US Reports Highlight Threat of 'Catastrophic Terrorism'
Late June saw the release of three reports designed to guide the rapidly evolving US response to the threat of 'catastrophic terrorism' - terrorist attacks involving nuclear, biological or chemical (NBC) weapons and materials.
On June 24, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released a 382-page study entitled 'Making the Nation Safer: the Role of Science and Technology in Countering Terrorism.' The report - the work of the Academy's Committee on Science and Technology in Countering Terrorism - opens with a stark assessment: "The attacks of September 11 and the [subsequent] release of anthrax spores revealed enormous vulnerabilities in the US public-health infrastructure and suggested similar vulnerabilities in the agricultural infrastructure as well". With regard to the threat of a terrorist attack employing either a nuclear weapon or a radiological device (see above story, 'IAEA Emphasises "Dirty Bomb" Risk as US Arrests Suspect'), the study urges: "Immediate steps should be taken to update the Federal Radiological Emergency Response Plan, or to develop a separate plan, to respond to nuclear and radiological terrorist attacks, especially an attack with a nuclear weapon on a US city". Overall, as Committee co-chair Lewis Branscomb, Emeritus Director of the Science, Technology and Public Policy Program at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, told reporters (June 24), the report "gives the government a blueprint for using current technologies and creating new capabilities to reduce the likelihood of terrorist attacks and the severity of their consequences".
As summarised in an NAS press release, the report "emphasizes that certain actions can be taken now to make the nation safer". Four priority areas are identified: protecting and controlling nuclear weapons and material; ensuring the production of "sufficient supplies of vaccines and antibodies"; increasing the security of "shipping containers and power grids"; and improving "ventilation systems and emergency communications". In the longer term, scientific research, if properly organised and supported, can be expected to lead to a range of news preventive and reactive tools, including "new emergency equipment", buildings "made more blast and fire resistant than they are today", and "new methods for air filtration and decontamination" designed to "lessen casualties from certain types of attacks and greatly speed up recovery".
The study - produced with the input of no less than 118 prominent scientists, engineers and doctors - repeatedly stresses the importance of clear-sighted federal coordination. According to Committee co-chair Richard D. Klausner, Executive Director of Global Health at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, speaking at the launch of the report: "These opportunities will go unrealised unless the government is able to establish and execute a coherent strategy for taking advantage of the nation's scientific and technical capabilities. The federal agencies with science and engineering expertise are not necessarily the same as the agencies responsible for deploying systems to protect the nation, and they all must work together to discover and implement the best counterterrorism technologies."
To ensure adequate cooperation, the study recommends that the "new Department of Homeland Security, as proposed by President Bush, will need an Undersecretary for Technology to coordinate science and technology programs within the Department and to keep it connected to research-oriented agencies such as the national Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, Department of Energy, and Department of Defense, as well as the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy."
Also on June 24, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) issued a report entitled 'Science and Technology in a Vulnerable World'. The report brings together a series of papers originally delivered at the annual AAAS Colloquium on Science and Technology Policy in April. Together, the papers present the same frightening picture - of acute, multilevel US vulnerability to catastrophic attack - painted by the NAS. As an Association press release (June 24) makes clear, the risks involved in rushing to adopt sweeping responses to the threat are also causing alarm in senior scientific circles:
"The nation is ill-prepared for a terrorist assault on its information systems and lacks the public health structure necessary to address a major attack of bioterrorism... In 'Science and Technology in a Vulnerable World'...Eugene H. Spafford, professor of computer science and philosophy at Purdue University, said that cost concerns and lack of sophistication have led both the public and private sector to cut corners in making their information systems secure. Another paper noted that physicians and other health-care workers have not been trained to recognize the symptoms of diseases such as anthrax and smallpox, and that many municipalities lack the public health infrastructures necessary to back up health care workers and to respond in the event of bioterrorism. Several contributors to the report, however, warned of too extreme a response to perceived dangers, pointing out the potential damage to the research enterprise if the federal government decides to restrict the communication of scientific information or block the participation of foreign students in certain government-funded research projects. 'The danger of overreacting, I believe, is quite real, and in fact, I believe it is already happening,' wrote Eugene B. Skolnikoff, professor of political science emeritus at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology]. 'It is imperative that the universities understand what the issues are, how they believe they should respond to the issues, how far they should go in accepting certain restrictions, and how they should work with the government in working that out.'"
