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LANL Wants Controversial New Biology Lab

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In early February 2001, Los Alamos National Laboratory requested scopeing comments on the proposed construction of a biological research facility. These scopeing comments will help determine the areas of investigation for an Environmental Assessment. This assessment will be used to study the effects of the Los Alamos' research programs on the surrounding environment and communities. The Los Alamos didn't supply those requested to make comments with adequate documentation on the Los Alamos' proposal and its intended research goals, nor were they forthright about the Los Alamos' background in studying dangerous biological agents and bio-toxins.

The proposed laboratory is a biosafety level (BSL) 3 facility. The BSL levels are determined by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia. BSL levels range from 1, the lowest, to 4, the highest. A BSL 1 laboratory is equivalent to many high school biology class rooms, with a solid counter top made of a substance impermeable to water and with a deep sink built into it. A BSL 4 laboratory is designed to study the most dangerous biotoxins such as the deadly Ebola virus. The proposed BSL 3 facility at the Los Alamos will be designed to contain airborne or easily aerosolized biotoxins and bioagents and Los Alamos intends to expand the B division's (The Los Alamos' bioscience division) budget by 8 percent annually. This budget increase is intended for the division's core research areas, including the proposed biological research facility.

It took me over a week, after making numerous phone calls to the officer in charge of the Environmental Assessment and to the BSL 3 facility's team leader, to receive any information from Los Alamos officials on the project. The Los Alamos lacks any readily accessible documents of substance for public review. The Los Alamos' B division web page has very little information on it, portions of the web page are incomplete, and the search function is restricted to Los Alamos employees. Ironically, one of the documents that I received on the proposed facility stated that part of the mission of the B division was to "evaluate and potentially establish BSL-3 designation within B division" using a "comprehensive communications plan to engage...the public in evaluating the proposed project and its impacts." It goes on to state that "this communications plan has been developed." The facts point otherwise. There is a lack of honest and forthright communication between Los Alamos and the public and it certainly does not appear that there is a "comprehensive communications plan" if my communications with the Los Alamos is any example.

On top of this there is much the Los Alamos is not telling the public.

Also in February, the U.S. Energy Department's Office of Inspector General released a report on the mishandling of biological organisms and biological agents at the Energy Department's National Laboratories across the nation. Two of the worst infractions were at Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, NM and at Los Alamos.

Los Alamos has been conducting experiments on Bacillus anthracus, the bacterium that causes the fatal disease anthrax. According to the Inspector's report, all of these studies have been with weakened strains of B. anthracus, but nonetheless these strains could still be deadly to the local populace if they escaped from the laboratory. The report also stated that if the proposed BSL facility is built, there are plans to conduct studies on fully viable strains of B. anthracus.

The Inspector does not state what the purpose of these studies are. The Inspector does claim that the Los Alamos has a very poor safety plan should something go wrong and lacks a method to determine if a safety plan would actually work in the event of an accident. "[T]he work by [the Los Alamos] with biological...agents...appears to have been performed in the absence of safety and security oversight." Officials in the Albuquerque Department of Energy office, the supervisors for Los Alamos, were also "unaware" of the biological research programs being conducted at the Los Alamos. A Department official from Albuquerque told the Inspector that because his office was unaware of the biological research activities at the Los Alamos, "there is no ability for [the Albuquerque office] to provide oversight or security" for Los Alamos' biological research program. Albuquerque also stated that "they had insufficient detail to identify the projects that involved the use of [biological] agents or the DNA of [biological] agents" even though the Los Alamos had apparently given the Albuquerque office the plans for its research projects. These egregious oversights were caused both by Los Alamos and the Energy Department's Albuquerque offices. In addition, the Los Alamos may have failed to meet Federal regulations by possibly failing to inform the Centers for Disease Control of its biological research programs.

Why are these two oversights so significant? If the Energy Department supervisors in Albuquerque and the Centers for Disease Control are unaware of what kinds of biological materials are being handled at Los Alamos should an accident occur, those agencies' response will be crippled. This in turn could put the public at severe risk.

The Inspector concluded that neither the Energy Department nor Los Alamos is in any way prepared to handle dangerous biological agents such as B. anthracus. The report states that "the [Energy Department] had not developed and implemented policies and procedures that (1) establish clear roles and responsibilities for the conduct of activities involving biological...agents..., and (2) ensure [Energy Department] laboratories...follow 'best practices' for the conduct of their biological...agent activities." But in a Headline in a recent Los Alamos newsletter distributed to all Los Alamos employees the lab claimed that "Bioscience [is] key to lab's future."

For more information contact Colin King, Research Director:

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