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Feds blast plans for biodefense labs at LANL

Posted: Monday, August 11, 2014 10:00 pm | Updated: 12:31 am, Wed Aug 13, 2014.

By Patrick Malone
The New Mexican


This May 2009 aerial photo provided by Los Alamos National Laboratory shows Technical Area 21. A federal report released Monday criticizes a proposed expansion of Los Alamos National Laboratory to add labs that study dangerous biological agents. Los Alamos National Laboratory/The Associated Press

A federal report released Monday criticizes a proposed expansion of Los Alamos National Laboratory to add labs that study dangerous biological agents. In the report, auditors urged the National Nuclear Safety Administration to reconsider the additions before following through with them.

The audit by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Inspector General questioned the fiscal prudence of the projects, whether Los Alamos’ reports justifying them were accurate and whether the facilities are even needed.

“Given the current budget realities, plans to develop additional capabilities without fully demonstrating a need may not be prudent,” the audit concluded.

Greg Mello, executive director of the watchdog organization Los Alamos Study Group, said he hopes the audit’s findings end any plans to conduct research on biological agents at Los Alamos.

“Let us hope this report is the end of these misguided ambitions,” Mello said. “LANL is not the place to do biodefense work.”

The NNSA is considering a $9.5 million expansion at Los Alamos that would open a biosafety lab to study high-risk agents “that cause serious and potentially lethal infections” and medium-risk agents, according to the report. The lab for high-risk agents would be housed at a building erected at LANL in 2003, but never opened because of litigation and vulnerability to seismic activity. Minimizing the earthquake threat to the building alone would cost about $437,000, according to the report.

The NNSA’s plan also calls for a lab to study medium-risk biological agents. A new building would be necessary for this purpose at a cost of $8 million.

Los Alamos National Laboratory has issued several reports to justify the need for expansion, but their veracity came under fire in the federal audit.

“Despite LANL’s assertions, we found outside demand for a new … facility to be less certain,” auditors reported. The audit noted that LANL’s reports ignored the prevalence of biosecurity services throughout the country, and officials with federal agencies that LANL plans to rely on for business at the expanded labs told auditors they would be unlikely to use it because less expensive, equally secure options already exist.

“In our judgment, NNSA needs to fully reassess its need for biological research facilities,” auditors reported.

Auditors also questioned cost estimates LANL provided for the proposed expansion.

“LANL’s current cost allocation practices may have understated the costs of biological research personnel,” running afoul of the Energy Department’s cost-recovery policies by applying funds allocated for specific projects to work for other government agencies.

Soon after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, at the height of national concern over bioterrorism, the Department of Homeland Security was created and granted authority over biological national security issues, previously the purview of the Department of Energy and NNSA. The handoff resulted in fragmented programs at labs under the NNSA’s command.

The audit released Monday was undertaken with cost considerations in mind.

In response to its findings, the NNSA agreed to re-evaluate and reconsider its plans for expansion at Los Alamos, but challenged findings that criticized plans to add a medium-threat biosafety lab because the assertions the audit assailed were merely preliminary proposals.

Los Alamos Study Group’s Mello said other sites are better equipped to take on biodefense jobs, and for less money.

“LANL should not try to do everything but should rather try to focus on doing a few things well,” he said, “accepting that its nuclear weapons mission is going to be shrinking and being glad for that.”

Contact Patrick Malone at 986-3017 or Follow him on Twitter @pmalonenm.

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