Reading Room

Citizens Watch Newsletter January 2004

Biolab Accidents, Gen Mods

by Inga Olson
from Tri-Valley CAREs' January, 2004 newsletter, Citizen's Watch

In Asia, three accidents with severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in advanced biolabs are being referred to as a "wake up call" about the risks of lab exposures to deadly pathogens. These reported accidents could be the tip of the iceberg because there has never been a national or international reporting requirement for lab-acquired infections in high containment facilities. On the home front, a novel, virulent form of tuberculosis was accidentally and unexpectedly created in the laboratory by experts from the University of California at Berkeley (UCB), who were trying to disable genes and make the bacterium less deadly.

Genetically-modified tuberculosis surprised researchers at UCB by killing laboratory mice within seven months of exposure, yet those infected with normal TB survived the experiment. Researchers thought the results were a mistake so repeated the test several times, but got the same result. The Berkeley study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, breaks a long-standing assumption among scientists that disabling a potential virulence gene weakens a pathogen. The genetic changes appeared to have the unexpected effect of undermining the body?s own immune response against TB. Lisa Morici, lead author of the study, said, "it appears that the host immune system does not recognize the mutated TB organisms, so the bacteria are left to grow unchecked."

Some have expressed fears that similar genetic modifications might allow a new form of tuberculosis to be used as a biological weapon. Dr. Morici said there are organisms that would be easier to weaponize than TB as the tuberculosis bacterium would be hard to spread by aerosol, the most probable method of spreading toxins over large populations. Still, the UCB results demonstrate the likelihood of new strains of virulent bioagents being created by genetic modification?both as intended and as unintended consequences. Incidents such as this raise additional questions about the extensive genetic modification of deadly bioagents planned at the BSL-3 facilities at the Livermore and Los Alamos weapons labs.

On another front, several recent accidents have occurred in advanced biolabs, prompting the World Health Organization to issue a wake-up call. One accident occurred last year at the National Defense University in Taipei where a senior scientist had been working on a SARS study in Taiwan?s only Biosafety Level-4 (BSL-4) maximum containment laboratory. This BSL-4 is suspected as the source of infection for a medical researcher who contracted SARS while working with the virus on Dec. 5. The researcher then flew to a medical conference in Singapore and returned Dec. 10 and eventually entered a hospital on Dec. 16, where SARS was diagnosed. People on the same flights as the researcher and others were urged to pay close attention to their health.

In an August accident in Singapore, a third-year doctoral student working in an advanced Biosafety Level-3 (BSL-3) facility also contracted SARS. The BSL-3 he worked in is at one of three institutions in Singapore that operate BSL-3 labs. When the SARS emergency hit Singapore last spring, the institute handled a huge overload of samples sent for testing for the new virus. After the epidemic ended, the lab resumed its work on the West Nile virus and SARS coronavirus at the same time.

As part of the accident investigation, scientist tested a West Nile virus vial -- cross contamination with SARS was detected. While the researcher worked with the West Nile virus, he also unknowingly worked with the SARS coronavirus.

A separate incident occurred at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Work was halted on growing the SARS virus in the BSL-3 facility because some equipment did not meet security standards. No infection is known to have occurred from the problem in Hong Kong.

These cases demonstrate that escape of bioagents from a lab is possible. These incidents also show problems with implementing biosafety standards, even in high-tech countries and prestigious universities. Other accidents are known to have occurred at Yale University in 1969 and 1994 and at the University of Birmingham in England.

Edward Hammond, director of the Sunshine Project, points out that there are no mandatory reporting requirements for lab-acquired infections in high containment facilities, a fact that clouds the credibility of lab directors who tout that accidents in such facilities are virtually unknown. Hammond says he "hopes these recent accidents may lead to more sober and realistic public statements about BSL-3 and BSL-4 risks."

Judge Signs Court Order Staying Shipment of Bioagents to Livermore, Los Alamos

by Marylia Kelley
from Tri-Valley CAREs' January, 2004 newsletter, Citizen's Watch

It?s official! On Dec. 15, 2003, federal Judge Saundra Armstrong issued an Order prohibiting the shipment of dangerous bioagents to the Dept. of Energy?s (DOE) proposed advanced bio-warfare research facilities at the Livermore Lab in California and Los Alamos Lab in New Mexico. This is believed to be the first court-ordered "stay" to be placed on a federal bio-terror facility.

Tri-Valley CAREs' and Nuclear Watch of New Mexico filed suit against the new facilities in Aug. 2003. The litigation charges DOE with violating the National Environmental Policy Act by approving advanced research on bio-weapon agents at its two principal nuclear weapon design labs without conducting a thorough review of the resulting environmental risks and impacts on international nonproliferation agreements.

The Stipulation and Order was negotiated by attorneys for the two environmental organizations and the Justice Dept. Judge Armstrong's action implements the Order and places it under the jurisdiction of the court. The Order prevents importation of live anthrax, botulism, bubonic plague and other deadly pathogens into the contested biolabs while the landmark federal lawsuit moves forward.

