If the Terrorists Attack Our Ports It Probably Will Not Be A Nuclear Attack

A nightmare attack on our ports.

Many anti-nuclear power people repeat a few of mistakes frequently. There are other mistakes but this article will focus on the ones below. Here is a quote from the typically misguided ideas.

In May 2006, the House overwhelmingly approved by a 421 to 2 vote, legislation to provide $7.4 billion in spending on new port security inspectors, nuclear weapons screening and the development of an automated system to pinpoint high-risk cargo.

The economic impact of even a single nuclear terrorist attack on a major U.S. seaport would be very great. In the three plausible scenarios examined, a successful attack would create disruption of U.S. trade valued at $100-200 billion, property damage of $50-500 billion, and 50,000 to 1,000,000 lives could be lost. Global and long-term effects, including the economic impacts of the pervasive national and international responses to the nuclear attack, though not calculated, are believed to be substantially greater.

1. They make a big deal about potential cost and damage from various forms of nuclear enabled terrorist attack.

There are several wrong assumptions in that idea. One of the big ones is that there are not non-nuclear attacks that can be as damaging and deadly as a nuclear attack. The non-nuclear attacks are more easily accomplished and do not require taking years developing or accessing nuclear weapons.

2. They assume that not having commercial nuclear power will make them safer and eliminate certain risks or costs

Nuclear weapons existed many years before commercial nuclear power.
In 1945, there were nuclear weapons. Perhaps you heard about them. They had some obscure use at places called Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Mid-1950s the first commercial nuclear reactors. On June 27, 1954, the USSRs Obninsk Nuclear Power Plant became the world’s first nuclear power plant to generate electricity for a power grid, and produced around 5 megawatts of electric power. The world’s first commercial nuclear power station, Calder Hall in Sellafield, England was opened in 1956 with an initial capacity of 50 MW (later 200 MW). The first commercial nuclear generator to become operational in the United States was the Shippingport Reactor (Pennsylvania, December, 1957).

Almost every country that has nuclear weapons gotten the weapons before they got commercial nuclear power.

There are now thousands of nuclear weapons. If the anti-nuclear people got their wish (which they won’t) that all commercial reactors get shut down and no new ones get built, then the nuclear weapons and nuclear material still exist and are still a threat. Thus showing one aspect of the lack of correlation between nuclear weapons and commercial nuclear power. If the nuclear power plants get shutdown then would the US not have to secure its ports ? The US still would have to secure its ports. So how does the $7.4 billion for port security (voted for in 2006) count against commercial nuclear power ?

Does North Korea have commercial nuclear power ? No. But it has six atomic bombs or at least the material for that many.
Iran has the centrifuges running to get its nuclear bombs, but does it have a commercial nuclear reactor yet ? No.

The scenarios that anti-nuclear power people talk about is always a maximal super optimized attack against New York by terrorists. Against every other place (other than perhaps Tokyo) there is not that much concentrated and valuable population and property.

They never bother to make the terrorist connection between 5% enriched uranium and 90%+ weapons grade material. They ignore how hard it is to get from low enrichment to high enrichment. Iran, an entire nation, is taking decades to get sufficient enriched material.

How about farming and fertilizer ? Those are seemingly benign activities and material. No one seems to be protesting those things as being deadly.

Af fertilizer bomb was used for the Oklahoma City Bombing.

After the Oklahoma city bomb

Timothy McVeigh used a fertilizer bomb. Do the deaths and damage from that count against farming, trucks and fertilizer. Why not ? It is a tighter correlation than between nuclear bombs and nuclear power.

At 9:02 a.m. CST, the Ryder truck, containing in excess of 6,200 pounds (2,800 kg) of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, nitromethane, and diesel fuel mixture, detonated in front of the north side of the nine-story Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. The effects of the blast were equivalent to over 5,000 pounds (2,300 kg) of TNT and could be heard and felt up to 55 miles (89 km) away. The attack claimed 168 lives and left over 800 people injured.

How about a scenario where a supertanker which can hold up to 500,000 tons is loaded with fertilizer explosive ? Optionally they mix in some radiological material from some hospital or other source or just mine some uranium or thorium and have that on the supertanker.

The explosion could be even bigger than the hypothetical nuclear terrorist attack.

But that kind of thing has not happened before right?


The Halifax Explosion occurred on Thursday, December 6, 1917 when the city of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, was devastated by the huge detonation of the SS Mont-Blanc, a French cargo ship, fully loaded with wartime explosives, which accidentally collided with a Norwegian ship, the SS Imo in “The Narrows” section of the Halifax Harbour. The picture at the beginning of this article was the mushroom cloud from the Halifax explosion in 1917. About 2,000 people were killed by debris, fires, or collapsed buildings and it is estimated that over 9,000 people were injured. This is still the world’s largest man-made accidental explosion. All buildings and structures covering nearly 2 square kilometres (500 acres) along the adjacent shore were obliterated, including those in the neighbouring communities of Richmond and Dartmouth. The explosion caused a tsunami in the harbour and a pressure wave of air that snapped trees, bent iron rails, demolished buildings, grounded vessels, and carried fragments of the Mont-Blanc for kilometres.

2,653 tons of wartime explosives.

According to estimates, roughly $35 million Canadian dollars in damages resulted (in 1917 dollars; adjusted for inflation, this is about CAD$500 million in 2007 dollars)

Terrorists do not have to do it the hard way.

A Real Nightmare Scenario

Piracy is in the news.

