RAND released a new report today that’s not recommended for bedtime reading, entitled “Considering the Effects of a Catastrophic Terrorist Attack.” The report, mentioned in this L.A. Times story today, uses scenario analysis techniques to predict the potential short-term and long-term repercussions of a 10kt nuclear attack on the Port of Long Beach. The report considers the possibility of devastating near-term consequences, in terms of death, injury, property destruction, panic, mass evacuation, and energy shortages. And it looks at the potential long-term consequences of such an attack, focusing on the impacts on the global supply chain and the national economic system. On the former issue, the report predicts the following conflict between security and economic interests:
In terms of global shipping, the main tension might be between the political aim of preventing a future attack and the business interest in seeing that U.S. ports and the global shipping supply chain continue to operate. The only way to completely mitigate the risk of a second strike would be to close all U.S. ports and suspend all imports indefinitely. This would be the national security communityâ€™s likely position. Yet in business terms, this position would be untenable. The loss of the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles alone, which handle 30 percent of U.S. shipping imports, would already be substantial. All U.S. ports combined carry out 7.5 percent of world trade activity. Accordingly, the business community would likely call for ports to stay open, or to reopen as early as possible.
But harsh realities facing the financial and real estate communities might prove a barrier. The Long Beach attack might cripple an insurance industry struggling to absorb massive losses from claims. Insurance would be in tremendously short supplyâ€”particularly for terrorist and nuclear risks. Without it, ports and related infrastructure could not operate. Further complicating the issue is the high probability that people would flee port cities, severely depleting local labor supplies. Given these conditions, all U.S. ports would likely close indefinitely or operate at a substantially reduced level following the attack. This would severely disrupt the availability of basic goods and petroleum throughout the country.
This current probability is a key reason why the global supply chain needs better awareness about what’s moving through it. With better information, officials can more easily track down the perpetrators and develop assurances that another attack is not looming, and will therefore not be compelled to shut down the entire supply chain. This awareness will make the supply chain more resilient, and mitigate the long-term consequences of any attack.
Overall, a very interesting report, and one that drives home the fact that combating the nuclear terrorism threat needs to be the #1 priority of U.S. national security.