The AAAS press release continues: "The report's authors noted that the scientists most obviously affected by the nation's new priorities are those whose work concerns the threats to national security identified by the government: threats to transportation, energy, infrastructure, and information technology systems, and weapons that pose biological, chemical, nuclear, and radiological dangers to the public. They also spoke, however, of how best to assess and communicate the risk of terrorism, and detailed problems in the public health and information technology systems that make them vulnerable in the event of attacks that target either human beings or the nation's technological infrastructure. In his paper, 'Public Health Preparedness,' Donald A. Henderson, chairman of the Secretary for Health and Human Services' Council on Public Health Preparedness and former director of HHS's Office of Public Health Preparedness, noted that Congress had recently upped HHS funds for public health preparedness from $500 million in 2001 to $3 billion in 2002; the department must now set priorities for how to spend the funds. 'We have been in the desert, praying for a little rain, and suddenly we are hit with a typhoon', Henderson wrote... 'It is indeed overwhelming.'"
On June 26, Republican Senator Pat Roberts released the alarming findings of a report by the General Accounting Office (GAO) into the threat of nuclear smuggling in the US. The survey, requested by Senator Roberts, revealed an illogical contradiction - American overseas investment of $86 million to help 30 countries install and operate radiation detection equipment, juxtaposed to zero investment in such equipment on US borders. Roberts complained: "While we are spending millions of dollars improving Russia's ability to detect nuclear materials trafficking, we haven't made a similar investment in our own border security... Since 1993 [according to the GAO], we have had 181 confirmed incidents of illicit trafficking of nuclear materials [outside the US] that could be used in weapons..." On June 27, legislation was introduced in the Senate aiming to provide US ports and border crossings with adequate radiation detection equipment. According to Democratic Senator Charles Schumer, co-sponsor of the proposed measure together with Republican Senator John Warner: "Right now, our ability to detect nuclear weapons brought in through our ports, bridges and tunnels is virtually zero... Once terrorists can get that kind of weapon right into the heart of our cities, God only knows what could happen." Warner noted: "Homeland security is the nation's top priority, and defending our nation's 361 ports is essential..."
Reacting to the widespread portrayal of leaky borders and inadequate tracking of nuclear material, Richard A. Meserve, Chair of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, sought to reassure the public that "the NRC is taking appropriate steps to ensure that the nation's nuclear facilities and materials are secure against terrorist attacks, including so-called dirty bombs." Writing in USA Today on June 14, Meserve insisted the situation, while under review, was also under control:
"Prior to the terrorist attacks, the NRC took steps to lessen the likelihood of loss or theft. For example, the NRC initiated a program to register certain higher-risk radioactive devices that were not previously tracked. With the events of Sept. 11, a new imperative has arisen, and the NRC has reacted promptly to ensure tighter security measures. ... We are working with the Office of Homeland Security and other federal and state agencies to improve readiness for a potential attack involving radioactive materials. Our emergency Operations Center is staffed around the clock to respond to nuclear emergencies. We track the loss or theft of radioactive devices to ensure that the material unaccounted for is not being collected for use as a dirty bomb. We will continue to improve nuclear security and are prepared to respond to any nuclear emergency to ensure the protection of the public."
The President's proposal for a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) continues to move through Congress. On July, the House if Representatives adopted, by 295 votes to 132, legislation that would establish a gargantuan Department coordinating - at a first year cost of $37.4 billion - the work of 170,000 federal employees in 22 agencies. The step was heralded by the President (July 27): "I commend the House...for acting quickly to pass [this] landmark legislation... This bill includes the major components of my proposal providing for intelligence analysis and infrastructure protection, strengthening our borders, improving the use of science and technology to counter weapons of mass destruction, and enhancing our preparedness and response capabilities." The Senate will return to the issue in September, a delay caused primarily by a dispute with the White House over the protection of federal workers' rights in the new Department. During his weekly radio address on August 3, Bush chided the Senate for its tardiness and inflexibility: "The Senate should...act quickly to pass a bill authorizing the new Department...which it failed to do before the recess. This Department will consolidate dozens of federal agencies charged with protecting our homeland, giving them one main focus: protecting the American people. And when we create this Department, the new Secretary of Homeland Security will need the freedom and flexibility to respond to threats by getting the right people into the right jobs at the right time - without a lot of bureaucratic hurdles. The Senate must understand that the protection of our homeland is much more important than the narrow politics of special interests."