On November 15, 2008, Somali pirates seized the supertanker MV Sirius Star, 450 miles off the coast of Kenya. The ship was carrying around $100 million worth of oil and had a 25-man crew. This marked the largest tonnage vessel ever seized by pirates.

The Piracy Reporting Centre of the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) stated in 2004 that more pirate attacks in that year occurred in Indonesian waters (70 of 251 reported attacks) than in the waters of any other country. Of these attacks, a majority occurred in the Straits of Malacca. They also stated that of the attacks in 2004, oil and gas tankers and bulk carriers were the most popular targets with 67 attacks on tankers and 52 on bulk carriers.

MV Sirius Star is an oil tanker owned and operated by Vela International Marine. With a length overall of 1,090 feet (330 m) and a capacity of 2 million barrels (320,000 m**3) of crude oil, the ship is classified as a very large crude carrier or VLCC.

If you recall 9/11: 19 Islamist terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda hijacked four commercial passenger jet airliners.

The two if by sea plan would seem to be terrorists infiltrate to get control of tanker or bulk carriers in a way that it is not known to not be under trusted control. Then take fertilizer or other explosive cargo from several fairly large ships into multiple ports around the world and detonate them at the same time.

The world consumption of fertilizer is about 150 million tons per year. Ammonium nitrate fertilizer is one of the most common fertilizers. Major fertilizer consumer countries are China, the United States, Brazil, India and Southeast Asian countries consumed two third of global potash fertilizer, but the output of potash fertilizer in these countries accounted for only 9.0 per cent of global output. So most fertilizer is shipped. More than 1.5 million tons of ammonium nitrate was sold in the United States in 2003. Fertilizer sales remain unrestricted across much of the United States as of 2004

If you look back at the ingredients in the Oklahoma bomb, they had fertilizer and diesel fuel. I think middle eastern terrorists can get their hands on shiploads of diesel fuel. As the piracy statistics show there are about 60-70 attacks on oil tankers each year. As noted there are usually only 12-24 person crews on the tankers and bulk carriers. Plus if Iran was backing some kind of terrorist attack, I believe they have significant amounts of oil and enough oil in tankers.

I think there is means, motive and opportunity. Multiple ship attacks that each could be ten to two hundred times as powerful as the Halifax explosion. (2600 tons of explosive in 1917 that killed 2000 and injured 9000 and devastated Halifax) I leave it as an exercise to tally the financial impact and death toll of larger attacks against multiple port or coastal cities.

In writing this up under the assumption that either places like Homeland security have already thought of it or that they should read this and consider what needs to be done. [Marines, Navy and coast guard apparently are aware of these scenarios for a few decades and apparently have measures in place to prevent it] It probably is more important than making sure people take off their shoes for airport screening. The terrorists already thought up the plane hijacking for 9-11. Hijacking ships or trucks and trains would not be a stretch.


Ammonium nitrate at wikipedia

Ammonium Nitrate disaster list at wikipedia

As noted by a commenter: the Texas City Disaster is highly relevant

The cargo ship Grandcamp was being loaded on April 16, 1947 when a fire was detected in the hold: at this point, 2600 tonnes of ammonium nitrate in sacks were already aboard. The captain responded by closing the hold and pumping in pressurised steam. One hour later, the ship exploded, killing several hundred people and setting fire to another vessel, the High Flyer, which was moored 250 metres away and which contained 1050 tonnes of sulfur and 960 tons of ammonium nitrate. The Grandcamp explosion also created a powerful earthshock and knocked two small planes flying at 1,500 feet (460 m) out of the sky. The High Flyer exploded the next day, after having burned for sixteen hours. 500 tonnes of ammonium nitrate on the quayside also burned, but without exploding, probably because it was less tightly packed.

Ammonium nitrate can explode even without mixing with diesel and other agents. Ammonium nitrate is 0.42 times as explosive as TNT by weight.

New U.S. Coast Guard regulations on the shipment of ammonium nitrate went into effect July 1, 2004. These require that each vessel or facility have a security plan, vessel or facility maintenance and security records, records of training, drills on breaches of security, establishment and training of a facility security officer, a vessel security officer for each vessel and a commanding security officer over all vessels. Vessel and facility security systems must be installed. Security training is required. The regulations list ammonium nitrate as a “Certain Dangers Cargo,” which necessitates continuously patrolled restricted areas. The bottom line is that some port facilities have decided to discontinue handling ammonium nitrate, and some barge lines have decided to discontinue shipping the product due to the increased cost and liability (source of information for transportation is Green Markets Dealer Report, October 11, 2004).

The above procedures still seem insufficient if the vessel was pirated or had a terrorist crew.

A ship in 2007 with ammonium nitrate, (undisclosed amount) but the ship could hold 3000 tons, caught fire off the Australian Port of Newcastle and had visited six other ports.

Austrialian news covered it and people were upset that if the fire had gotten out of control that it would devastated Newcastle

Chuck Devore, now California state assemblyman, wrote about an ammonium nitrate ship bomb in his novel “China Attacks” as means to damage the Panama Canal for months. Chuck is aware of the risks and is in a position to let others in California and Federal government be aware of the need for more action.

Terrorist attack by sea scenario at the Foreign Policy Research Institute

In 2003, Greek authorities seized the Baltic Sky, loaded with either 750 tons of TNT or 750 tons of industrial-grade ammonium nitrate-based explosives and 140,000 detonators, renewed concerns of terrorists using ships as bombs to blow up port cities.

There was not much public discussion of the incident by officials of the USA or the Greeks.