Tag Archives: nuclear

Atomic Age Redux: Bring Back the Nuclear Cargo Ship

Nuclear Ship Savannah

Nuclear Ship Savannah

This is the first time that I’m talking about this subject sober. Generally it comes up when I get into an impassioned explanation after a few glasses of wine, a nice dinner, in well, ahem “permissive” company. You see, despite my cover as a staid businesswoman, I have a secret passion. And that passion is for nuclear-powered cargo ships.

I have not only tortured my friends, relatives, and long-suffering husband, but I’ve written many letters to my elected representatives. I’ve so far received numerous courteous responses on the importance of energy reform, and in one notable case, thanking me for my interest in animal testing  (thanks George Allen!)

Before I go further, let me take a step back and explain. I was researching the architecture of cargo ships (let’s not get into why) and I discovered NS Savannah, one of four nuclear-powered cargo ships ever built (only one, Russian-built, is still in operation). It turns out that they were incredibly time and energy-efficient and safe, but far too costly for widespread production. Cargo ships in general are enormously expensive, and many fleets use old ships and perform minimal maintenance instead of purchasing newer vessels (as any West Wing fan well knows).

Until very recently, nuclear power, in addition to being wildly unpopular in the United States, was just unfeasible economically. However, since the project was abandoned by our government, the world has changed, and there are three key reasons to adopt them (among other, less significant ones):

1)      Homeland Security

2)      Environmental Impact

3)      Economic Potential

1) Homeland Security

America owns very little of its civilian shipping. This means that goods shipped to American soil, used by Americans are transported there, by and large, on vessels owned by foreign nations with crews made up of non-Americans.

These tons upon tons of freight are transported through customs, into American ports and toward American consumers with only the smallest percentage adequately inspected for potential risk. Explosives, biological agents, and other threats are difficult to defend against with our limited level of scrutiny, due not to the inefficiency of inspectors, but the sheer volume of containers.

The largest container ships can hold 15,200 containers. Any attempt at an effective search of these is complicated not just by the number, but also the logistics of the tightly packed cargo. Verifying the entire contents against the manifest is a sheer impossibility—and now multiply that by thousands of ships each day. Given the small amount of explosive or biological agent necessary to cause wholesale destruction, it is a situation worse than searching for a needle in a haystack, it would be like seeking a specific microbe on that needle.

I’m not suggesting that American ships and crews would completely solve this issue, but the lax international guidelines on crew hiring, and maintenance for ships creates a significant security hole for terrorists to slip through. How much damage could be done if a single container processed through New York’s harbor was carrying a biological agent? What would be the economic repercussions if the contents of a ship were to disable the port in Portland or Boston?

2) Environmental Impact

I think that it’s clear to most that our dependency on fossil fuels, and specifically on oil, is unsustainable. We are stuck between two hard choices, one is to risk the significant adverse effects involved in deep-sea or Alaskan drilling, and the other is to pay enormous sums of money to Arab nations, putting us at their economic and industrial mercy.

Nuclear power is remarkably clean, it is also efficient, and fast.  Nuclear-powered ships cross the ocean in half or even a third of the time of conventional vessels, do not require the vast amount of oil (or transport of oil) of traditional ships, and in the event of crash, the environmental impact, instead of oil spills, is limited to used nuclear cores, around which sufficient safety measures have already been constructed for extant nuclear-powered ships.

3) Economic Potential

And now what makes this plan palatable in the current climate. Shipyards in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia have been grinding to a halt for the last 20 years, and the same scene is repeated all over the country. Industrial jobs in ship-building, as well as other types of industrial manufacture s are disappearing as consumers require fewer products, and buy cheaper ones from abroad.

Here America has a clear advantage, nuclear-powered civilian ships have only been produced by four nations: Russia (one cargo ship, and some icebreakers), Japan (one ship, never used to carry cargo), Germany (one, later refitted for diesel) and the U.S. (our friend the Savannah).

We build nuclear-powered ships for the navy—aircraft carriers and submarines spring to mind—so the technology is currently in use, and available. What would be necessary is a re-fit of factories, currently lying fallow, and design firms,  creating jobs for Americans in not just manufacturing, but research and development, two more sustainable fields.

I could go on, and on (and I have), but it seems clear that nuclear-powered cargo ships are worth exploring. Certainly worth some of the TARP money, which is currently propping up enfeebled banks.  They could create new industry, reduce our environmental impact, and help safeguard our shores.

photo: voa.marad.dot.gov

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The Only Thing Worse

Bomb ExplosionThe only thing worse than a nuclear terrorist attack on US soil may in fact be more likely.

Nuclear terrorism is one of the few issues that almost everyone can agree on – it really is a worst case scenario. A terrorist organization acquiring unsecure nuclear material from a nuclear state – or worse, purchasing nuclear technology off the nuclear black market – is the ultimate unthinkable tragedy and a very difficult enemy. Commensurate retaliation on the attackers would be impossible. The US might choose to retaliate against the nation that supplied the nuclear material or weapon; or against the nation hosting the terrorist organization, but such actions are ultimately ineffective at limiting a future threat.

