California Judge Orders Stay on Transportation of Bioagents to LANL

* A federal judge this week ordered that no bioagents be shipped to the Biosafety Level-3 facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) until May 2004. The stay bars any operations at the facility until the parties, including plaintiffs Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment (Tri-Valley CAREs) of California and Nuclear Watch of New Mexico, have prepared briefs for the court.

Tri-Valley CAREs and Nuclear Watch filed suit against the Department of Energy (DOE) claiming that they violated the National Environmental Policy Act. They allege that DOE approved advanced research of bioagents at its primary nuclear weapons laboratories, Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, without completing a thorough review of the environmental impacts of the facilities.

In October 2001, DOE released an Environmental Assessment to construct and operate a Biosafety Level-3 facility at LANL for expanded biological work to support DOE missions for reducing counter threats from weapons of mass destruction including nuclear, chemical and biological materials. LANL recently completed construction on its laboratory and was preparing to begin operations. Livermore is awaiting the modular building that will serve as its laboratory.

A Biosafety Level-3 facility is a laboratory designed to study live bioagents that may cause diseases with severe or lethal consequences, such as anthrax, tuberculosis, smallpox or plague. LANL and Livermore currently host Biosafety Level-2 facilities, which handle extracted DNA samples of such bioagents.

The complaint, filed in August 2003, argues that the assessment is inadequate because it does not sufficiently outline the purpose or need for the facilities. Also, the assessment offers LANL and Livermore full discretion over the agents they may pursue, saying, "The [Biosafety Level-3] facility could handle other bacterial or viral infectious organisms not specifically or currently regulated by the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] or Federal agencies...." Tri-Valley CAREs and Nuclear Watch are concerned that the laboratories could introduce naturally occurring or genetically modified agents for which the virulence and health effects are unknown and for which there may be no cure.

Moreover, the groups argue, the assessments provide an inadequate accident analysis for both LANL and Livermore. The assessment for Livermore neglects to account for the high probability of earthquakes in California's Bay Area, where Livermore is located. Estimates indicate that there is a 37% chance of a major earthquake at Livermore during the expected lifetime of the facility. Furthermore, LANL's assessment does not account for the effects of wildfire on the facility, saying only that fire would likely kill the bioagents in the facility.

Tri-Valley CAREs and Nuclear Watch say that the stay represents the first successful step in the process towards stopping these facilities. Jay Coghlan, of Nuclear Watch, said, "[This] action protects workers and communities ... [and] is a step in the right direction."

Lead attorney Stephan Volker said, "We are pleased to see the court put the brakes on DOE's planned operation of these very dangerous facilities. In my thirty years of practicing environmental law, rarely have I encountered a more flagrant violation of the National Environmental Policy Act."

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