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Nation of Poisons
Page 2

Beyond nuclear explosions and dirty bombs, September 11 prompted fears of assaults against nuclear power plants, nuclear waste storage sites, nuclear waste transports, nuclear research reactors, and nuclear weapons facilities. There are more than a hundred nuclear power plants in the nation, and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) studies have found that a meltdown at a single plant could lead to more than 100,000 deaths. One bin Laden associate has testified in court that he was taught how to blow up power plants. During a recent training exercise at the Nevada Test Site, two armed "terrorists" were able to seize control of a nuclear plant and "detonate" a bomb capable of sending radiation into the surrounding area. Nor is the reactor the only target at a nuclear power plant. Spent-fuel storage areas -- where used radioactive rods are kept at many plants -- are not designed to withstand an airplane crash. The NRC notes that the consequences of a spent-fuel accident "could be comparable to those for a severe reactor accident."

Besides the nuclear infrastructure, there exists another large set of environmentally sensitive targets: chemical facilities. In the United States, there are 20,000 facilities and factories handling dangerous chemicals in large enough volumes that they are required to file reports with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Several hundred plants have filed risk-management plans indicating that a worst-case scenario at their sites could spread toxic chemicals as far away as 14 miles or more. The 1984 Bhopal chemical plant accident in India caused an estimated 2,000 deaths and 100,000 injuries. After a 1976 accidental release of chemicals at a factory in Seveso, Italy, 270 acres of land were contaminated and had to be evacuated completely.

Last year a Department of Justice study concluded that "the risk of terrorists attempting in the foreseeable future to cause an industrial chemical release is both real and credible." A year earlier, a terrorism commission pointed out that terrorists, rather than developing chemical or biological weapons of their own, "might prefer" to engineer a chemical disaster by assaulting an industrial plant or storage facility. A 1999 government study found that chemical plant security ranged from "fair to very poor."

Terrorism orchestrated specifically to produce environmental havoc is hardly farfetched. The vulnerabilities are many. In October, when a drunken hunter shot a hole in the pipeline that carries Alaskan oil to the rest of the country, nearly 300,000 gallons spilled and the flow of oil was disrupted for three days. The 800-mile pipeline runs aboveground for 400 miles and has been recognized for years as a potential target. And there are 19,000 miles of interstate natural gas pipeline alone. (The oil industry is asking for tax credits and low-cost financing for security improvements, as well as an end to "regulatory impediments" that it claims hurt security.) Boston officials have been worrying about a strike against a tanker carrying natural gas -- which security experts call "the poor man's atomic bomb" -- into the city's harbor. Indeed, ports are particularly vulnerable, as fuels and hazardous materials are often stored there with little security.

Some of the targets politicians and pundits have mentioned, though, may not be easy to hit. Catastrophic failure of the electricity grid would be difficult for terrorists to bring about. A bomb could easily cause a local power failure, but, as long as utilities keep their stockpiles of repair components up to date, repairing local power failures is business as usual for the utility industry. The 1998 ice storm in the Northeast, which triggered a long-term power disaster, did so because it brought down power grids over thousands of square miles -- which would be a tricky feat for humans.

After September 11, media accounts raised the possibility of terrorism against water supplies. EPA rushed to form a water protection task force. There are 168,000 public water systems nationwide, and security has been lax at many. But water terrorism may not deserve a spot high on the list of real-world worries. The Henry L. Stimson Center's Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Project dismisses the possibility that terrorists could poison entire water supplies: "If terrorists were to attempt to poison a reservoir, they would need to disperse truly huge amounts of agent into the water -- smaller amounts would be diluted -- and the vessels required for such a feat would be difficult to miss." EPA administrator Christie Whitman maintains that a "truckload" of contaminant would be needed.

Federation of American Scientists

NRDC on nuclear weapons and waste

OMB Watch

To take action on security legislation, see NRDC's Earth Action Center.

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Illustration: Vivienne Fleisher

OnEarth. Winter 2002
Copyright 2001 by the Natural Resources Defense Council