Report: DHS risk assessment study of National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility underestimates risks
By End the Lie
For those who are unaware, the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) in Manhattan, Kansas will be the replacement for the aging Plum Island facility in New York where a great deal of the United States’ secret biological weapons research and develop has been conducted.
A great deal of speculation surrounds these types of programs with some contending that we could see a resurgence of the so-called “Black Death,” better known as the black plague, with others claiming that the move to Kansas is more sinister than it may seem at first glance.
This heavy speculation is due to the fact that we, the American people, know very little about what our government actually does with our tax dollars in these highly restricted facilities.
However, what we do know about the research at Plum Island is far from comforting. If you would like to get a sober, well researched and scholarly review of this type of research I recommend the book Deadly Cultures: Biological Weapons since 1945. In addition, I would point readers to this New York Times article from 1998, although both of those works give just a tiny glimpse into the secretive and troubling world of biological weapons research.
Congress recently request a new National Research Council report (which can be read and downloaded in its entirety for free here) which uncovered some quite disturbing facts.
While the report, Evaluation of the Updated Site-Specific Risk Assessment for the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kansas, determined that the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS’s) updated risk assessment for the proposed NBAF is a “substantial improvement” over the 2010 risk assessment, it still has some significant problems.
The report points out that the behemoth DHS has inadequately characterized the risks associated with operating the NBAF as well as underestimated the risk of an accidental pathogen release.
Furthermore, they determined that it does not accurately portray the inherent uncertainties in these significant risks.
The NBAF will be fourth Biosafety Level (BSL) 4 facility in the world which is able to conduct large animal research. The facility would supposedly focus on studying dangerous animal diseases and emerging infectious diseases which can be transmitted between animals and humans.
Diseases they say they will study include the now infamous foot-and-mouth disease (or hoof-and-mouth disease) which afflicts cloven-hoofed animals like deer, cattle and pigs as well as newer infectious diseases about which little is known.
The National Research Council originally reviewed the 2010 risk assessment and found that the document was based on flawed methods and assumptions on the part of the DHS, leading to inadequate findings.
Congress, in response to the National Research Council’s findings, ordered the DHS to revise their assessment in order to deal with the shortcomings identified by the Research Council, after which the Research Council would evaluate the new risk assessment, according to a press release from the National Academies, which includes the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council.
While the committee that reviewed the DHS’s updated risk assessment determined that some of the problems with the 2010 report have been addressed, they still point out that some of the risk analysis methods employed by the DHS were misinterpreted and misapplied.
Even more troubling, the committee reported that the new assessment also utilizes questionable and inappropriate assumptions leading to artificially low estimates of the probability of an accidental release of pathogens from the facility.
Personally, I would hope that they would tend to overestimate the risks in order to create the most secure and safe facility possible instead of underestimating the potentially deadly release of pathogens.
There is a major difference between the 2010 risk assessment and the newest one in terms of the chance of release of pathogens.
The earlier assessment said that for the two most significant release scenarios there is a 70% chance that a release of foot-and-mouth disease would result in an infection outside of the confines of the facility over a 50 year period.
The newest assessment claims that for 142 potential release scenarios, the total probability of a release leading to an infection outside of the facility is 0.11%, roughly a 1 in 46,000 chance every year.
The National Research Council said that some of this significant reduction in risk could be explained by the latest design plans for the NBAF, which include improved security.
Still, even with design improvements, the updated assessment continues to underestimate the risk of an accidental pathogen release.
The committee also found that these assessment are based on far too optimistic and unsupported estimates of rates of human error, unrealistically low estimates of infectious materials which could be released.
Furthermore, they identified an inappropriate treatment of uncertainties, dependencies and sensitivities in the calculation of these release probabilities, such as minimizing the fact that human error would be the most likely cause of release.
While the 2010 assessment concluded that human error would be the most likely cause – which the National Research Council agreed with – the newest assessment claims that natural hazards like earthquakes and tornadoes would be a whopping twenty times more likely to cause release than operational activities of the facility.
Thus, the committee questioned if the natural hazards actually posed the greatest risk and added that they believed that the updated assessment overestimated the probability of release due to natural disasters.
Overall, I find the determinations of the National Research Council to be nothing short of troubling as the safety of this facility should be of significant concern to all Americans.
Hopefully these findings will push Congress to act and force the DHS to conduct more accurate assessments or perhaps radically redesign the facility in order to lessen these risks considerably.
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