New risk assessment says NBAF design safer

By Bryan Richardson

An updated assessment of the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) released Friday categorizes the risk of a Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) outbreak from the facility as virtually nonexistent.

In a 2010 review by the National Academy of Sciences, the cumulative risk of an accidental FMD release leading to an outbreak was put at 70 percent over the NBAF’s expected 50-year operating lifetime.

The latest assessment by the Department of Homeland Security brought that risk down to less than 0.11 percent, including events such as tornados or earthquakes. DHS officials said the risk drops to less than 0.008 percent when catastrophic events are excluded.

The assessment’s executive summary states that “human error and the associated transfer of virus from the laboratory by human vectors or fomites are the most likely causes of an accident that would result in an outbreak.”

One of the differences between the NAS assessment and this one is that Friday’s assessment is based on design documents that are now 65 percent complete. The NAS assessment was based on 15 percent design documents.

The other assessment changes touted by DHS included:

• A more systematic approach to the assessment of potential accidents.

• Characterizing uncertainties in calculated results.

• Incorporation of recommended enhancements to the tornado modeling methodology.

• Additional data (susceptible populations, outbreak control measure resources, etc.) collected for the NBAF location and used in the epidemiological and economic modeling.

• Significant design changes beyond the industry standard to reduce risk by using fully redundant systems and process monitoring for exhaust air and other waste handling systems.

The assessment still has to undergo review by the National Research Council (NRC) committee. A similar process occurred for the DHS’s last site-specific risk assessment.

The group is scheduled to meet March 16 in Washington, D.C. to discuss the assessment. A report will be issued in June.

The updates received positive feedback Friday from members of the state’s congressional delegation, U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts and U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins.

“The safety of NBAF’s research is a top priority and this updated report confirms that the NBAF design is sound,” Moran said. “DHS included recommendations for reducing risk, used the latest biocontainment technology, and brought in top experts to ensure NBAF will be the safest and most modern research facility in the world.”

Roberts said the “de minimis risk of outbreak” should alleviate the concerns made by the public and members of Congress. “Now that this study has been delivered to Congress, I eagerly await DHS to begin construction on the Central Utilities Plant,” he said.

Congress tied the release of the remaining $40 million needed to start the plant’s construction to the completion of this assessment. Future funding is still in question after President Barack Obama’s fiscal year 2013 budget proposal didn’t include funding for the NBAF.

Obama has requested that DHS reassess the project, a move Gov. Sam Brownback and others think is related to the cost. Some estimates have the cost of the NBAF, originally estimated at $650 million, reaching $1 billion. Friday’s risk assessment makes no mention of cost, which has likely changed with design enhancements.

Jenkins said the DHS study is confirmation that Manhattan is the best place for the NBAF, which she said is necessary to keep America safe. “The Bio-Safety Level 4 lab at the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility is a crucial and immensely safe facet of our national security plan,” she said. “And, most importantly, we must ensure the NBAF’s completion as soon as possible, so the American people and our food supply can be better protected.”

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