Monday, October 19, 2009

ARCHIVE: Nuclear and Bioweapons Research in Livermore, CA

by Kellia Ramares
[Originally published in Sprol on February 26, 2007. Pictures from that site have been omitted, but the citations have been left in so that you can find them if you wish].

The Lawrence Livermore National Lab (LLNL), a premier nuclear weapons research facility, is unique among America’s national labs in that it is in an urban area. It is in Livermore, California, cheek-by-jowl to homes built across the street. Moreover, Livermore itself is part of San Francisco’s East Bay region. Seven million people, including this writer, live within a 50-mile radius of the city. Airplanes heading in and out of San Francisco International, Oakland International, and Minetta International (San Jose) fly over it daily.

Scientists at the lab perform experiments with plutonium, highly-enriched uranium, and tritium (radioactive hydrogen) in an earthquake zone. There are three major seismic faults in the region: the Calaveras, the Hayward, on which thousands of homes and businesses sit — this fault bisects the Cal Berkeley football stadium — and the famous San Andreas Fault, which is west of the San Francisco Bay, but still capable of causing tremendous damage to the East Bay region if it quakes in the “right” place.

Closer to home, the Las Positas fault zone is less than 200 feet from the Livermore Lab site boundary. The Greenville fault caused a quake in 1980 that created a 120-meter discontinuous crack in the earth near Livermore Lab’s Hazardous and Radioactive Waste Storage yard. A laser slipped off its supports during the quake, triggering an internal tritium leak2. Up until that time, the Greenville fault was not listed as an active fault, which goes to show that a future catastrophe could come from a heretofore unrecognized source.

Likelihood of intense shaking3

Marylia Kelley, executive director of Tri-Valley CAREs (Communities Against a Radioactive Environment)4, a local organization that has been monitoring the lab’s activities for more than 20 years, says this:
“The Department of Energy has done a very inadequate job of the addressing the earthquake risks. They’ve postulated a ground motion that is less than what earthquake experts believe is possible. So we’re in a situation where if an earthquake cooperates with the Department of Energy’s analysis and doesn’t go outside the boundaries the Department of Energy has looked at, then the results will likely be no catastrophic accident. However, Nature being Nature and doing what she will and not necessarily paying any attention to the Department of Energy’s calculations, if there’s a ground motion that’s greater than or different than what the Department of Energy has calculated, there is the possibility for a very serious accident and a large release of radioactive material.” 5
Probability of Big Quake6

LLNL’s neighbors are adamantly against the lab’s proposal to build a BSL-3 high-security biotechnology facility on the property. BSL stands for biohazard safety level. There are four biohazard safety levels: 1-4. The number refers to the types of procedures, precautions, and equipment that laboratory personnel must use when working on organisms at the lab. By extension, the number also refers to the types of bioagents that can be present in the lab. BSL-3 is a high-containment level, where scientists work with potentially life-threatening microorganisms such as live anthrax and bubonic plague. BSL-4 facilities harbor microorganisms that cause diseases for which there is no known cure, such as the Ebola and Marburg viruses.7 So one can readily see why a community would not be eager to have a BSL-3 or BSL-4 facility in its midst.

In addition to the obvious concerns about accidental or deliberate discharge of dangerous microorganisms into the community, people against the BSL-3 lab at Lawrence Livermore cite additional threats posed to world peace by experimenting with potentially deadly organisms in a facility that also conducts classified nuclear weapons research.

The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention8 (BWC), to which the United States is a party, permits biological research that is prophylactic or defensive in nature, e.g., research to develop vaccines and antidotes. The trouble is, to develop these vaccines and antidotes, one must first to discover how the bioagents work. That knowledge opens up the realm of illegal offensive research.

