Terror Attack at US Biowar Lab Could Devastate SF Bay Area

April 14th, 2007 - by admin

Keay Davidson / San Francisco Chronicl & Ian Hoffman / Tri-Valley Herald – 2007-04-14 00:31:38


‘Unlikely’ Attack at Lab Could Release Microbes, Study Says
Keay Davidson / San Francisco Chronicle

(April 12, 2007) — “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 US 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 US 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 US 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 US 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: links.sfgate.com/ZCR http://links.sfgate.com/ZCR 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. Chronicle

Feds Shrug off Possibility of Attack on Biodefense Lab
Ian Hoffman / Tri-Valley Herald/Fremont Argus/Oakland Tribune

Federal authorities said 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 on 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 wrote 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, 2001, 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.

According to federal documents, 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 with 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 US 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 ihoffman @angnewspapers.com.

Marylia Kelley, Executive Director Tri-Valley CAREs 2582 Old First Street Livermore, CA 94551. Ph: (925) 443-7148_Fx: (925) 443-0177
Web: www.trivalleycares.org marylia@trivalleycares.org or marylia@earthlink.net