Consider this scenario: al Qaeda acquires two loose nuclear weapons through sympathetic terrorist organizations in Russia. Al Qaeda then sends its operatives along with the weapons to the port in Los Angeles and to the Boston harbor. Even a dirty bomb (one that merely disperses nuclear material rather than creating a nuclear blast) could kill hundreds of people initially and thousands more from radiation poisoning. But the true terror is from the after effects.

Markets would crash, the port of LA would close – reducing US imports by 45 percent – the current administration’s security policies would be disparaged, and we would be forced to embark on even larger counterterrorism campaign. This is all, of course, in addition to the psychological effect on the American public, the heightened security measures by nations across the globe, and the looming question of whether or not there would be another attack.

But this scenario may, in fact, be a better than at least one alternative.

Imagine again that al Qaeda has acquired two nuclear weapons. It does not have confidence in its ability to bring the weapon on to US soil, so it follows a different path – it detonates one bomb in a remote region of Southern Afghanistan. Nuclear forensics across the globe detect the blast and confirm that it is a nuclear weapon. Relatively few people are thought to be affected, but three hours later a video is released on the internet showing a senior al Qaeda leader positioned next to the second nuclear device. “There are more.” He says. “And you will bow to our demands.”

What would the world do? Certainly the US publicly claims not to negotiate with terrorists, but its own history and that of its allies suggests that negotiating with terrorists may not be too far from the norm. For example, the British did it in Northern Ireland and (depending on semantics) the US did it in Iraq and during the Iran Contra affair, among others. It is true that these “terrorist” organizations were very different from al Qaeda, but the point is the same. And we know from Spain’s example in 2004 that terrorist threats and attacks can and do influence political decisions and the democratic process.

Could the US be forced to withdraw prematurely from Iraq or Afghanistan? Close its embassies in Muslim nations?

Depending on the demands, it may not be up to the US to decide whether or not to negotiate. If the demands were to immediately withdraw all troops from Pakistan or the bomb would be detonated in Islamabad, one can be nearly certain that the either the government or the population of Pakistan would quickly drive US forces out.

So where does that leave us? Not detonating a nuclear device is at least as easy as detonating one. And that means that this even-worse case scenario is more probable. A nuclear attack leaves the US with thousands of dead civilians, a terrified population, but an emboldened sense of determination. Being held at nuclear gun-point leaves the US and its allies mostly crippled – certainly privately, if not publicly –with a terrorist organization effectively dictating foreign policy and still with the possibility of a devastating nuclear attack.

In that situation, what could we do?

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All Roads Lead to Pakistan, But Does the Terrorist Hunt End There?

President Obama’s strategy towards terrorism is understandably Pakistan-centric.  Any honest assessment of terrorist and nuclear threats to the United States finds an intersection in Pakistan.  But the US may be at risk, once again, of agreeing to take on a problem that is neither bound in objective nor time.

Ensuring that Pakistan has the capacity and desire to secure its nuclear arsenal and territorial integrity from militants, particularly terrorists, is certainly in the US’s best interest.  But what does a secure Pakistan look like from the US perspective?  How long will US forces be involved in Pakistan?  Politically, how long can US forces be involved in Pakistan?  And most importantly, is Pakistan really going to be the last frontier in the fight against terrorism?

It’s not difficult to imagine a situation in August of 2011 where ISAF has largely subdued the al Qaeda and Taliban threat in Afghanistan.  What is harder to imagine is a Pakistan whose security puts the US at ease.  A war that started in Afghanistan may very well continue in Pakistan.

But it may not end in Pakistan.  Terrorist activity in Yemen poses a similar problem to the US.  It is politically untenable for the US to engage in overt action to any significant degree, leaving only military aid and training to support the local government and military.  Somalia, too, poses a similar problem. The lack of tangible government in Somalia means that the US could potentially conduct military operations – an enticing prospect that has been realized at least once in the last year.

The relatively recent rise of terrorist safehavens in these areas means that if the US seeks to eradicate terrorism, it may very well do so without rest for the foreseeable future.  These regions do not pose the same nuclear threat that Pakistan does, but they may one day pose the same terrorist threat that Afghanistan did.

At some point the question “what’s next?” has to give way to the question “where is the end?”  What are the costs of playing an endless game of terrorist whack-a-mole?

In the early 1970’s Britain’s Home Secretary said that the IRA may “not be defeated, not completely eliminated, but have their violence reduced to an acceptable level.”  Most Americans would be most comfortable knowing that the terrorist threat as we know it today had been categorically eliminated.  But we must also recognize that the costs and practicality of doing so may be prohibitive.  The question, then, is to decide when we will be satisfied and then communicate that frustrating reality with a nation.

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