"A report invalid and inadequate for making safety decisions on the part of politicians and policy makers."
These are among conclusions drawn by members of a committee of the National Research Council about an updated risk assessment for the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF), which is under construction — but stalled — in Manhattan, Kansas.
In a teleconference with reporters Friday, several members of the committee addressed the deficiencies and 14 findings articulated in its much-anticipated (99-page) report.
They said the committee did not address whether the NBAF was safe enough to build. That is a political or policy decision, said committee chair Greg Baecher, based on how much risk is judged acceptable.
The committee said that while the Department of Homeland Security used conventional, widely accepted methods of calculating risks associated with the federal animal disease lab, the way they applied those methods and the assumptions they used were faulty.
For example, DHS independently evaluated safety features of the NBAF and calculated overall risk by averaging the efficacy of those features. The committee found this approach ignored the way safety features are interconnected and depend on one another in certain accidents.
The committee called this “common cause.” Committee chair Greg Baecher of the University of Maryland, College Park, used the example of the Japanese tsunami and its impact on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
“If you look at the accidents in large technogenic systems today, those accidents occur because several safety systems coincidentally failed at the same time. They typically failed because of some common mode or event. In Fukushima, it was a tsunami event that compromised a number of redundant backup systems.
“When we say the current risk assessment is dependent among all safety systems, that’s what we mean.
“If you don’t’ look at way these safety systems might be affected by common threat to failure, you run the risk of substantially underestimating, possibly by many factors of ten, underestimating risk, and that’s what we think happened here.”
The DHS had estimated the risk from the NBAF at less than 1 percent in its latest safety report.
The committee found the risk assessment so lacking in accuracy and inconsistencies that it was “difficult to determine the degree to which risks were underestimated.” In many instances, the committee said, “it could not verify (the report’s) results, because methods and data were unevenly or poorly presented.”
In 2010, the NRC found the original Department of Homeland Security risk assessment severely flawed.
Congress mandated DHS update that report, and mandated the NRC re-evaluate that update. This report is the NRC’s latest evaluation.
Congress has appropriated $165 million for the $1 billion NBAF project, but construction has been held up pending today’s NRC report.