* The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) recently withdrew its Finding of No Significant Impact for the Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) laboratories at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). NNSA, a semi-autonomous agency within the Department of Energy, claims that the change is a result of "new circumstances and information relevant to the operation of the BSL-3 Facility...."
The announcement comes as a major victory to Santa Fe activist group Nuclear Watch of New Mexico, which recently sued NNSA claiming that the environmental assessment for the BSL-3 was grossly inadequate. NNSA will now begin preparing a second environmental assessment to address these undefined new circumstances and information.
Although construction of the BSL-3 was completed last year, operations cannot begin until at least May 15 under the order of federal Judge Saundra Armstrong. Jay Coghlan, director of Nuclear Watch, said that this is the first time he has heard of NNSA withdrawing an environmental assessment for a facility that has already been built.
A BSL-3 is a laboratory that works on live samples of deadly bioagents such as tuberculosis, smallpox, anthrax and plague. LANL currently hosts a Biosafety Level 2 facility in which scientists are only allowed to work with extracted DNA samples of these agents.
Nuclear Watch and Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment (CAREs), a California-based group that monitors Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, sued NNSA in order to force them to prepare a more thorough environmental impact statement.
Nuclear Watch argues that the LANL assessment overlooks several important environmental factors when assessing the safety of the BSL-3. For example, the assessment limits potential accidents at the BSL-3 to earthquake while LANL sits in a major wildfire zone. Furthermore, the assessment does not delineate the specimens of bioagents that the BSL-3 may handle, which Coghlan said gives LANL a blank check for all deadly pathogens. Coghlan said, "That is the basic argument that we are making in our litigation and ... they now seem to agree with us. They have finally realized that we mean business."
Ralph Erickson, manager of NNSA's Los Alamos Site Office, claims that the pending litigation did not compel NNSA to withdraw the assessment, but rather changes in the final design of the building that may affect human health or the environment. Erickson said that a change as simple as moving a wall could spur a new assessment. He said, "If there is a reason that would cause us to revisit the issue, then we revisit the issue, and that is what we are doing in this case."
NNSA has not withdrawn the environmental assessment for the proposed BSL-3 at Livermore, which is currently under construction. Coghlan said that the assessments for both facilities were essentially identical. Stephan Volker, attorney for Nuclear Watch and Tri-Valley CAREs, said, "We are gratified that [NNSA] has agreed to withdraw its unlawful approval of the extremely hazardous bio-warfare agent laboratory already constructed at [LANL]. But [NNSA's] inexplicable failure to halt construction of the equally dangerous facility at Livermore is a huge mistake."