Posted 10 months ago on April 11, 2014, 3:21 p.m. EST by LeoYo
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America's Homegrown Terror
Friday, 11 April 2014 10:31
By Emanuel Pastreich and John Feffer, Foreign Policy In Focus | News Analysis
The U.S. security complex is up in arms about cyberhackers and foreign terrorists targeting America's vulnerable infrastructure. Think tank reports have highlighted the chinks in homeland security represented by unsecured ports, dams, and power plants. We've been bombarded by stories about outdated software that is subject to hacking and the vulnerability of our communities to bioterrorism. Reports such as the Heritage Foundation's "Microbes and Mass Casualties: Defending America Against Bioterrorism" describe a United States that could be brought to its knees by its adversaries unless significant investments are made in "hardening" these targets.
But the greatest dangers for the United States do not lurk in terrorist cells in the mountains surrounding Kandahar that are planning on assaults on American targets. Rather, our vulnerabilities are homegrown. The United States plays host to thousands of nuclear weapons, toxic chemical dumps, radioactive waste storage facilities, complex pipelines and refineries, offshore oil rigs, and many other potentially dangerous facilities that require constant maintenance and highly trained and motivated experts to keep them running safely.
The United States currently lacks safety protocols and effective inspection regimes for the dangerous materials it has amassed over the last 60 years. We don't have enough inspectors and regulators to engage in the work of assessing the safety and security of ports, bridges, pipelines, power plants, and railways. The rapid decline in the financial, educational, and institutional infrastructure of the United States represents the greatest threat to the safety of Americans today.
And it's getting worse. The current round of cutbacks in federal spending for low-visibility budgets for maintainence and inspection, combined with draconian cuts in public education, makes it even more difficult to find properly trained people and pay them the necessary wages to maintain infrastructure. As Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution points out, the 2015 budget fresh off the press includes a chart indicating that non-defense discretionary spending—including critical investments in infrastructure, education, and innovation—will continue to drop severely, from 3.1 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2013 to just 2.2 percent in 2024. This decision has been made even though the average rate for the last 40 years has been 3.8 percent and the United States will require massive infrastructure upgrades over the next 50 years.
The recent cheating scandal involving employees of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex is emblematic of the problem. Nuclear officers charged with protecting and maintaining the thousands of U.S. nuclear weapons simply copied the answers for tests about how to employ the complex machinery related to nuclear missiles. The scandal is only the latest in a long series of accidents, mishaps, and miscommunications that have nearly caused nuclear explosions and tremendous loss of life. As Eric Schlosser has detailed in his new book Command and Control, we have avoided inflicting a Hiroshima-sized attack on ourselves only through sheer dumb luck.
Last year, the American Society of Civil Engineers issued its Report Card for America's Infrastructure, which painted a grim picture of America's infrastructure. The average grade for infrastructure—covering transportation, drinking water, energy, bridges, dams, and other critical infrastructure—was a D+. The failure to invest in infrastructure over the last 15 years, the report argues, bodes ill for the future and will guarantee further disasters. As political campaigns against "bureaucrats" render the federal government incapable of recruiting and motivating qualified people, these disasters appear almost unavoidable. The weakest link from the point of view of national security are the military and energy sectors.
The problems begin with our weapons. Despite promises from 20 years ago that the U.S. Army Chemical Materials Agency would destroy chemical weapons stockpiles, we have finished only 50 percent of the job (whereas Russia has completed some 70 percent) according to Larry Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell.
The process of maintaining and removing dangerous weapons is tedious, labor-intensive, and inevitably involves community approval and the rawest forms of politics. The task suffers from an unhealthy combination of secrecy and apathy: the military wants to keep their weapons secret while the general population treats the matter with a striking lack of interest. Although many chemical weapons are stored relatively safely—binary substances are stored separately and are dangerous only when combined—many other chemicals related to fueling and other activities are hazardous. Because they are out of sight and out of mind, they are poorly managed.
Military waste is but a small part of the problem. The United States is peppered with all-but-forgotten chemical waste dumps, aging nuclear power plants, nuclear materials, oil rigs, oil pipelines, and mines (active and abandoned) that require an enormous investment in personnel and facilities to maintain safely.
The United States boasts the largest complex of storage facilities in the world related to civilian nuclear power and nuclear weapons programs. This network contains a dozen Fukushimas in the making. The U.S. nuclear energy system has generated more than 65,000 tons of spent fuel, much of which is stored in highly insecure locations. "Even though they contain some of the largest concentrations of radioactivity on the planet, U.S. spent nuclear fuel pools are mostly contained in ordinary industrial structures designed to merely protect them against the elements," writes IPS nuclear expert Robert Alvarez. "Some [of the structures] are made from materials commonly used to house big-box stores and car dealerships." An accident involving any one of these storage facilities could produce damage 60 times greater than the Chernobyl disaster.
The Energy Department, without much regard for public safety, plans to unceremoniously dump in a landfill a ton of radioactive material produced in its nuclear weapons program. Such an approach has precedents. The West Lake municipal landfill in Bridgeton, Missouri harbors highly radioactive material from the weapons program of the 1940s and 1950s. That unsecured material could transform into a major public health risk due to fire or flooding. More recently, investigation of the Hanford nuclear waste complex in Washington State revealed that "significant construction flaws" exist in six of the 28 radioactive waste storage tanks. One of them has been leaking since 2012. The site dates back to the plutonium experiments of the 1950s, and those flawed storage tanks contain around 5 million gallons of radioactive material.
The Obama administration has pledged to reduce its nuclear weapons arsenal and envisions a nuclear-weapons-free future. But at the same it is pouring money into "nuclear modernization" through the development of a new generation of weapons and consequentially even more radioactive waste. Moreover, the administration continues to include nuclear energy as part of its carbon reduction plans, directing federal subsidies to the construction of two new nuclear plants in Georgia.
Despite the enthusiasm for nuclear weapons and power, the administration has turned a blind eye to the disposal of all the nuclear waste that both the military and the civilian side have generated.