Reading Room

Thursday, April 12, 2007  
'Unlikely' attack at lab could release microbes, study says

By: Keay Davidson, Chronicle Science Writer
Published In: San Francisco Chronicle

"A suicidal plane crash" by terrorists could unleash into the environment some of the world's scariest diseases from a proposed killer-microbe lab at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. And a saboteur inside the lab could conceivably set off a bomb that might cause a "catastrophic" breach of all microbe containment systems, says a federal study released Wednesday.

However, the U.S. Energy Department draft environmental assessment study concludes that a direct terrorist assault on the facility is "highly unlikely" to succeed.

But because it acknowledges local activists' concerns that catastrophic accidents are possible, it is now up the lab critics who have sued to block the opening of the facility to consider whether to pursue further court action, including a possible order to stop the Livermore lab from opening the microbe facility.

The Livermore site already has a lower-level lab for investigating microbial diseases, but the proposed new Biosafety Level 3 lab -- dubbed BSL3 for short -- would store microbes of medieval scariness. They include plague, botulism and Q fever, a bacterial disease that in its more virulent form, chronic Q fever, kills up to 65 percent of its victims. The proposed lab would also investigate anthrax.

In October, the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco ordered the Energy Department to conduct the environmental study following a suit by Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment and Nuclear Watch of New Mexico. Construction of the facility was finished in 2005, but it hasn't opened pending the completion of litigation.

On Wednesday, lab critics responded with scorn to the long-awaited, 80-page environmental study.

"In the event of a rupture in the facility or other catastrophic release, it could threaten the entire Bay Area," said Marylia Kelley, head of Tri-Valley CARES. "During the summer, the winds move across the metropolitan Bay Area toward San Francisco.

Depending on the pathogen and on how much is released, there could be up to 7,500 fatalities," according to a scientific study that her group presented to the Court of Appeals last year.

"They should not build (the bug lab) in the Bay Area," Kelley added. "Not only is there a risk of terrorist attack or a 'disgruntled employee' scenario, but there's the risk of a large earthquake."

The study was released by the U.S. National Nuclear Safety Administration, which oversees the nation's nuclear weapons labs for the Energy Department. It says it is "probable" that a fire caused by a hypothetical plane crash or an explosion would destroy the potentially up to 1 trillion microorganisms before they are blown by local winds over the densely populated neighborhoods surrounding the nuclear weapons lab. Rapid vaccination of local residents within 24 hours would provide added protection, the study says.

The environmental study acknowledges that "dramatic human health impacts and economic disruption can result following the release of pathogenic materials," as in the 2001 case when anthrax was sent through the U.S. mail.

The study also says "it is not possible to accurately predict the probability of intentional attacks at (Livermore) or at other critical facilities, or the nature of these attacks. The number of scenarios is large, and the likelihood of any type of attack is unknowable."

The study does not describe any potential scenarios for terrorist attacks "because disclosure of this information could be exploited by terrorists to plan attacks."

Ironically, the report includes a map showing the precise location of the microbe lab, in Building 360 on the Livermore lab site.

As a precaution against an accidental or deliberate release of the microbes, "local hospitals and health care providers in the Livermore area have been briefed by (Livermore lab) medical staff," the study says. To protect against microbial escape into the neighborhood, "individuals could be inoculated to prevent infection or treated to recover from exposure to a known biological agent."

As a further precaution to catch intruders, "motion detectors have ... been installed in the laboratories and mechanical rooms," at the lab, and microbes "are kept in locked freezers when not in use."

Public feedback is welcome through May 11. Afterward, the Energy Department will issue a final version of the environmental assessment.


Online resources:

To see the study about the microbe lab at Livermore lab, go to:

Copies are also available at the public libraries in Livermore and Tracy, and at the Public Reading Room of the nuclear security agency's branch office in Livermore.

E-mail Keay Davidson at

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