Moreover, research is more likely to be deemed suspicious when it is done under the auspices of a military agency such as the Department of Defense, or an agency with heavy military connections, such as the Department of Energy or the Department of Homeland Security, than when it is done by an agency such as the Department of Health and Human Services or the Environmental Protection Agency. Openness to inspection is a confidence-building measure that supports the BWC. But inspections are not likely to be allowed if the biological research is on the same premises as classified nuclear weapons research. The suspicion such research, and the refusal to permit inspection, creates in other countries could lead to the proliferation of bioweapons, and thus threaten not only US national security but the security of the entire human race.

The thought that the United States could be pursuing illegal bioweapons, in the name of needing to know what the terrorists might do, is not idle speculation. Dr. Robert Gould, M.D., a past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility9, has expressed concern that the US government wants to genetically modify anthrax. “This is a threat of developing offensive capabilities,” he said, “because you’re modifying an organism to be resistant to antibiotics and therefore increasing its capability to be a weapon.”10 The lab already works with dead anthrax in its BSL-2 facility.

For the time being, the Department of Energy’s plans for a BSL-3 lab at Lawrence Livermore have been halted. On October 16, 2006, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of environmentalists in a three-year-old lawsuit filed by Tri-Valley CAREs and Nuclear Watch New Mexico. The court held that the Energy Department’s environmental impact study was inadequate because it omitted any study of security risks and terrorist threats to the facility on the basis that such an analysis was not required under the National Environmental Policy Act. The 9th Circuit remanded the environmental review back to the Department of Energy for further analysis on terrorist risks.11

In a press release announcing the decision, Tri-Valley CAREs staff attorney Loulena Miles said, “Now the agency can not merely cry national security and avoid hard questions concerning environmental impacts and terrorist risks.”12

But the victory may be only temporary. The decision was marked “Not for Publication” and a footnote states, “This disposition is not appropriate for publication and may not be cited to or by the courts of this circuit except as provided by 9th Cir. R. 36-3.13 It, therefore, cannot be used as precedent in other lawsuits.

Secondly, in its six-page decision, the Court stated that, “[r]eview of agency action under the Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. section 706(2), is ‘highly deferential.’ Although Tri-Valley raised some substantial questions about the validity of DOE’s substantive conclusions, this Court may not substitute its judgment for the reviewing agency’s. NEPA is a procedural statute that does not mandate particular results, but simply provides the necessary process to ensure that federal agencies take a hard look at the environmental consequences of their actions.”14

DOE, undaunted by this temporary setback in Livermore, is pushing its plans to build a BSL-4 lab in the nearby city of Tracy, on the northern edge of the San Joaquin Valley, some of the best farmland on earth.

1 Map Image: Livermore, CA. Google Earth.
2 Phone interview with Marylia Kelley, executive director of Tri-Valley CAREs for R.I.S.E. Program: Livermore: More Nuclear Bombs. The final program is available here
3 Image: Likelihood of intense shaking. Source: Putting Down Roots in Earthquake Country: Your Handbook for the San Francisco Bay Region / U.S. Geological Survey General Information Product 15, 2005
4 Tri-Valley CAREs
5 Phone interview with Marylia Kelley
6 Image: Probability of Big Quake. Source: Putting Down Roots in Earthquake Country: Your Handbook for the San Francisco Bay Region / U.S. Geological Survey General Information Product 15, 2005
7 Marylia Kelley & Jay Coghlan, “Mixing bugs and bombs.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September/October 2003, p 26.
8 The text of the BWC is here
9 Physicians for Social Responsibility
10 Kellia Ramares, “As Bush threatens Iraq with Nukes, U.S. ramps up its own biowarfare research.”� Originally published in Online Journal, January, 2003. Now available here
11 Press Release: “Community Groups Hail Victory, Court Grants Demand For Environmental Review Before Bio-Warfare Agent Research Facility Opens At Livermore Lab,” October 16, 2006.
12 Ibid., p 1.
13 Tri-Valley CAREs, et al. v. Department of Energy, et al., p 1. link
14 Ibid., p 4.