fact, one official told us that generally other existing BSL-3 laboratories were less expensive than expected at the new LANL facility and that several had comparable security.
While the BSL-3 building has been constructed, there is no compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) currently being prepared for BSL-3 facility operations pursuant to NEPA has not even been released, much less a final EIS or Record of Decision (ROD). The current schedule calls for the EIS to be released in August 2014, but if past schedule changes are indications, it is not going to happen.
The draft EIS has been in process for nine years and counting. We at NukeWatch demand that DOE start over and re-scope both the alternatives and need for the BSL-3 at LANL. LANL is working on a Biological Research Capability Assessment to assess bioscience needs, which must be completed before the BSL-3 is re-scoped.
We hope the current Assessment is more empirical than the 2011 Review, which proposed that the BSL-3 facility was essential to LANL’s mission without considering data such as available capacity at other locations and estimates of projected use from outside customers.
The LANL BSL-3 EIS was the result of a lawsuit. During 2001 and 2002 NukeWatch contested the arbitrary and capricious public process DOE was using to justify its decision to build the proposed BSL-3 facilities at LANL and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL). DOE failed to adequately address the many concerns raised by the public and proceeded to release final Environmental Assessments (EAs) for both laboratories, along with so-called Findings of No Significant Impact, which gives the Department the green light to begin the first steps leading to operations. Because DOE left so many legitimate questions and concerns unanswered, NukeWatch felt that a legal challenge was necessary.
In August 2003 NukeWatch and Tri-Valley CAREs, a citizens group based in Livermore, CA, jointly filed a lawsuit in the federal district court of northern California claiming that DOE had failed to fully analyze the environmental and health risks associated with the proposed operation of its BSL-3 facilities at LANL and LLNL. In effect, DOE wrote itself a blank check for a wide range of infectious disease research at the two labs. NukeWatch and Tri-Valley CAREs argued that DOE failed to consider the grave risks of introducing pathogens whose behavior may not be known or understood, and for which a cure may not exist.
In January 2004, DOE announced that it had revoked approval for its newly constructed, advanced bio-warfare agent research facility at Los Alamos. DOE went back to square one, and reviewed whether the agency needed to undertake a full Environmental Impact Statement – a key demand in the lawsuit. The BSL-3 at LLNL was built and is operating.
DOE released a notice for the LANL EIS on November 29, 2005. The Notice of Intent to prepare an EIS for the BSL-3 stated that one reason requiring preparation of an EIS was that “it was necessary to conduct additional seismic analysis of the location of the building on fill material on the sloping side of a canyon.” This calls into question not just whether BSL-3 activities can be safely conducted before these issues are resolved through the EIS, but whether any operations can be safely conducted at all.
The drawing below shows the LANL BSL-3 built in a seismic zone, on fill, and on a steep slope.
The DOE-IG report stated that LANL would need to spend about $437,000 in upgrades to attempt to mitigate this seismic concern. DOE also is spending about $478,000 to complete the now required Environmental Impact Statement
Another $595,000 is needed to open the facility, which includes $368,000 of operating costs for maintenance, utilities, etc.
Can the Laboratory be the best place for bioscience? If the Lab is looking for more funding streams, shouldn’t it be directing its attention to non-proliferation programs and cleanup?