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Monday, October 16, 2006  
More study of terrorist attacks on "hot lab" needed

By: Eric Kurhi
Published In: Contra Costa Times

A federal appeals court ruled today that the Department of Energy must take the possibility of terrorist actions into account before opening a biodefense facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

The decision affirms a lawsuit filed by Livermore-based Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment, which alleged such an attack on a Livermore biowarfare research lab could have a disastrous effect on the surrounding community.

"I can tell you honestly I feel safer today because of the ruling," said Marylia Kelley of Tri-Valley CARES. "Operating an advanced biowarfare research facility without review is an extremely dangerous undertaking."

The new 1,600-square-foot "hot lab" would allow scientists to deal with deadly pathogens, including anthrax and plague, in an effort to prepare antidotes to counter such a biological attack.

It had been scheduled to open in mid-November, but cannot begin operations until the agency "considers whether the threat of terrorist activity necessitates the preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement," according to the court's decision.

A spokesman for the lab said the Energy Department is reviewing its options. Those could involve doing a full environmental report, or expanding the existing study. What actions are taken will ultimately up to the Energy Department.

According to Monday's memorandum, "We caution that there 'remain open to the agency a wide variety of actions it may take on remand, and we do not prejudge those alternatives.' "

Kelley said she hopes the decision will result in more public input.

"We want the department to come to the conclusion that it needs to do an environmental impact statement before opening the lab," she said. "At that point a public hearing would be mandatory."

Attorney for Tri-Valley CARES Stephen Volker said they are also concerned there was not enough attention paid to the possible effects of an earthquake on the hot lab. Livermore lab sits within two miles of two faults.

"Significant new information regarding faults and earthquake behavior has been done since then that will affect the impact of the lab," he said.

Volker said he hopes that, ultimately, the location of the lab will be moved to somewhere less populated.

"This gives the government a chance to do it right ... this is the worst possible location for such a lab," he said.

Monday's ruling notes that the assessment of earthquake risks was "minimal," but the court cannot override the Energy Department's findings.

The court based its ruling on a decision in a suit against Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant in San Luis Obispo County. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission was ordered to reconsider whether a study is needed of the impact of a possible terrorist attack on a planned spent fuel facility at the Diablo Canyon plant.

In September, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review that case.

Tri-Valley CAREs originally sued the Energy Department over proposed hot labs at Livermore and Los Alamos national laboratories in August 2003. Shipments of biological agents -- including botulism, anthrax, plague, valley fever and Query fever -- were stopped pending the decision.

Last November, the DOE announced it would do a full environmental report for the lab at Los Alamos.

Eric Kurhi can be reached at 925-743-2216 or e-mail

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