David Perlman, Chronicle Science Editor
Friday, February 9, 2001
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle
Researchers working with lethal bacteria and viruses at several nuclear weapons laboratories lacked adequate controls and coordination, raising concerns about possible safety risks to the public and lab workers, a Department of Energy report said yesterday.
The work is part of a $90 million Energy Department program to improve the detection of biological warfare agents and develop countermeasures against potential attacks.
The report by the department's inspector general's office referred to activities at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a weapons facility, and the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, which focuses on environmental and energy research but does no weapons work.
At neither lab, however, did the report cite serious shortcomings. Researchers at both labs have worked with genetic material of the anthrax bacillus -- a biological warfare agent -- but not with the deadly microbes themselves, according to officials there.
The yearlong investigation examined procedures at eight major energy department laboratories around the country and cites lax reporting, inconsistent policies for handling dangerous organisms, lack of "appropriate federal oversight," and inadequate coordination of research among the laboratories.
But the department's investigators found no evidence of harm to any laboratory employees or to the public, the report said.
Organisms that cause anthrax, plague, botulism and brucellosis, and the castor bean poison called ricin are among the biological warfare weapons that scientists at the national laboratories have been examining in their research projects.
Some laboratories, the report said, failed to follow strict rules set by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for shipping and registering dangerous microbes and toxins, while others stored the hazardous agents improperly.
A spokesman for the department's National Nuclear Security Agency said most of the deficiencies were procedural and have either been corrected already or are in the process of being fixed. "It goes more to the paperwork issues," he said.
The report cited only one incident at the Livermore lab, where in 1999 a researcher found that a shipment of anthrax bacteria might have inadvertently contained the dangerous strain of the organism rather than the nonvirulent form. The shipment was destroyed when tests were inconclusive, the report said.
Said a Livermore spokesman last night: "We have followed every procedure to the letter, and it's our understanding that the report cites no deficiencies in our compliance with the regulations. We are still working on the research in an effort to speed the ability to detect these agents."
In a brief section describing work at the Berkeley laboratory, the report said a scientist told investigators that when one shipment of nonvirulent anthrax germs was not tested to make sure it was harmless, the scientist ordered the shipment destroyed and all employees working with it were immunized.
A Berkeley laboratory spokesman said officials there agreed with that account of the incident. Lab scientists have worked only with the DNA of nonvirulent strains of the anthrax bacteria, he said, and all the research there ended last July.
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