On July 16, the White House released a 90-page 'National Strategy for Homeland Security'. The document predicts: "Unless we act to prevent it, a new wave of terrorism, potentially involving the world's most destructive weapons, looms in America's future." Six priority areas for investment and enhancement are identified by the Strategy: intelligence and warning; border and transportation security; domestic counterterrorism; protecting "critical infrastructure"; defending against "catastrophic terrorism"; and "emergency preparedness and response". As the document notes: "The first three mission areas focus mainly on preventing terrorist attacks; the next two on reducing our nation's vulnerabilities; and the final one on minimizing the damage and recovering from attacks that do occur".
The same day, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham testified to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security on his Department's planned contribution, and transfer of resources and responsibilities, to the proposed DHS:
"[W]e...propose to transfer certain programs to DHS that directly support its homeland security mission. ... First, Research and Development to Counter the Chemical, Biological, Nuclear, and Radiological Threat. This DOE-wide program provides R&D for a DHS core mission: detecting and tracking the presence of weapons of mass destruction. ... Second, we propose to transfer the Advanced Scientific Computing Research program, with a budget of about $3 million. ... This activity is expected to provide a nucleus around which DHS could conduct the kind of simulations, computer science, and modelling needed to understand how large systems may react in different circumstances. Third, some DOE laboratories maintain an in-house intelligence capability for assessing nuclear weapons and other WMD technologies around the world, with a budget of $5.5 million. ... This capability includes analyses of third world chemical, biological, and nuclear programs, and thus is expected to be invaluable to the DHS for guiding research and development activities to counter the use of these weapons against the homeland. Fourth, as a means of establishing within the Department a critical core component in several areas of science that will directly support its mission to protect homeland security, we propose to transfer a portion, amounting to $20 million, of the DOE program in the life and environmental sciences. The specific activities...we propose to transfer consist of: first, rapid DNA sequencing of pathogenic microbes...; second, technology development... Fifth, we propose to transfer the nuclear assessment program, which currently resides within the DOE's and NNSA's Materials Protection, Control and Accountability Program. ... Sixth, we propose to transfer energy assurance activities, with a budget of $23.4 million. ... Activities include funding for the National Infrastructure Simulation and Analysis Center (NISAC), a key homeland security research and development activity. ... Finally, we propose to transfer to DHS the Environmental Measurements Laboratory (EML) located in New York City, with a budget of $5 million. This laboratory provides program management, technical assistance and data quality assurance for measurements of radiation and radioactivity relating to environmental restoration, global nuclear non-proliferation, and other priority issues."
On June 12, President Bush signed into law the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Response Act, designed, in the words of a State Department summary, to "improve port inspections", "protect the food supply", "track biological materials", and "improve the response capabilities of the health care system in the event of a serious attack". According to the President: "Biological weapons are potentially the most dangerous weapons in the world. We must be better prepared to prevent, identify and respond. And this bill I'm signing today will help a lot in this essential effort."
Notes: on June 27, retired Air Force General John A. Gordon, the head of the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), was appointed to lead the White House Office for Combatting Terrorism, part of the President's National Security Council. The Office was established in October last year, headed by retired Army General Wayne A. Dowling. On July 8, President Bush appointed Ambassador Linton Brooks as Acting NNSA Administrator with immediate effect. Brooks had been serving as Deputy Administrator under Gordon.