The Order states, "Neither of the proposed BSL-3 facilities will begin operations with agents for which BSL-3 containment is recommended -- or any select agents prior to May 15, 2004." The Order also lays out a briefing schedule and provides for a hearing on the merits of the case by April 23, 2004. The two groups fully expect to win the case, meaning DOE would be back at square one -- and public hearings and a stringent review would need to be conducted before the facilities could proceed.

Tri-Valley CAREs' and Nuclear Watch have also noted severe deficiencies in the DOE's administrative record, which contains the documents the government says it relied upon to make its original decision to build the biolabs. Stay tuned.

For Peace, In Peace

by Ann Seitz
from Tri-Valley CAREs' January, 2004 newsletter, Citizen's Watch

He interrupted our days; he upset our schedules with his words, he taught us to confront the war makers of this country and to defend and support those in prison who spoke up for peace. Father Bill O?Donnell, 73, peace activist, truth teller, prisoner of conscience, friend, Labor priest, Parish priest, agitator, protestor, protector or the poor, died at his desk of a heart attack on Dec. 8, 2003. He was deeply loved and will be missed.

Father Bill was born in Livermore, California on January 2, 1930 and ordained a priest on June 16, 1956. Over the past 30 years, Father Bill?s passion for social justice resulted in nearly 300 arrests for nonviolent direct action at peace, labor and anti-nuclear protests. He participated in numerous demonstrations at Livermore Lab, and once spent a week in Santa Rita jail for it.

In Father Bill?s memory, please write, as he wrote, a card or letter to the three Dominican Sisters in federal prison convicted of sabotage. They went to a missile silo in Colorado and symbolically hammered on the 110 ton missile silo lid with household hammers to, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, "hammer their swords into ploughshares."

Sr. Jackie Hudson, OP
Federal Prison Camp, Victorville
POB 5100, Adelanto, CA 92301

Sr. Carol Gilbert, OP
Alderson FPC, Box A,
Alderson, WV 24901

Sr. Ardeth Platte, OP
FPC Danbury, Pembroke Stn., Rte. 37
Danbury, CT 06811-0379

Tri-Valley CAREs is growing!

from Tri-Valley CAREs' January, 2004 newsletter, Citizen's Watch

We welcome new Development Director, Will Easton, and Community Organizer, Gayle Cuddy. They join staff members Marylia Kelley, Executive Director; Tara Dorabji, Outreach Director; Inga Olson, Program Director; Ann Seitz, Office Manager and Staff Attorney, Loulena Miles.

100 Letters Campaign a Success

by Michael Coffey
from Tri-Valley CAREs' January, 2004 newsletter, Citizen's Watch

The new president of the University of California (UC), Robert Dynes, has been sent 100 letters questioning UC's continued management of nuclear weapons laboratories during his first 100 days in office. Some letters focused on the mission of the labs and called for their transformation to civilian research institutions, while others focused on UC's role as manager. The flow of letters began arriving at Dynes' office the first day of his tenure, Oct. 2, 2003, and they continued through his 100th day in office, Jan. 9, 2004. UC lecturer Dr. Urs Cipolat presented the 100th letter to Dynes during the regents' meeting on Jan. 15.

Dr. Cipolat's letter said, "In today's globalized and interdependent world, nuclear weapons do not increase our security, they threaten it. A security concept risking the total annihilation of humankind and life as such can and must not be sustained. The University of California, as a leading educational institution, has a moral responsibility toward current and future generations to point out the fatal risks of a security policy based on nuclear weapons, and to challenge current policies."

The 100 letters campaign was initiated by Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and cosponsored by student groups on six UC campuses (Berkeley, Davis, Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz) and community organizations, including Tri-Valley CAREs', Western States Legal Foundation, the Nevada Desert Experience, Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety and the Los Alamos Study Group.

DOE Labs Faulted for Security Lapses

by Inga Olson
from Tri-Valley CAREs' January, 2004 newsletter, Citizen's Watch

The Dept. of Energy?s (DOE) semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) announced that a new security audit will be performed in Feb. 2004 at Livermore Laboratory in response to lost keys and open gates. This audit is part of a security review being conducted also at other NNSA offices, plants and nuclear research labs in California, Missouri, Nevada, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas due to hundreds of missing keys -- some to classified and sensitive areas -- and other security problems.

At DOE's Y-12 facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, called the "Fort Knox of highly-enriched uranium," 250 keys were missing, some opening sensitive areas. At Sandia Lab in New Mexico, a set of master keys that could get someone to the glass doors leading to the nuclear reactors went missing for a week. This security problem was not reported, nor were the locks changed at that time.

