Bio-defense lab in Kansas to get tornado upgrade

Government officials said they’re confident a new bio-defense lab planned for Manhattan, Kan., can safely withstand a direct hit from the most powerful tornado.

A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, which is building the $650 million National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, said designers agreed earlier this year — before the destructive Joplin, Mo., tornado — to “harden” the facility to make it more resistant to tornado damage.

The spokesman, Chris Ortman, said the hardening would make the lab withstand wind speeds of up to 230 mph, a standard the department said would match current Nuclear Regulatory Commission requirements for nuclear facilities in the heart of the United States.

Winds in the Joplin tornado have been estimated at 200 mph-plus.

But critics said they’re still not convinced the lab will be sufficiently reinforced to prevent a catastrophic release of dangerous pathogens and viruses that will be stored there. The Wolf Creek nuclear power plant near Burlington, Kan., built according to an older NRC standard, is designed to withstand wind speeds of up to 360 mph and “rotational” winds of 290 mph.

“I’m not a meteorologist or an engineer, but I don’t think DHS has established that it would be safe,” said Tom Manney, a retired Kansas State University professor involved with a group called No NBAF in Kansas.

Bill Bullard, director of a cattle producers’ lobbying group called R-CALF, also said that “the U.S. government has simply ignored the vagaries of weather which could well cause an inadvertent release of some very dangerous viruses.”

A government study last year found that a release of the foot-and-mouth virus from a tornado striking the bio lab facility could cost the cattle industry more than $5 billion.

Bio lab supporters, however, said recent design upgrades — including reinforced concrete, tornado dampers and other devices — should adequately protect the public from a pathogen release during a twister.

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