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Lax Federal Lab Safeguards Found


Filed at 1:00 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Investigators reviewing federal safeguards against terrorism found lax oversight at hundreds of Agriculture Department laboratories where dangerous viruses are stored and say the Energy Department failed to closely track nuclear material sent abroad decades ago.

Department officials acknowledged some problems and said they have acted on recommendations by the agencies' inspectors general.

The Agriculture Department review found that even after the anthrax attacks by mail last year, several agency labs did not keep accurate records of potentially dangerous biological agents, had no centralized inventory system and kept vials without labels.

In several cases, there were either more or fewer vials on hand than in inventories, and one facility lost track of a vial containing 3 billion doses of Vesicular stomatitis virus, which can cause a flu-like illness in humans as well as fever and lesions in animals that can lead to malnutrition.

Inspectors, in visits to 124 department labs, found security at nearly half needed improvement. Labs often had no alarm systems, security fences or surveillance cameras, and though lab directors knew they needed upgrades, improvements were slow due to budget constraints and ``pre-Sept. 11 management priorities.''

For example, several high-risk labs did not install fences even though they had been recommended, the review said.

Labs on college campuses often rely on campus security, and in these cases, background checks are not always done on people with access to the labs and their biological agents, according to the review.

In one case, the report said, locks to a lab had not been changed in five years, and a lab official said students who had graduated may not always have turned in their keys.

In its formal response to the findings, the Agriculture Department said it was working to improve security and inventory its biological agents. It also said it would relocate one lab that was in a strip mall; it will take as long as five years for a permanent replacement, but the department said ``all pathogens of consequence'' had been removed.

In a separate report, inspectors said the Energy Department could not account for small amounts of nuclear materials lent to dozens of foreign countries for nonmilitary uses under a Cold War-era program.

An effort to track the materials was abandoned in 1984 because of concerns over its usefulness. The report said the Energy Department should revive that effort.

The department's Office of Security agreed, but its National Nuclear Security Administration disagreed with the recommendations, saying the department is not required to monitor the shipments.

Under the ``Atoms for Peace'' program, 33 countries, including Iran, Pakistan, Colombia and Malaysia, received shipments of sealed plutonium for calibrating radiation measurement and monitoring instruments and for nuclear research and development.

Since Sept. 11, the International Atomic Energy Agency has said small amounts of industrial or medical-grade radioactive material could be mixed with conventional explosives to fashion ``dirty bombs,'' which terrorists could use to contaminate cities with radioactivity.

No such attacks have ever been reported.

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