A researcher at New Mexico’s Los Alamos National Laboratory received an unauthorized shipment of anthrax last month from a Northern Arizona University facility in Flagstaff, according to a government watchdog group that has recently accused the government of providing poor security at the nation’s nuclear labs.
The unauthorized shipment is merely “the latest indicator of security problems at the nation’s nuclear labs,” said a statement issued by the Project On Government Oversight, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that focuses on exposing government waste, fraud and abuse.
“The security breach also illustrates the ease with which scientific researchers apparently can obtain the potentially lethal material,” said the statement. Quoting unnamed “credible sources,” officials with POGO said the breach occurred “after the Sept. 11 attacks.”
“The shipment should not have been mailed to the Human Research Lab at Los Alamos because neither the researcher nor the laboratory possess a Bio-Level 3 permit for anthrax. Such anthrax shipments are restricted to hospitals or research facilities with the high level authorization,” said the statement.
Los Alamos, as well as other national labs at Berkeley and Livermore, are operated by the University of California for the Department of Energy.
Jeff Garberson, a communications liaison for the Laboratory Administration Office at the University of California confirmed that the shipment had been made.
John Gustafson, a spokesman for Los Alamos, told WND the material was shipped from the university to the labs Oct. 25; it arrived. Oct. 26. He said the package was handled appropriately and “no one was ever in any danger.”
“Our labs are set up” as Bio-Level 2 facilities “and are able to handle those kinds of materials,” Gustafson said. He added that he did not see the shipment as a security issue, and that the lab was participating in the investigation of a number of anthrax-related incidents that have cropped up in the past few months.
Barbara Williamson, a spokeswoman for Northern Arizona University, said the school complies with all government requirements in the handling of anthrax.
“The Keim Genetics Lab at the university has a CDC select agent permit for the handling of live anthrax, and we comply with all federal regulations,” she said.
When asked why the anthrax was sent from the school to a lab not equipped to handle live anthrax, Williamson refused comment.
“We’re not commenting on anything having to do with the anthrax investigations” that began in October, she said.
On Wednesday, a 94-year-old woman from rural Connecticut became the latest anthrax victim. She died of inhalation anthrax after being admitted to a hospital five days earlier, officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told reporters.
How she became infected so far away from known anthrax incidents in New York City and Washington, D.C., is a mystery to authorities, CDC officials said.
News of the anthrax controversy at Los Alamos comes on the heels of a report issued by POGO in October, criticizing the government for scrimping on nuclear lab security.
The group said it found that the budget for security forces at nuclear weapons facilities was cut by 40 percent since 1992, at the same time that the inventory of nuclear material has increased by 30 percent.
Worse, says POGO, last week the House Appropriations Committee slashed the supplemental budget requested by President Bush to protect the nation’s nuclear weapons facilities from terrorist attack. Rather than spend the allotted $18 million on security, lawmakers “rerouted” the money into biological detection programs, POGO officials say.
“The latest move by the House Appropriations Committee is short-sighted and misguided. We have no doubt that bio-terrorism is a serious issue that requires an increased budget, but doing so at the expense of our nation’s nuclear security is irresponsible,” said Danielle Brian, POGO’s executive director. “It is particularly unthinkable to shortchange nuclear security given reports that al-Qaida terrorists have recently attempted to gain access to nuclear materials.”
The group’s October report also found that “the government fails to protect against … mock-terrorist attacks more than 50 percent of the time,” though the exact number is “classified.”
“If Congress can find room in the budget to give tax rebates to the tune of $617 million to General Electric, $102 million to K-mart, and $832 million to General Motors, then they can certainly afford to both fund biological detection programs and sufficiently protect our nuclear weapons complex,” Brian said.
Calls to Rep. C. W. Young, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, were not returned.