Science panel’s review finds a safer design, but concerns linger

By Bryan Richardson

An updated site-specific risk assessment (uSSRA) for the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) was deemed a substantial improvement but still inadequate by the National Research Council committee assigned to review the document.

The NRC committee released its review of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) document Friday. DHS released its updated assessment in March.

The NRC report’s conclusion said the DHS assessment is “technically inadequate in critical respects and is an insufficient basis on which to judge the risks associated with the proposed NBAF.”

Gregory Baecher, chair of the committee and Glenn L. Martin Institute Professor of Engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park, said he believes the committee’s expectations are attainable.  “Because a pathogen release from the NBAF could have devastating agricultural, economic, and public health consequences, a risk assessment that reaches inappropriate conclusions could have substantial repercussions,” he said.

The updated assessment deemed the accidental release of foot-and-mouth disease at less than 0.11 percent, or a 1 in 46,000 chance per year, over NBAF’s expected 50-year operating lifetime. The NRC committee that reviewed the first risk assessment set the risk at 70 percent. The report released Friday did not estimate what it believed the percentage likelihood of a release was.

But it did acknowledge a reduced risk, which it said was due in part to further developed design documents. Those were 15 percent complete in 2010 but are 65 percent complete now.

Baecher said the assessment uses valid tools for risk projections, but the execution of using those tools lacked validity.

The committee thought the latest designs addressed the previous committee’s concerns, but there were underestimated risks in the report, especially when it comes to human error.

In 2010, human error was deemed the most likely cause for a release by DHS, which the NRC committee agreed with. The mostly cause for a release in the updated risk assessment is associated with natural hazards, specifically earthquakes and tornadoes.

Baecher said the lower risk for human error in the assessment is “overly optimistic.”

“Little justification is provided for the uSSRA’s optimistic assumption that the rate of human error for NBAF workers will be several times less than that of similarly skilled workers in similar facilities,” the report’s summary states.

At the same time, the committee finds the likelihood of natural hazards causing a FMD release to be overestimated including earthquakes being the most likely cause of a release despite the low seismicity of the region.

Ron Trewyn, K-State vice president for research, agreed that human error is likely to be the number one factor of a release in any bio containment facility. He pointed to the committee’s opinion about the overestimation of tornado and earthquake risk as a key finding.

“I believe that’s something people should feel good about because that was one of the big concerns coming in,” he said.

The opponents of NBAF coming to Kansas such as local advocacy group, No NBAF in Kansas, have asserted that any risk is too much for the facility to be sited here.

Baecher said the report isn’t stating whether the risks are too high. “Those are policy questions and political questions,” he said.

The report also stressed the importance of shoring up the “significant gaps” for carrying out plans for surveillance, detection, response and mitigation strategies.

“Without a long-term funding commitment that is sufficient to maintain the level and quality of NBAF operations and that can sustain planned mitigation strategies, the findings presented in the uSSRA are not assured,” the report said.

Trewyn said there’s a natural order of getting the area ready gradually for the arrival of NBAF. “I really don’t see that as being an issue,” he said. “With the length of time before the facility is operational, a lot of these things you wouldn’t have in place now.”

Trewyn said some of the questions are premature such as the standard operating procedure (SOP) for handling materials in the building. “You do that at the time you going to start work on the project with a particular pathogen,” he said.

Baecher said asking for a quantitative risk analysis isn’t any different from any other major project in American history including when NASA was developing the space shuttle.

Despite the report’s overall conclusion, Trewyn said the important aspects of the report are the group’s validation of the NBAF mission and the facility’s design. “This group must really believe it is a critical need,” he said.

Mark Thurmond, committee member, said the committee members recognize the need to understand potential animal diseases. “Without question, this committee has been very strong in its support for the need of such capabilities,” he said. “The sooner we get that capacity the better.”

Timothy Reluga, committee member, referred to the difference between the 2010 DHS assessment and the 2012 DHS assessment as fixing up a car but still missing necessary elements such as a battery and a water pump.

“It’s a much better car than it was before,” he said. “It’s still not getting you anywhere.”

The facility would be the world’s fourth Biosafety Level 4 laboratory capable of large animal research. It would replace the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, a level 3 facility located off Long Island.

A National Academy of Sciences committee has been commissioned by DHS to recommend whether to build the facility as designed, create a smaller-scale facility or maintain the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, which NBAF is supposed to replace. That report will be available by the end of the month.

Trewyn said he doesn’t think the latter option is realistic since Tara O’Toole, DHS undersecretary for science and technology, said Plum Island could never be brought up to code as a Biosafety Level 3 facility.

“It doesn’t meet today’s code yet they’re still using it,” he said. “That should be a bigger concern than a building that will be designed to modern bio containment standards.”

Trewyn said the Congressional mandates have been met, and the project funds should be released. “Doing another site-specific risk assessment would make little sense at this point,” he said. “It’s time to build the facility.”

The funding is being withheld as issues with the project are being worked through. The NAS committee was assembled after President Barack Obama commissioned DHS to reassess the project with the money as the likely driver of the evaluation.

The facility is estimated to cost $1.14 billion, up from an original estimate of $650 million. “None of these sorts of facilities are inexpensive,” Trewyn said. “The longer the delay, the higher the cost will be.”

Last week, the House voted to add $75 million toward the NBAF construction in the DHS appropriations bill. This comes after Obama removed funding for the project from his proposed fiscal year 2013 budget. However, the Senate still has to go through its version of the DHS appropriations bill, which currently doesn’t including NBAF funding.

NBAF, which was originally scheduled to be fully operational by 2018, is now scheduled to open in 2020. Trewyn said he hopes the central utility plant construction project starts at some point this year. The main lab construction was expected to start in August.

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