NAU President Defends Live Anthrax Shipment to LANL

U.S. to Expand Programs to Help Russia's Control of Nuclear Materials

* John Haeger, president of Northern Arizona University (or NAU), sent a letter this week to Representative Edward Markey defending NAU's shipment of live anthrax to Los Alamos National Laboratory (or LANL) in October. The letter claims that the shipment was legal, saying that NAU confirmed the acceptability of the shipment with LANL and monitored it according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (or CDC) regulations.

This shipment alarmed Massachusetts Representative Markey, who then sent a letter to Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham questioning it. An Energy Department review of LANL's bioagent shipping status following the incident found that LANL is not authorized to receive virulent strains of anthrax bacteria.

However, according to CDC guidelines, under its Biosafety Level-2 status, LANL is allowed to work with small amounts of live anthrax bacteria, if it is contained in a liquid solution and does not become aerosolized. Also, the strain of anthrax bacteria that LANL received, the Ames strain, can also be found in a form called delta-Ames. Delta-Ames anthrax bacteria have had its plasma removed and cannot spread disease. The strain that LANL received was the Ames strain, which can cause disease. However, because the two strains are technically identical, LANL was allowed to receive it.

Haeger's letter did not address the issue of illegal shipping papers accompanying the shipment. CDC regulations specify that shipping documents from the sender must match the documents signed by the receiver. The documents sent by NAU did not match those signed by LANL. NAU's documents say that LANL requested a virulent batch of anthrax bacteria while the LANL papers requested only DNA. NAU claims that it intended to send a sample of anthrax DNA to LANL, but when the shipment tested positive for live anthrax spores, NAU adjusted LAN's shipping request and sent it anyway.

Haeger's letter said that he could not divulge more details concerning the shipment because of an agreement NAU has with the FBI regarding its investigation of the recent anthrax attacks in America. Representative Markey is likely to continue investigating the matter. Peter Stockton, of the Project on Government Oversight, said, "... This is a sensitive enough issue that there's going to be a circling of the wagons ... Whether this is NAU's fault or Los Alamos', we'll have to wait and see."

* The U.S. Government announced this week that it intends to expand programs to help Russia manage its nuclear weapons materials and expedite the program to secure Russia's border posts from the theft of nuclear materials. The action is in response to rising concerns that Russia's excess nuclear materials could be acquired by terrorists and smuggled out of Russia.

The program was formerly being managed by the Energy Department, but now will be transferred to the Defense Department. The aim of the program is to aid Russia's closure of its nuclear weapons facilities, help former nuclear weapons scientists find new jobs, and install nuclear materials detection devices at Russian border posts. The U.S. government is hoping that these measures will help prevent theft or the incentive for Russia to sell weapons materials to other countries.

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