Biological weapons research center's status upheld

by jeeg 9. February 2012 22:17

A federal appeals court on Tuesday upheld the continued operation of a biological weapons research center at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, rejecting opponents' claim that the government failed to consider fully the possible release of deadly organisms in a terrorist attack.

The center, which opened in February 2009, conducts research intended to detect biological pathogens such as anthrax, plague, brucellosis and Q fever.

The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had blocked the facility in 2006, saying the environmental assessment by the Department of Energy had failed to study the consequences of a terrorist attack.

The department took another look and found no significant danger from terrorism, a conclusion accepted by a federal judge and, on Tuesday, by the appeals court.

Energy officials took a "hard look" at the potential impact and concluded that a deliberate explosion or other terrorist assault would cause no more harm than an accidental release from an earthquake or a centrifuge malfunction, the court said. The department had assessed accidental hazards in an earlier study and concluded the lab had adequate safeguards.

Tri-Valley CAREs, the antinuclear group that filed the original suit in 2003, said a separate Energy Department study recognized that an accident doesn't have the same impact as an intentional attack. But the court said it would not second-guess the department's reasonable evaluation of the Livermore facility.

"We must restrain from acting as a type of omnipotent scientist" and accept the researched findings of government experts, said Judge Milan Smith in the 3-0 ruling.

He also upheld the department's finding that a terrorist's theft and release of lethal pathogens was too unlikely to be a significant danger.

Out of more than 1,300 laboratories nationwide that work with similar organisms, Smith said, Livermore is one of the most heavily guarded, and also conducts extensive screening for the small number of employees who have access to the pathogens.

Tri-Valley CAREs said it was disappointed by the ruling.

"The big losers today are public health and public participation in government decision-making," said the group's executive director, Marylia Kelley.

Bob Egelko, SF Chronicle



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