Two watchdog groups want to prevent the Department of Energy (DOE) from expanding its biodefense research. Today, Nuclear Watch of New Mexico and Tri-Valley CAREs of California asked a federal judge to halt construction of two new biosafety level 3 (BSL-3) labs, claiming that the department hasn't adequately studied the environmental risks and considered whether the new labs would endanger U.S. compliance with nonproliferation treaties. DOE says that its existing studies show that the labs will have minimal impact.
Since the 11 September terrorist attacks, the U.S. government has been moving to expand the number of high-containment labs where biodefense researchers can work with hazardous agents. The United States now has about a half-dozen of the most secure BSL-4 facilities and dozens of less restrictive BSL-3 laboratories. None of those are at DOE labs, despite the fact that the agency runs a large biological research program. The new BSL-3 spaces now under construction at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California would enable the agency to work with agents such as anthrax and plague. DOE gave the go-ahead to the $5.5 million project last year, after concluding that neither facility would have a "significant impact" on the environment. Both labs could open their doors next year.
But in a lawsuit filed in San Francisco, the two groups charged that DOE glossed over site-specific risks, such as how the labs might deal with an accidental spill or an earthquake. Nor did it consider whether conducting biodefense research at secretive nuclear weapons labs could endanger compliance with the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, says Marylia Kelley, director of Tri-Valley CAREs.
Activists are also trying to block or slow down other proposed BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs at various sites around the country, including the University of California, Davis; the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston; and National Institutes of Health (NIH) facilities in Bethesda, Maryland, and Hamilton, Montana. Opposition is expected to increase when NIH awards the first of several major construction grants next month.
"There's more noise about this now than there ever was," says Karl Johnson, a former chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Special Pathogens Branch and a consultant to several of the proposed labs. He predicts that lab managers and researchers elsewhere will be watching the DOE suit "very, very carefully."