Combating Terrorism: an Event Tree Approach
version of summer 2002
Support for President Bush's Aim to Stop TerrorismAfter the September 11th terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, I, like most Americans, had very complex feelings. Like the vast majority, I felt the animal reaction, "let us get the guy who did this". This is difficult, because in the very nature of a suicide attack the person directly responsible is dead. I agree with President Bush that the person who plans such activities is a person we want to catch and punish. But therein lie the complications. How do you find the planner? and what is a terrorist? When is a man a terrorist and when is he a freedom fighter? Is a terrorist a coward if he blows himself up? Moreover, merely rooting out existing, known terrorists is a reactive approach rather than a positive approach of making society somewhat safer and/or reducing the number of terrorists.
I also am much more aware than most Americans that the destruction of September 11th 2001 is far from unusual in the world. What is unusual, is that 2,800 people were killed in a short time, and by terrorist action. It has been said that everything changed on September 11th . But not so much for me. On September1st 1939, I left home on my bicycle, leaving London, Great Britain, not knowing whether I would see my parents again. 2 million children left London that day expecting imminent air raids. 15 months later the center of London looked worse than New York did after the collapse of the World Trade Center. I tend to take a long term view. Supposing that we catch the guy responsible (maybe Osama Bin-Laden) what is to stop Osama Bin Laden's associates from taking over the organization, and worse still, what is the to stop others, not yet known, becoming terrorists? Thus I very quickly realize that one must address terrorism in many different ways of which the first and most important is to address the root causes of terrorism or as many of them as we can. This then leads me to think about the whole issue intellectually, and I find that there are many areas in which Probabilistic Risk Assessment can be very relevant.
What should a physicist do?
Firstly a physicist will define the problem. In this he will try to
ensure that the language
he uses is the same as the language his associates use so that he is
Definitions are all important. Secondly he tries to break the problem
manageable parts. Hopefully these parts are uncorrelated with each
other or at least have
as few correlations as possible. In safety engineering these
correlations are called
"common mode failures" The analyst's skill comes in choosing the
ensure this independence as much as possible. My colleague, the late
Ed. Purcell, thinking of how best to design his experimental equipment
so that it could be easily
adjusted, used to call this "the orthogonality of knobs". As I do this,
I first notice an
important scientific revolution going on in society which inevitably
we try to do. The revolution of globalization.
Globalization and its ConsequencesWe are developing a Global Economy. Indeed globalization seems inevitable. Globalization is more than a globalization of markets, although we know that can bring increased economic prosperity- often my avoiding the middlemen and traditional traders. The protesters at Seattle, and Genoa, and even the NGOs at Durban, understood this better than the official delegates to these conferences seemed to do. But even they failed to realize that globalization is simultaneous with, and may be a partial consequence of a major scientific revolution. There are scientific developments in three fields that have already begun to influence us and together they will make enormous changes. I do not think we can stop these changes even if we want to but we should be prepared for them even though no one knows the full extent of the revolution that they are causing. They are in:
(1) Communication technology
(2) Biology and
(3) in physics.
The new communications technology - itself deriving from applications of physics - ensures that anyone in the world with minimal equipment can be full aware of everything that is happening. All that he needs is a laptop computer with a satellite telephone line. Moreover that line will be more reliable than the existing local telephone service. We have, and use, technology to watch each other. It is hard to hide. Even 30 years ago a photograph of Moscow from a satellite 100 miles in the sky enabled me to count the number of people in line to enter Lenin's tomb. There is an inevitable openness that creates an interdependence which will affect all of our lives.
We have sequenced the human genome. This will bring the opportunity to cure or to kill. Biological weapons are true weapons of mass destruction and must be controlled if the human race is to survive. We will probably soon synthesize cocaine substitutes which can be made cheaply and in facilities that are harder to identify than the poppy fields- just as the manufacture amphetamines now very easily. That will make the international cooperation on the "drug war" even more important. Anthrax is in the news today. But many more people have been killed by our failure to control drugs such as cocaine than by anthrax. On the other hand we can also wipe out pests - such as locusts - which eat our crops. But only if nations cooperate. When Ethiopia had a civil war, cooperation was suspended and the effect on the neighbors- an increase of locusts - was pronounced.
Physics has brought us in the last 50 years nuclear medicine, nuclear powered electricity but of course the atomic bomb. The world has fortunately recognized the supreme importance of keeping nuclear weapons in check. More nations have signed the non-proliferation treaty than any other treaty. By signing this treaty each state gives up some sovereignty and becomes dependent on the others. None of us would support self determination if that included a right to make atomic bombs and threaten the rest of the world.
