Good news about NBAF risks

By Walt Braun

The latest assessment of risk over the 50-year expected life of the National Bio- and Agro- Defense Facility came as good news to advocates of the proposed research site.

In documents released Friday, researchers put the risk of a deadly outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease from NBAF at 0.11 percent. That figure factors in tornadoes and earthquakes. When researchers exclude catastrophic events, the risk shrinks to 0.008 percent — 8 one-thousandths of 1 percent.

That’s a monumental improvement from an assessment of Department of Homeland Security work in 2010 performed by the National Research Council. It placed the likelihood of a deadly release from NBAF at 70 percent over 50 years.

It isn’t hard to imagine NBAF opponents questioning the newer assessment — even wondering if it’s legitimate. But the more recent assessment was based on more complete information than the previous assessment. The 2010 assessment was based on design documents that were just 15 percent complete; the latest assessment, by comparison, was based on design documents 65 percent complete. The latest assessment, which suggests that flaws have been addressed, will be reviewed later this month.

As reassuring as the latest assessment is, it’s fair to wonder what an assessment will find when the designs are entirely complete. Ideally, the risk would shrink further, but it’s possible —  though we’d like to believe highly unlikely — that designs yet to be completed could somehow add to the risk of a harmful release. An assessment when the designs are complete would be instructive.

Members of the Kansas congressional delegation expressed understandable delight with the latest report. U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran’s comments were typical: “The safety of NBAF’s research is a top priority, and this updated report confirms that the NBAF design is sound.”

We continue to support NBAF, and we think Manhattan is an ideal site for it. We share the frustration of other Kansans with the Obama administration’s decision to omit funding for it in the 2013 federal budget, ostensibly so the project’s purpose and scope could be reassessed. Given that estimates for the facility continue to rise, Gov. Sam Brownback may well be right in sensing that the growing expense is the greater obstacle.

We trust that our congressional delegation and state officials will do all they can to persuade the White House of both the need and the integrity of NBAF. And we would add simply that Manhattan is more than ready to move forward.

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