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A Visit to a Government Germ Factory

Building 12-7 of the Nevada Test Site, some 100 miles north of Las Vegas, was a government test site for making biological weapons. Can it teach us anything about terrorism?
 
 
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For little more than a million smackeroos, some shiny equipment bought from your neighborhood hardware store, and a wee bit of science know-how, you could start your own germ-making factory. That's right: Choose from anthrax, Ebola, typhus, whooping cough, smallpox or any number of lethal pathogens to make in your own designer-disease lab.

That's just what they did at Building 12-7 of the Nevada Test Site, some 100 miles north of Las Vegas, from 1998 to 2000.

Germ warfare has been referred to as "the poor man's atomic bomb." So it's no surprise the Nevada Test Site, which was once the proverbial mecca for nuclear weapons testing -- and Monday was proposed for use as a national anti-terrorism training center by Sen. Harry Reid -- was the premier destination for the simulation. The Test Site was mostly closed down when the 1992 nuclear weapons testing moratorium was enacted.

The germs they were making weren't lethal, say officials from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), a Department of Defense agency in charge of safeguarding national security. And their purpose wasn't to disperse the biological agents. Rather, they wanted to see just how difficult and costly it would be to manufacture a germ-making plant. From there, they performed tests to see if any "signatures" were given off from the factory that would enable outside detection, according to Public Affairs Officer Army Maj. Linda Ritchie. Hence the project's name: BACUS, an acronym for Biotechnology Activity Characterized by Unusual Signatures.

"A signature is any change in activity. They were looking for signatures to see if they could pick up something that would allow them to know what was going on within this building," Ritchie explained. She refused to elaborate on what any of those signatures were, or whether there were any at all. That's classified -- as is most of the information from the project. Big surprise.

Spores Galore and the Fungus Among Us

BACUS consisted of two tests, one in November 1999 and the second in August 2000. It was in an old recreation hall, about 50 miles inside the Rhode Island-sized site. Though the hall has been closed to recreational activity for years, its spirit remains.

Getting to the room where the lab is located is an eerie jaunt: Follow the old signs reminiscent of the fallout days -- "In case of fire awaken sleeping employees slowly to prevent nervous shock and leave as fast as you do at quitting time" -- past the musty pool tables and the dusty bar, beyond the barren barbershop and unsightly urinals and into The Lab.

No fancier than a standard biology lab, the room -- about 20 feet by 10 feet -- is filled with metallic machinery, valves, beakers, tubing, funnels, gauges, pumps, scales, sterilizers and plastic baggies. You'd never know they were producing a spore-forming agent to simulate anthrax here a little more than a year ago.

"What happened was the project provided a realistic environment. That's why this particular location was chosen. The biological technology equipment and all of the equipment (used here) is commercially available," Ritchie explained.

The products they were using -- Bt and Bg -- are nonharmful biological agents found in pesticides and soil. Ritchie stressed these agents were what she called "simulants" only, and were never dispersed. The goal lay in the preparation and detection, not in their release. She also said that none of the scientists became ill during the experiments.

"In the tests, no actual biological warfare agents were involved," she said. "Bt and Bg are normally found in soil. Bt is commonly used in pesticides under the name of Dipel, and Bg is a benign simulant that is not commercially used.... Bt and Bg are spore formers, they were used to simulate the biological agent anthrax, which also forms spores."

Ritchie wouldn't elaborate on why the tests were launched, but insisted they weren't prompted by an imminent threat. She stressed the threat of biological terrorism is always out there.

"The concern is that there may be people out there who have the intention of doing this. And we would want to be able to detect it if that were happening," she said.

DTRA seemed to carry out the project with ease, for a mere $1.6 million. And though a simple lay person may not be able to do this, it doesn't take a rocket scientist.

"There was some technical knowledge that would be required for someone to do this," Ritchie said. "You would have to have some knowledge of maybe microbiology, electricity, how to operate a biological agent production system. It would be difficult for someone like me, with no technical background, to come in and do it."

Classified Information

Ritchie was unable to answer a wide range of questions about the lab, such as: Are there labs like these elsewhere in the country? Was this part of a series of tests, or does it stand alone? How many people would have been affected by the germs made here. Were they anthrax? How many people worked here? Did the tests yield any results?

It's no surprise that these questions remained unanswered. It is the military we're dealing with -- and with the increased emphasis on national security in the wake of war, what could you expect?

What was surprising, however, was the agent's reaction to the attention the lab had been receiving.

"It's not that exciting of a story!" Ritchie said, laughing in disbelief over the barrage of questions she resisted answering.

If a million-dollar germ-making factory isn't deemed exciting -- it makes you wonder what billion-dollar biological enterprises our country could have up its pestilence-producing sleeve.