Government officials said they're confident a new bio-defense lab planned for Manhattan 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.
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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.
"The research work will be done in a containment facility that amounts to a shell within a shell within a shell," said Sherriene Jones-Sontag, a spokeswoman for Gov. Sam Brownback, who strongly supports the facility.
The Department of Homeland Security wants the new biological and agriculture research facility in Kansas to replace an aging laboratory off the coast of New York's Long Island called Plum Island. Once it's finished in 2018, the new bio lab will conduct laboratory research into a variety of potential diseases and toxins that could endanger the nation's food supply.
In a risk analysis released last year, scientists said the chances of a tornado striking the lab were very remote. It found that, on average, a smaller tornado with wind speeds around 150 mph would hit the structure and cause the release of the foot and mouth virus about every 770 years.
But the same analysis also pointed out the weakness of the initial building design. In 2010, the report said, the lab might fail in basic wind speeds higher than 90 mph. That's far lower than wind speeds in the Joplin tornado and an even weaker twister that struck Manhattan in 2008.
The analysis recommended design changes to make the facility more resistant to tornadoes.
"Hardening is a tangible risk reduction feature," analysts wrote.
Three months later, in February 2011, the Department of Homeland Security agreed to strengthen the design, according to records obtained by the Kansas City Star under a Freedom of Information Act request.
The department, however, would not release the additional estimated cost for the improved design. The earlier risk analysis said the cost of hardening the facility to withstand an F-2 storm could top $60 million.
Some weather experts said the department should harden the facility even more against tornadoes.
"It sounds to me like they (the DHS) are a little low on their wind speeds," said John T. Snow, dean of the College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences at the University of Oklahoma.
However, Snow added, he may not be aware of additional protections built into the facility.
Homeland Security spokesman Ortman said the new design standard exceeds standards for a federally approved tornado shelter and that "the updated design is now undergoing a third-party review by a risk assessment team" as a further guarantee of its safety.
An NRC spokeswoman said Wolf Creek's higher tornado standard reflects its location in an area commonly referred to as "tornado alley."
"All nuclear power plants are built to withstand the most severe natural phenomena historically recorded in their area with an additional safety margin added in," said spokeswoman Lara Uselding.
Site and design work for the Kansas bio lab is under way with construction set to begin next year, if Congress approves additional funding.
Some $40 million has been spent for the initial work, with another $150 million recommended in the Obama administration's 2012 budget.