In a letter to Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, Sen. Charles Grassley demanded strengthened security at the DOE?s weapons facilities. Grassley cited a case at Sandia Lab where a van from a classified area crashed through perimeter fences and was found the next day in a department store parking lot. A computer containing classified information also disappeared at the same time.

In the November 2003 Citizen?s Watch, we discussed a just-released report by the DOE Inspector General (IG) documenting a dozen sets of missing master keys at Livermore Lab capable of opening 100,000 locks on site. Included were two master keys that had gone missing for at least three years and another master key and two master key cards that had been missing for an "indeterminate period."

The DOE IG's report further criticized Livermore officials for not recognizing that the Lab had experienced a "double failure," defined as simultaneously missing keys to two primary types of security locks protecting the same area. Worse, oversight inspections failed to uncover the lost keys, and, since 2000, Livermore Lab has received "satisfactory" performance ratings in the area of "key control and inventory." Overall, Livermore received an "effective performance" rating for its physical security systems ensuring timely performance fees and bonuses despite the missing keys. The Inspector General?s report that concluded there can be "little doubt that the level of security afforded [sensitive/classified] areas was adversely affected."

Meanwhile, at Los Alamos National Lab, Robert Foley, the University of California?s new Vice President of Lab Management, ordered a security stand down at the division where 10 computer disks containing classified information were missing, as well as a lab-wide review of procedures for controlling computer equipment storing nuclear secrets. That report, released in Dec. 2003, revealed additional security problems at Livermore Lab, too. The report found that one classified hard drive was not entered into the inventory at Livermore, six classified desktop computers shipped to other facilities were still listed in Lab records and computer equipment belonging to the Lab?s nuclear emergency search team was being inventoried by only one employee not two, as required by DOE policy.

The widespread nature of these security incidents suggest it is not just an isolated problem at Livermore or even a "bad apple" in the nuclear complex. Rather, the security problems are clearly systemic and reveal deep flaws in the culture and leadership of the DOE complex.

Tri-Valley CAREs, Regulators Blast Plan to Weaken Cleanup

by Bob Schaeffer and Marylia Kelley
from Tri-Valley CAREs' January, 2004 newsletter, Citizen's Watch

In the December 2003 issue of Citizen?s Watch, we told you about new Dept. of Energy (DOE) plans to weaken cleanup at Livermore Laboratory and other nuclear weapons sites around the complex. A number of you contacted us about saving the cleanup, and we thank you. Since that article was published, Tri-Valley CAREs' has met with DOE and state and federal regulators. We have prepared technical comments opposing the plan.

Today, we have some good news to report. The federal and state agencies that oversee the Livermore Lab cleanup have also harshly criticized the new proposal, which DOE calls its Risk-Based End State (RBES) Vision.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the California State Water Board, the City of Livermore and local residents have all come forward to challenge this DOE assault on existing environmental laws and regulation.

In a strong letter to DOE concerning the RBES "vision" for the Livermore Lab, Region IX of the U.S. EPA emphasized its criticisms, including:

  • "DOE?s Vision proposes a groundwater cleanup alternative which has been previously rejected by DOE, EPA, and the State regulatory agencies."

  • "DOE?s Vision sacrifices Long-Term Effectiveness and may pose a long-term liability for NNSA," the National Nuclear Security Agency, which operates the Livermore Lab under DOE.

  • "Perception of DOE?s commitment to cleanup may be adversely affected."

  • "EPA, in consultation with the affected community groups and State agencies, finds DOE?s Vision to fall short of the statute and ...regulations."

The California Regional Water Quality Control Board also weighed in with a strong letter noting, "The DOE?s definition of risk is short-sighted and short-term," claiming that the RBES plan would overthrow a legally binding agreement "mandating cleanup of contaminated water both on-site and off site."

The City of Livermore wrote that RBES could result in "a groundwater table of inferior and unacceptable quality."

In its comments, Tri-Valley CAREs' pointed out that RBES "will change the very nature of the cleanup strategy, including cleanup levels, the point of compliance and the continued search for new and more effective cleanup technology." Our comment letter goes on to detail laws, regulations and agreements that RBES would abrogate.

Said Marylia Kelley, Tri-Valley CAREs' director who lives near Livermore Lab and on top of one of its contaminated groundwater plumes, "DOE is proposing to walk away from legally-binding obligations and let deadly poisons migrate willy nilly through the groundwater at Livermore and other nuclear weapons facilities; over my dead body!"

The Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, a national network of groups whose members live around DOE facilities, released a letter from the Ohio office of the EPA criticizing DOE's RBES plan for the Fernald plant. The letter concluded that EPA "is not supportive of any of the proposed items on the master list" and "recommends no further pursuit of the actions proposed in the RBES document."

As DOE pursues RBES, additional community groups, cities and state and federal agencies across the nation are going on the record to oppose it. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson labeled "extortion" a DOE attempt to withhold funds from Los Alamos unless the state agreed to weakened cleanup requirements.

Back to Citizen's Watch Index