LANL Has Plans to Open Lab Using Live Biological Agents

WIPP truck stranded in Springer due to bad weather

* Los Alamos National Laboratory (or LANL) hopes to get approval from the Department of Energy (DOE) to build a high-level Biosafety facility to study infectious bacterial agents. The lab states their goal is to develop techniques to identify bioterrorist organisms and learn ways to counteract them. Critics are concerned about LANL's plan to expand the scope of biowarefare agents already at the lab.

The rationale the lab gives for wanting to go further into biowarfare investigation is their scenario that if someone dropped anthrax into the air from a plane, it could be identified so people could then be vaccinated. Critic's question how enough detectors will be spread around the country in order to detect this possible toxin and how people will get vaccinated soon enough. Some biowarfare agents kill within minutes. If LANL plans to work with live strains of deadly organisms, the quality assurance must be incredibly tight. Critics point out that incidents and accidents occur frequently at the lab, therefore having a lack of faith that an accident won't happen. LANL states the building will not have windows and that they will control the air pressure so deadly bio-agents will not escape to the outside. However, LANL has the same criteria for plutonium, and with over 50 years of experience, they still emit plutonium into the air. Likewise, on a regular basis LANL emits tritium into the air.

The proposed new facility would have a Biosafety level-3 approval. This allows LANL to grow live deadly organisms. LANL has already been working with biowarfare agents such as anthrax under a level-2 approval. Anthrax is almost always lethal when inhaled because it multiplies in the lymph system and eventually causes internal hemorrhaging. There is a vaccine but it needs to be administered quickly.

If LANL builds a level-3 lab, other live organisms scientist might cultivate include influenza, tuberculosis or the plague. LANL's plan is causing great concern to people living in the area surrounding LANL. It is interesting to note that a recent government report criticizes the DOE for negligent oversight of LANL and Sandia National Laboratories current biological programs.

Biological and chemical weapons became illegal in the U.S. under President Nixon. Critics of LANL's plans to expand work with materials used in biological weapons, point out that other countries will see this as a sign that the U.S. might be developing its own biological weapons.

LANL officials say they do not plan to develop biological weapons. They say scientists will just run experiments to observe how the microbes evolve and how they react to the environment.

Presently there are around 250 level-3 labs in the U.S. There are just a few labs that have the level-4 rating, which allows them to handle incurable strains of microbes such as Ebola. LANL officials say they don't plan to seek a level-4 approval.

Critcs point out that if LANL cannot contain things they have been working of for 50 - 60 years, how can citizens expect them to contain something that is new to them.

Citizens will have an opportunity to give their input on LANL's plan to have deadly organisms close to our communities. Over the next six months, LANL will hold public meetings. These meetings are part of the Environmental Assessment process, which gives the public a way to voice their concerns. CCNS will inform the public of the dates and places for the meetings as soon as they are published.

* Heavy snow over the weekend of January 27th along Interstate 25 in northeastern New Mexico caused the drivers of a waste truck bound for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (or WIPP) to stop near Springer, New Mexico for two days. Because of bad road conditions in New Mexico, the state police suggested to the DOE, the federal agency responsible for WIPP, that the truck park in Trinidad, Colorado. Despite the advice, the drivers decided to keep moving, until they got stranded at a truck stop outside of Springer. This is the second time this winter a WIPP truck was stranded there. The waste truck was loaded with plutonium-contaminated nuclear waste from the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory.

According to an agreement between DOE and the State of New Mexico, in bad weather the drivers are supposed to stop at secure areas, such as the military base in Pueblo, Colorado. Activists have long been concerned about the possibility of waste trucks being stranded in places where the general public can be exposed to radiation from the truck. In 1990, a WIPP oversight group recommended the careful study of safe parking for the trucks to minimize radiation exposures to the public. The group estimated that a restaurant employee who is exposed to 10% of all of the WIPP shipments at a distance of 100 feet for 45 minutes would receive 14 millirems of radiation over 25 years. Activists believe Governor Johnson should be discussing procedures with the governors of Washington, Idaho and Colorado so that waste trucks do not leave their states when bad weather is imminent.

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