Risk Review of Agro-Defense Facility Falls Short, Panel Says

David is a Deputy News Editor specializing in coverage of science policy, energy and the environment.

Better, but still not good enough. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has made "substantial improvement" in its efforts to characterize the risks associated with running a planned biodefense laboratory in Kansas but still falls short of what's needed, an expert panel convened by the National Research Council (NRC) said today.

The report represents the latest setback for the proposed National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF), which is supposed to replace the aging Plum Island Animal Disease Center located off Long Island. DHS awarded the highly-secure, $1.2 billion laboratory to Kansas in 2008. But in 2009, a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) slammed DHS's risk assessment for the facility, and Congress withheld construction funds until the department redid the assessment and had it reviewed by the National Academies. That 2010 review found serious deficiencies in the new risk assessment and recommended revisions.

Today's report says the newest edition of DHS's risk assessment is a "substantial improvement" over the 2010 version, but still contains "questionable and inappropriate assumptions" that have "led to artificially lower estimates" of potential accidents that could release dangerous pathogens. For example, the assessment understates the potential for human error, the report says, while overstating the potential threat posed by natural disasters such as tornadoes or earthquakes. But the panel also said NBAF's current design appears to be "sound."

Both critics and supporters of the project have seized on the report to support their positions. But NBAF's struggle is far from over. Earlier this year, the Obama Administration decided not to request any funds for the project (although a House of Representatives spending panel disagrees), and asked the National Academies to form another panel to take a hard look at the need for the project. That report could come as early as the end of June.

Posted in Policy