On July 9, the Senate, approved, by 60 votes to 39, the administration's plans to seek final scientific consent for the construction a central US nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. As reported in recent issues, the plan is bitterly opposed by Nevada's Republican Governor Kenny Guinn, a large swathe of Senate Democrats (accounting for 35 of the 39 votes against), and numerous campaign groups fearful of the environmental and terrorist hazards involved in both the transportation and storage of an estimated 77,000 tons of radioactive material. Energy Secretary Abraham, however, applauded the Senate's decision, noting in a statement (July 9): "After more than 20 years of debate, the Senate has rightfully chosen to allow the process of developing a nuclear waste repository...to proceed to the next step, recognizing that the independent experts at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission deserve the right to review the 24 years of scientific study of Yucca Mountain and to consider the site for a license. America's national, energy and homeland security, as well as environmental protection, is well-served by siting a single nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain. Congress has recognized that the government has safely transported nuclear waste for more than 30 years and, in doing so, has rejected the transportation scare tactics employed by those opposed to Yucca Mountain. Without Yucca Mountain, the nuclear waste simply stays where it is. However, by moving the process forward, we have the opportunity to dispose of nuclear waste that has piled-up at 131 sites in 39 states."
The proposed submission of the Yucca plan to the NRC licensing board - a step endorsed by the House of Representatives in May - was formally approved by the President on July 23, in a low-key bill-signing ceremony closed to the media. Nevada officials have vowed to fight the proposal through the courts. According to Governor Guinn (July 23): "Our best chance in defeating Yucca Mountain is in the federal courts, where impartial judges will hear the factual and scientific arguments as to why Yucca Mountain is not a safe place to store this nation's high-level nuclear waste." Complicating matters, on July 22 the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee - headed by Nevada Democrat Harry Reid - voted to cut the administration's Fiscal Year 2003 budget request for preliminary work at Yucca Mountain from $525 million to $336 million.
If approved, the Yucca Mountain facility is not expected to begin receiving waste until 2010. According to reports, the NRC licensing process may take up to five years.
Reports: Transcript - Bush signs bioterror bill, Washington File, June 12; Bush signs measure boosting bioterror defenses, Reuters, June 12; Defense Department Report, June 21 - proliferation, missile defense, Washington File, June 21; Report considers role of science in a world made vulnerable by terrorism, American Association for the Advancement of Science Press Release, June 24; Scientists urge immediate action to protect against terrorist threats, Associated Press, June 24; Material is tracked closely, by Richard A. Meserve, Washington File, June 24; Better nuclear, power defenses needed - US report, Reuters, June 24; Making the Nation Safer: the Role of Science and Technology in Countering Terrorism, prepublication version of US National Academy of Sciences report, released June 24 (http://books.nap.edu/html/stct/index.html); US should harness science and technology capabilities to fight terrorism, National Academy of Sciences Press Release, June 25; US panel urges broad federal bioterrorism agenda, Reuters, June 25; Senate backs stronger non-proliferation efforts, Reuters, June 26; Report cites risks caused by poor US effort to halt smuggling of radioactive material, Associated Press, June 26; Statement of Energy Secretary Abraham regarding General John Gordon, US Department of Energy Press Release PR-02-126, June 27; US Senate bill to aid nuclear weapon detection, Reuters, June 27; Ex-General quits anti-terror post, Associated Press, June 28; Ambassador Linton Brooks to be acting NNSA Administrator, US Department of Energy Press Release PR-02-133, July 8; Abraham praises US Senate approval of Yucca mountain, US Department of Energy Press Release PR-02-140, July 9; Testimony by US Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham to the Congressional Select Committee on Homeland Security, July 16, US Department of Energy transcript; President releases national strategy for homeland security, The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, July 16; Bush releases plan for homeland security, Washington File, July 16; Panel cuts Yucca Mountain funds, Associated Press, July 22; Senate panel cuts funds from Yucca nuclear dump, Reuters, July 22; Bush clears way for Nevada nuclear waste dump, Reuters, July 23; Bush Oks Nevada nuclear waste site, Associated Press, July 23; House approves new Department of Homeland Security, Reuters, July 29; Congressional Report, July 29 - House passes homeland security bill, Washington File, July 29; Bush urges Congress to act on defense, homeland security, energy bills, Washington File, August 3.
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