Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 27, 2006

National Academies report looks at chemical security

Filed under: Infrastructure Protection,Technology for HLS — by Christian Beckner on May 27, 2006

The National Academies Press has released a new report (available online) on the issue of chemical security, entitled “Terrorism and the Chemical Infrastructure: Protecting People and Reducing Vulnerabilities”. The executive summary notes that this report was requested by the Department of Homeland Security “to assist the department in characterizing and mitigating the vulnerabilities faced by the nation from its critical infrastructure.”

The report offers these six top-level findings:

  1. Toxic, flammable, and explosive materials present the greatest risk of catastrophic incident. In the absence of specific threat information, it will be most appropriate to invest in mitigation and preparedness for general classes of vulnerabilities.
  2. By analogy with past accidents involving the chemical industry, it is possible that a single terrorist incident involving the chemical infrastructure could result in catastrophic loss of life or injuries.
  3. The economic effects of a single terrorist incident involving the chemical infrastructure could be significant, but multiple terrorist events would be required to achieve nationally catastrophic economic consequences.
  4. Multiple attacks on the chemical infrastructure may not be immediately recognized as such. Prompt recognition and communication that an incident is an actual case of terrorism and may be part of a series of attacks offers the best opportunity to take actions that may limit the consequences of such attacks.
  5. Near-term benefits can be obtained from research efforts directed toward enhancing emergency preparedness, emergency response, and disaster recovery.
  6. Public response is significant in determining the consequences of attack on the chemical infrastructure.

It then uses these findings as the basis for a set of recommendations on R&D that could improve the country’s prevention, mitigation, and response capabilities for chemical security. Notably, it takes a positive view toward the use of inherently-safer technologies, arguing that their adoption be achieved in many cases cost-effectively, and suggesting a federal R&D role for “pre-competitive” research in areas where the adoption of IST’s is problematic today, given the fact that companies lack the natural incentives to perform this type of research.

There are a lot of other informative sections of the report, including detailed scenario analyses of specific chemical security threats and an interesting chapter on risk management. I hope that DHS and Congress study this report carefully, and place a high priority on integrating its recommendations into its chemical security strategies and legislative initiatives, in a way that serves to depoliticize the issue and finally create the basis for smart, effective security in the sector.

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