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Friday, April 13, 2007  
Report doubts lab terror threat

By: Ian Hoffman
Published In: Oakland Tribune

SUBTITLE: Nuclear watchdog says analysis of attack risk insufficient as facility takes step toward opening

Federal authorities say the odds of a successful terrorist plot against a new biodefense lab in Livermore are too uncertain and remote to calculate, and that in any event the consequences of an attack or theft at the lab would be manageable.

The National Nuclear Security Administration, ordered by a federal appeals court last year to weigh the risks of terrorist acts at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's new biodefense research lab, reiterated Wednesday many of the same conclusions the agency cited to avoid analyzing terrorist threats in the first place.

"NNSA believes the probability of a successful terrorist act at the LLNL BSL-3 Facility is very low, and it is not an event expected during the life of the facility," the agency said in its latest environmental study of the lab. "Intentional malevolent acts, such as terrorist acts, do not lend themselves to the type of probability analysis conducted in (environmental review) documents for accidents."

The agency's contemplation of terrorist risk is nonetheless the first time a federal agency after the Sept. 11 attacks has evaluated terrorism as part of legally mandated environmental studies.

Barring objections from the public, those conclusions are a step toward the nuclear agency's finding of no significant risk from the new lab and opening it for research aimed at better detecting and thwarting bioterror attacks.

Appeals by critics could keep the matter of its operation before the courts for a year or more.

"My conclusion is this document is not the serious analysis that the community deserves and that the court ordered. This document is intended to reassure, and it does not make me feel safer because it does not deal with the genuine risks that come with operation of this facility," said Marylia Kelley, head of a Livermore-based nuclear watchdog group, Tri-Valley CAREs.

In short, the agency found, terrorists are too unpredictable and are unlikely to attack a federal nuclear-weapons lab equipped with its own SWAT-like paramilitary force and truck-mounted machine guns. Smart terrorists would get their germs from animals and soil, the same way that governments built their own biological arsenals.

Federal documents show the facility could contain as many as

25,000 different samples of germs that cause anthrax, plague, Q fever and other diseases, for a total of as much as 100 liters.

If terrorists did attack Lawrence Livermore's biolab, the nuclear agency concluded, the attack itself probably would destroy the germs inside with blast, heat and exposure to ultraviolet rays in sunlight.

"Therefore, a terrorist act, such as a plane crash, would not be expected to result in a release of greater magnitude than from other catastrophic events already considered in this document or, for example, from releases that routinely occur during lambing season at numerous local ranches, or from births of other infected domestic or wild animals," the agency concluded.

Kelley called the comparison of a suicidal plane crash into a lab full of germ warfare specimens to the birth of an infected ewe "ludicrous."

"If what they were saying is true, you wouldn't need any safety measures whatsoever. It's like comparing the amount of uranium you find in granite to stockpiles of weapons-grade uranium," she said.

"Sure, live anthrax exists in nature, but obviously a terrorist would be more interested in getting a milled biowarfare agent or an agent concentrated in solution from a laboratory. I don't think this document is honest."

Courts typically defer to federal agencies in the evaluation of environmental harm. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected an earlier environmental study of the lab for failing to evaluate terrorist risk but could conclude the latest evaluation is sufficient.

"We think this does the job," said NNSA spokeswoman Lauren Martinez.

The study can be found at

Contact Ian Hoffman at or (510) 208-6458.

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