Changes in the design for a proposed federal animal disease research lab in Kansas have sharply reduced the risk of an accidental release of deadly pathogens, according to a new assessment released Friday.
The Department of Homeland Security assessment updates a report issued in 2010. The new document puts the risk of an accidental release, including in the event of an earthquake or tornado, at one-tenth of 1 percent, down from the previous calculation of a 70 percent chance of release.
"While the earlier design far exceeded tornado shelter standards, moving up to nuclear regulatory standards for structural integrity should provide an increased comfort level," said Ron Trewyn, Kansas State University's vice president research.
Homeland Security plans to build the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan near Kansas State. The assessment calculated the risk to the human population living near the lab, as well as the large number of livestock in the region.
DHS selected the Kansas site for a $650 million new facility to replace an aging lab at Plum Island, N.Y. The lab is scheduled to be completed by 2018.
The report comes a few weeks after President Barack Obama's 2013 budget was released without mention of funding to begin construction this year. The budget recommendation requires DHS to reassess the project, its scope and alternatives. However, Gov. Sam Brownback says he was told by DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano that the decision had nothing to do with the lab itself but money.
"Hopefully, we can get away from political arguments which have been driving things recently and get back fact-based reasoning," Trewyn said. "The risk for the country is not building NBAF. Foreign animal diseases are going to get here and the country isn't prepared. NBAF is a start and it's urgently needed."
The assessment must still be reviewed by a committee of the National Research Council, with those findings expected to be reported to Congress by summer. A committee that reviewed the 2010 report found shortcomings in the NBAF design, prompting changes in the engineering and Congress to mandate a further risk assessment.
The earlier review found there was a 70 percent chance of accidental release of hoof and mouth disease over the 50-year life of the lab. Because of concentrations of cattle herds in the region, the NRC said such a release could cause an economic impact of between $9 billion and $50 million.
DHS said that the new assessment satisfies Congressional requirement, adding the independent review used additional data and modeling methods to calculate the impact of an accidental disease release.
Tom Manney, a retired Kansas State professor with the group Biosecurity in the Heartland, said while the assessment can account for design changes made to guard against natural disasters, it can't mitigate human factors, such as accidental infection of a staff member or the intentional release of a pathogen.
"I can't imagine how they got numbers like that," Manney said. "I'm fairly confident that the kinds of risks that they are evaluating are not the total risks or most serious risk of release."
Kansas officials have already committed $105 million in bonding authority to assist with NBAF's construction, including building a utility plant for the lab. Brownback and others have said the state is looking at other alternatives for helping fund the project, should federal money dry up.
A site has been prepared for construction on the north side of the Kansas State campus. Sen. Pat Roberts said the assessment should be enough to allow DHS to release some $50 million in funds to begin construction.
"I am pleased by the updated assessment's confirmation of what we always knew: Manhattan is the safest and best place for this facility to be built," the Kansas Republican said. "The risk of outbreak should help allay concerns from any opposition, in the public or Congress."
Manney said he was pleased that Congress and the administration were taking a step back to look at the project's the escalating cost. The project initially was pegged at closer to $450 million, with some estimates suggesting the price could approach $1 billion before construction is complete.
"If it's going to cost that much more money, where will it come from?" he asked. "You either escalate the costs or cut corners."