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DOE IG questions possible biosafety labs at LANL

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By The Staff

The National Nuclear Security Administration is considering spending $9.5 million expansion to its facilities at the Los Alamos National Laboratory so it could conduct biological research .
Such facilities operate at different biosafety (BSL) levels. For example, BSL-1 is for low-risk agents, BSL-2 is for medium-risk agents and BSL-3 is for those agents that cause serious and potentially lethal infections.
LANL is considering opening a facility with two BSL-3 labs.
A recent Department of Energy Inspector General report, however, raised several questions.
“Specifically, NNSA identified the development of a BSL-3 facility at LANL as its preferred alternative for meeting biosafety laboratory needs even though it had not fully considered the need for and cost effectiveness of additional capacity,” the report said.
“ Nor, had it developed a sound basis for measuring the utilization of existing facilities— a critical factor in determining the need for additional capacity.
Despite the lack of information on the need for additional capacity and current laboratory utilization rates, LANL was also considering building a new BSL-2 facility. This situation occurred primarily due to NNSA’s lack of coordinated and specialized program oversight after responsibility for Chemical and Biological National Security and supporting programs and activities of the Nonproliferation and Verification Research and Development Program were transferred to the Department of Homeland Security in 2002.”
The report stipulated, though, the NNSA began an assessment.
The report said, “according to an NNSA official, the purpose of the assessment is to define NNSA’s mission requirements for biological research. However, according to the NNSA official, the assessment will not specify what biological research facilities NNSA and each site need to fulfill the mission.
“Additionally, during the audit we noted that LLNL and LANL’s current cost allocation practices may have understated the costs of biological research personnel that support WFO projects. Specifically, LLNL and LANL included biosafety research support personnel costs as part of overhead and general and administrative cost pools that are allocated to all site programs. Such actions are inconsistent with the Department’s full cost recovery policy for WFO work.”
The report said that neither NNSA nor LANL had fully analyzed the need for and cost effectiveness of alternatives for meeting biosafety facility requirements.
“NNSA has proposed opening a new BSL-3 facility in a previously constructed building and is in the early planning stage for constructing a BSL-2 facility at Los Alamos. Under NNSA’s proposal, LANL would open a BSL-3 facility in February 2015, without the need for additional BSL-3 capacity being fully evaluated and confirmed. The facility was originally built in 2003; however, it was never opened due to litigation and a seismic safety concern. Opening LANL’s BSL-3 facility will increase NNSA’s net BSL-3 laboratory space from 640 to 1,240 square feet, a 94 percent increase.
The report said: “To justify opening the facility, LANL reported to NNSA that there was a mission need and that work for the facility would come from customers of LANL’s WFO program. However, neither NNSA nor LANL officials provided quantitative projections of demand for WFO projects at the facility or analyzed the current BSL-3 capacity within NNSA. LANL officials explained that most of its WFO projects were obtained by submitting proposals in response to Federal agencies’ announcements for research awards. ”
The report said that LANL issued two reports that assessed the need for a new BSL-3 facility. In 2011, a Parent Organization Functional Management Review concluded that there was a clear mission need for an onsite BSL-3 facility at LANL. LANL also issued a Bioscience Capability Review in 2011. According to that report, an external panel found that the BSL-3 facility was essential to LANL’s mission. However, neither of these reviews considered empirical data such as available NNSA capacity at other locations, a critical factor for opening a new facility; or provided estimates of projected use from WFO sponsors.
“Despite LANL’s assertions, we found outside demand for a new BSL-3 facility to be less certain. Specifically, we contacted two of the three Federal agencies that LANL told us were prospective WFO customers and officials representing those potential customers stated that they did not have any specific plans to contract for BSL-3 research at LANL.
“Further, officials at both agencies indicated that other existing BSL-3 facilities could satisfactorily meet their needs. In fact, one official told us that generally other existing BSL-3 laboratories were less expensive than expected at the new LANL facility and that several had comparable security. Most striking to us was the fact that an official from the second Federal agency informed us it was building its own BSL-3 facility within the next two years. While our query was limited, it did indicate that demand may not be nearly as likely as LANL suggested and that additional analysis regarding use by potential external customers needs to be completed before additional federal funds are committed to this project.”
The report made the following recommendations:
• Direct NNSA sites to measure and report on their BSL-3 and BSL-2 facility utilization and capacity, and establish a process to use this information effectively in future BSL facility decisions;
• Revisit and document the need for the proposed BSL-3 and BSL-2 facilities considering mission need; potential external customers; and reliable utilization and capacity metrics for other facilities across the enterprise which might meet those needs, as proposed in Recommendation 1; and
• Review costs for biosafety research support personnel to determine if the cost allocation structure is appropriate.
And what was the reaction of NNSA and LANL to this latest IG Report?
“Management generally concurred with our recommendations and identified planned actions. Management indicated that, while not required, it would develop utilization and capacity metrics for its biosafety labs and establish a requirement to report periodically based on established Department of Energy practices such as those used for “user facilities.”
“Management also agreed to use the data from these metrics to inform future biosafety level (BSL) facility decisions. Management also agreed to re-evaluate and more formally document its analysis of the LANL BSL-3 facility mission, potential customers, and utilization and capacity data for facilities which can provide similar capabilities. Management also plans to consider the compatibility of the proposed work at LANL and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in its decision. Further, if a decision is made to formally pursue a new BSL-2 facility at LANL, NNSA agreed to perform and document a similar evaluation. ”
Watchdog groups also weighed in.
“Let us hope this report is the end of these misguided ambitions,” LANL Study Group’s Greg Mello said. “ LANL is not the place to do biodefense work. There are much better places to do that, and much cheaper too if the full cost of LANL overhead were included. LANL should not try to do everything but should rather try to focus on doing a few things well, accepting that its nuclear weapons mission is going to be shrinking and being glad for that.”
According to a Nuclear Watch New Mexico press release, the DOE-IG report stated that LANL would need to spend about $437,000 in upgrades to attempt to mitigate this seismic concern.
DOE also is spending about $478,000 to complete the now required Environmental Impact Statement. Another $595,000 is needed to open the facility, which includes $368,000 of operating costs for maintenance.
“Can the laboratory be the best place for bioscience? If the lab is looking for more funding streams, shouldn’t it be directing its attention to non-proliferation programs and cleanup?”