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Wednesday, June 14, 2006  
Concern over lab's plan to test microbes

By: Keay Davidson
Published In: San Francisco Chronicle

A federal court judge in San Francisco hinted on Tuesday that she finds it troubling that Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory plans to build a lab in the Bay Area to store and experiment with trillions of deadly microbes without proper environmental review.

The nuclear weapons lab's environmental report on the project does not include "any discussion anywhere of what seems most troublesome," namely that the proposed biodefense lab "is being built in a very highly populated area of Northern California," said Chief Judge Mary M. Schroeder.

But an attorney representing the lab and the U.S. Department of Energy told a Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel that plans for the lab had been thoroughly thought out.

The attorney, Todd Aagaard, said the biodefense lab would be so safe that even if an accident occurred, the microbes wouldn't hurt anybody. In case of a fire, for instance, no one need fear that the microbes would escape because they would disperse and the fire would burn up the microorganisms, he said.

A lawyer for the lab's opponents strongly disagreed, telling the three-judge panel that an accident -- perhaps caused by an earthquake -- might eject killer microbes that winds could blow as far as San Francisco or points beyond.

Stephan Volker, the opponents' attorney, asked the judges to order the lab to conduct a more thorough environmental assessment of the project or a full-fledged environmental impact statement, which would be a more involved and intricate study of the environmental risks.

"I don't desire to unduly frighten the public," Volker said after the hearing, "but (the lab's) decision to create pathogens (in a populous community) for which there might not be any cure is unconscionable." The result could be thousands of deaths after a lab accident, he said.

Volker is representing Tri-Valley CARES (Communities Against a Radioactive Environment) of Livermore and Nuclear Watch of New Mexico, which have sued the federal government to delay the project. The groups are asking the appellate court to overturn a 2004 ruling by a federal judge in Oakland that gave the project a go-ahead.

During the hearing, Judge Susan P. Graber asked both sides questions, but went easier on Volker than on Aagaard, even offering a question that underscored one of Volker's arguments against the biodefense lab.

Volker cited scientific evidence of a high failure rate of the lab's special filters that are designed to prevent the escape of microbes into the environment. The government, he said, seems convinced that the filters are no problem.

Graber interjected, "Which, of course, would not be true if a plane (piloted by a terrorist) blasted the whole thing apart?"

Visiting district Judge H. Russell Holland from Alaska asked no questions.

The panel's ruling is expected to come later. After the hearing, Aagaard declined to discuss details of the case with reporters.

Its outcome could significantly affect the future of the nuclear lab, which is run by the University of California under contract to the Energy Department. For a half-century, the lab has been one of the United States' two nuclear weapons design and research labs. The other is the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

But the Livermore lab's future as a nuclear laboratory is uncertain, in light of the department's decision in April -- sparked apparently by safety concerns triggered by recent lab accidents -- to move almost all of the lab's huge stockpile of plutonium and highly enriched uranium to an as-yet unidentified, and probably remote, site by 2014. Meanwhile, the lab's other big project -- the development of the world's most powerful laser, the National Ignition Facility, faces serious technical problems and delays.

The lab hopes to establish a major role in biodefense research in the post-Sept. 11 world.

In addition to seeking to build the biodefense lab at the lab's main campus in Livermore, UC and Livermore officials recently expressed interest in building a second biodefense lab near Tracy -- a lab that could experiment with even deadlier microbes, especially those that harm crops and cattle.

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