December 28, 2004

Tanker link to nuclear terror?

Here's another good reason to come to Washington. February 1 & 2 for our MARITIME & PORT SECURITY 2005 conference. A December 7, 2004 report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS) raises the specter of an oil tanker being used to smuggle a nuclear weapon into the U.S., the detonated in the U.S., causing a Hiroshima-scale explosion.

The six page report Port and Maritime Security: Potential forTerrorist Nuclear Attack Using Oil Tankers is by Jonathan Medalia, Specialist in National Defense, Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division, Congressional Research Service.

The summary to the report notes that while much attention has been focused on threats to maritime security posed by containerships, "terrorists could also attempt to use oil tankers to stage an attack. If they were able to place an atomic bomb in a tanker and detonate it in a U.S. port, they would cause massive destruction and might halt crude oil shipments worldwide for some time. Detecting a bomb in a tanker would be difficult. Congress may consider various options to address this threat."

Should Congress take up some of the options discussed in the report, life will certainly become more complicated for tanker and terminal--particularly loading terminal--operators.

The report says that if Congress finds the threat credible, options to consider include:

  • Clarify federal responsibility for tanker security by requiring a lead federal agency for tanker security and making more explicit the responsibilities of various federal agencies involved in tanker security.
  • Create a Tanker Security Initiative (TSI) analogous to the Container Security Initiative for improving containerized cargo security.12 TSI might set security standards for tankers that transport oil to U.S. ports,and for the ports where they load. Tankers not meeting the standards, or that come from ports not meeting the standards, could be denied entry to U.S. ports. Establishing such a regime would undoubtedly require negotiations with other countries.
  • Ensure that tankers are a focus of maritime domain awareness, which refers to surveillance and communication systems that would permit U.S. officials to have a comprehensive understanding at any given moment of the location and identity of ships at sea.
  • Assure sufficient U.S. intelligence assets are focused on the threat and possible indications of preparations for such an attack. Terrorists seeking to acquire or build a bomb and smuggle it onto a tanker would need to go through certain steps. Similarly, a terrorist bomb placed inside a tank of crude oil might have certain signatures, such as a way to detonate the bomb. The Intelligence Community could analyze such steps and signatures, and be alert to signs of the most critical ones.
  • Determine whether funding is adequate for technologies that hold some prospect of detecting an atomic bomb aboard a tanker.
  • Keep oil tankers away from U.S. ports by promoting the construction of more offshore ports like LOOP.
  • Improve international cooperation. Existing international agreements and organizations that might focus on tanker security include agreements for countering narcotics, crime, and piracy; the International Maritime Organization, shipping associations, and Interpol; and the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code. These efforts could supplement the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), a multilateral effort for interdicting ships at sea that are suspected of carrying weapons of mass destruction.Ships available for PSI missions might respond to indications of tanker security problems at sea.14 The United States could pursue increased bilateral cooperation with oil-exporting states and countries under whose flags tankers are registered. Potential measures include improved perimeter security at oil-loading terminals and more rigorous background screening and training of port workers and tanker crew members
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