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Bioterror at Home: Biological Research -- A Short Step to Weapon's Production

Los Alamos National Laboratory: infamous for cover-ups, theft, the alleged purchase of a $30,000 car with taxpayer money, missing hard drives, missing plutonium, and ethnic prejudices. Now they want to line their pockets with a piece of the biodefense pie.

Recently, Los Alamos began a comprehensive upgrade of its biological research capabilities, expected to be complete sometime in 2004. These efforts, under the guidance of the National Nuclear Security Administration's (NNSA) Chemical and Biological National Security Program (CBNP), will expand Los Alamos' biotechnology tool box.

Los Alamos' upgrade includes a biological safety level 3 facility containing two biosafety level 3 labs and one biosafety level 2 lab (a biosafety level 4 lab is the highest containment and is used for studying diseases such as the Ebola virus). Los Alamos' biosafety level 3 facility will be the first of its kind within the Department of Energy (DOE) complex. At least eight other national labs are involved in biological research under the guidance of the CBNP. Previously the national labs had been operating at the biosafety 2 level or lower. If the labs required higher containment, work was contracted out to facilities such as those operated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Concerns raised by citizens and activists regarding Los Alamos' growing interest in bioresearch activities have two focuses: Los Alamos' poor response to public concern via the public comments received on the draft Environmental Assessment for the facility; and the precedence of locating an advanced bioresearch facility at a top-secret nuclear weapons research and design lab.

In February 2001, before Los Alamos released its draft Environmental Assessment, the DOE's Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued a report. This report found "...the Department's activities lacked appropriate Federal oversight, consistent policy, and standardized implementing procedures, resulting in the potential for greater risk to workers and possibly others from exposure to biological select agents and select agent materials."

In response to this condemnation, the DOE issued a department-wide Notice on the handling of select agents and the adoption of the National Institutes of Health guidelines for biosafety committees. This step, however, was merely a band aid over an open sore! It did nothing to standardize basic safety routines or to establish department wide control over individual research projects at the national labs. In its investigation, the OIG found that scientists had been conducting studies on select agents, such as anthrax, without the knowledge of their superiors. This was particularly true at Los Alamos. The lack of system wide control within the DOE was of great concern for the residents in the Northern New Mexico area. The tendency to cover up mistakes and bend the rules pervades the DOE complex. Environmental concerns have grown as a result of the continuous flagrant environmental and security violations at the labs. Some of the more embarrassing examples in the recent past have occurred within Los Alamos' bioresearch department.

To illustrate, again using the OIG report, it was found that "the Los Alamos Industrial Hygiene and Safety Group, which included the Los Alamos Biological Safety Officer, had not conducted the required assessments and evaluations of the laboratory's biosafety program." The OIG's office continued by stating "we were told … that Los Alamos has no special procedures or specific training regarding their receipt or shipment process for select agents…[and] lacked a hazard control plan for damaged packages..." OIG's investigation also noted that Los Alamos received a shipment of select agent DNA which arrived with both the outer and inner packaging crushed. Since Los Alamos lacked the appropriate handling procedures, this event could have led to a dangerous situation had the DNA contained toxins or viable organisms. Luckily, the principle investigator had the presence of mind to destroy the package!

Another incident, this time involving virulent anthrax, occurred in October 2001. The sender failed to sterilize the bacterial samples, but did not realize sterilization had failed until after shipment, at which point he notified Los Alamos of the problem. The Los Alamos researcher, knowing full well that Los Alamos was not equipped to handle virulent strains of the organism, accepted the package anyway! Subsequently, there was an extensive cover-up beginning with the researcher, and later going up the Los Alamos biological research division's chain of command. This event occurred during the public comment period on Los Alamos' proposal to build the new biosafety level 3 facility. Yet Los Alamos never notified the public of the incident. A month later the Project On Government Oversight shed light on this cover-up, instilling even greater concerns among the public about Los Alamos' commitment to safety and transparency. An internal lab investigation stated that there had been severe management failures and that Los Alamos' "public image" had been greatly damaged.

While Los Alamos was covering up this latest incident, it was also requesting a virtual blank check. The draft Environmental Assessment released by Los Alamos asserted that the Laboratory would reserve the right to conduct research on emerging diseases, agents not categorized by the CDC, and genetically modified organisms for which there may be no known cure. This is particularly disturbing in light of the anthrax cover up. Los Alamos also refuses to include plausible catastrophic events and terrorism (or rogue scientist scenarios) in its risk analyses, and even refuses to include an outline of a plausible safety or hazard control and mitigation plan for the facility. This is an outrageous failure to recognize the challenges of facility planning in the post 9-11 reality and a continuation of the Lab's historical failures to protect worker and public safety. These events illustrate Los Alamos' blatant disregard and inability to correct safety and management problems within its bioresearch program, and its failure to come clean with the local public.

The expanding network of advanced bioresearch facilities at top-secret nuclear weapons labs sets a terrible precedent. The national labs involved, Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore (Oak Ridge in Tennessee is considering building a biosafety level 4 facility), have a mission to provide the Pentagon with deliverable nuclear weapons. Their researchers work in highly compartmentalized and secretive environments. This environment is ripe for the development of offensive weapons systems of many natures. While there is no evidence to suggest that the national labs have actually engaged in offensive research and development of biological weapons agents or systems, the existing lack of transparency at the labs only raises question marks. Without an enforceable international inspection regime that imposes transparency, it is unlikely that the international community will ever be convinced that the U.S. is not conducting offensive bioresearch at these facilities given their historic mission. This is particularly true in light of the evidence that a couple of Federal agencies knowingly violated international non-proliferation law in the late 1990s. According to a senior policy analyst in the DOE during the 1990s, there were rumors of secret "black box" projects within the Department's bioresearch programs. With the DOE's growing role in bioresearch, there is a greater likelihood that black box programs will also increase and with that increase the U.S. may stray into offensive applications of biotechnology.

Secrecy is going to grow in the near future unless there is a concerted effort to change current trends in government. The new Department of Homeland Security, which has already earned a reputation in the halls of Congress for being overly secretive, has inherited the NNSA's CBNP. Though research activities by the CBNP will continue to be conducted on national laboratory grounds, funding and oversight for that research will come from the Homeland Security department.

Colin King, homeschooled on a small organic farm in West Central Minnesota, became active in Los Alamos National Laboratory policy issues while beginning his studies at St. John's College in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1997. He was a co-founding staff member of the Santa Fe based Nuclear Watch of New Mexico, and currently works as their Research Director. He is presently based out of Minneapolis. To reach him, send email to colinking@nukewatch.org.

For further information:
Nuclear Watch of New Mexico
551 W. Cordova Rd., #808
Santa Fe, New Mexico 87505
(505) 989-7342
fax: (505) 989-7352

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"When uranium mining and processing became big business during the Cold War, the federal government subsidized the industry. Most of the United States' uranium came out of Navajo ground. The Navajo people had a nominal say in the process at the time, but have endured all of the consequences since then. The land was torn open for our nuclear arsenal and the Navajo people are still dying from the cancers and illnesses that it caused.

I do not want a fourth generation of my people to suffer from the physical, psychological and cultural devastation caused by predatory energy practices. The lack of tribal consent contained in the Indian Energy title means that the federal government could override the Navajo law that prohibits uranium-mining activities on our land."
–Joe Shirley, Jr. President, Navajo Nation
"Senate Energy Bill Exploits Indian Resources"
Albuquerque Journal, July 18, 2003

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