In another respect,
globalization brings us few options. It is no use saying "stop the
world I want to get off". But in addition to the economic benefits
it brings the world
troubles closer - and makes global terrorism, as distinct from local
inevitable. It will be now with us for ever so we had better
Almost 100% of Americans, including myself, supported President Bush in his aim to capture Osame Bin Laden and his followers. Although we might not use the word ourselves, we all agree that their actions and the men themselves are evil. Most other Governments in the world so agree also. Although the bombing in Afghanistan seems to be justified by the events of the week of November11th 2001, in spite of many peoples forebodings, there is still room for questioning the overall US war on terrorism. President Bush has called Osame Bin Laden "evil" Also evil, and with more serious consequences, was Adolph Hitler. Bertrand Russell, a prominent pacifist in world war I, publicly stated that fighting Adolph Hitler and his Nazi gang was different from the German Kaiser in World War I since Adolph Hitler was evil. There is less international support for Mr Bush's war on terrorism when the aim is widened to include all terrorists. It then becomes necessary to understand who is a terrorist. There can be terrorists on both sides of a dispute. In such a case the world (probably through the UN which was set up for the purpose) might have to place itself in the middle with a risk of loss of life of personnel. Getting rid of Hitler took 6 years and 70 million lives. Hopefully the world can get rid of evil men a little more simply now.The Chinese regard the Japanese Emperor Hirohito as evil, especially for his direct involvement in, if not ordering of, the rape of Nanking in which 300,000 Chinese were massacred. Although I was aware of this massacre as it occurred, it was far away, and Europe had more local matters to consider. I was also unaware until recently that the Emperor was personally aware of the massacre and could have stopped it, and that the hero of the 50 odd westerners in the Chinese capital who tried to limit of the massacre was the head of the Nazi party in China. Surely this tells us that one can find heros in most unlikely places. The American acceptance of the Emperor after 1945 was very puzzling to many people - especially to Chinese.
Definition of a TerroristI like to go back to the Oxford English Dictionary. As I do so I will ask a set of questions. The reader will surely notice that I have many questions but few (if any) answers. Indeed I do not expect anyone to agree with me, or each other, on answers to all of them. But they should be pondered by us all.
Another use was to the extreme revolutionary society in Russia and the implication of important people was known in 1905 "Several notables are believed to be more or less implicated in the acts of the Terrorists".
It was also applied (in 1866) to those in Ireland objecting to British rule: "Miss G...., daughter of a Wexford terrorist, directed many of the tortures which were so extensively practiced".
And in 1805 there were the religious terrorists: "some book of the religious terrorists which tended to infuse the alarm of foul perdition".
These uses of the word terrorist all in some way apply to a person or people, individual or governmental, which terrifies people. How did President Bush use the word terrorist in his speeches? How did we hear it? Mr Bush seemed to consider it applies solely to those who oppose the policies of governments or entities whom America (Mr. Bush) dislikes. In parlance today, as formerly, the word was used against any people, or a government that one did not like. The President of Pakistan took care to explain that he opposes terror in all its forms- by which I assume he includes oppression of a people by its government or an occupying government. I suggest that we all heard it in the way we wanted. However most people in the USA use the word only to describe actions we and our government do not like, and by extension actions another government does not like. But that leads to problems. I list a number of conundrums which list is, unfortunately, very far from complete.(1) Was Hitler and his Nazis a gang of terrorists even though they were the legitimate government of Germany, originally elected by the people? Were opponents of Hitler terrorists? Especially Colonel Von Stauffenburg who tried to assassinate Hitler with a bomb in a brief case?
(2) Were the Hutus in Ruanda terrorists even though they were (as we know) supported by the legitimate government in their slaughter of the Tutsis?
(3) Were the Young Turks terrorists when they victimized the Armenians in 1916? Or were the Armenians terrorists because they were not model citizens of the Ottoman Empire and would not be slaughtered quietly?
(4) Again, were (and are) the opponents of British rule (or Protestant rule) in Ireland (or part of it) terrorists? Has the situation changed since partition was generally agreed in 1922?
(5) Is the government of Russia guilty of terrorism against the people of Chechnya (who have as much voting power as other residents of Russia) or are the radical Chechens guilty of terrorism against Russia? Or both?
(6) Is the government of Sri Lanka acting like theJacobins against the Tamils of the north, or are the Tamils a bunch of terrorists to be tamed?
(7) Were the French fighting a terrorist group, Greenpeace, when they sank the ship in a New Zealand harbor? Or were they terrorists themselves?
(8) Was Oliver North a terrorist? He was arranging the financing of the Contras, a group opposing the legitimate Government of Nicaragua, for his own ideological reasons, and contrary to the explicit instructions of the elected US Congress.
(9) When does a government using excessive force against a dissident group become terrorist themselves? Were the actions against the dissidents in WACO Texas, terrorist activities in the Jacobin sense or were they fighting terrorists? At least one American (Timothy McVeigh) thought the former and became a terrorist himself in response.
(10) Was General Custer fighting a band of Indian terrorists as he made his last stand, or were the Indians fighting an oppression worse than the French had experienced in 1795? I note that at the time most Americans believed the former. Nowadays it is politically correct in some circles to believe the latter. It is safe to do so, since the Indians are dead or cowed, and it costs nothing to do so.
(11) Was Castro a terrorist or a freedom fighter when he opposed the government of Batista? Are the people who oppose him terrorists, whether they live in Cuba or Florida? What about those branded by Castro as terrorists to whom the USA has given citizenship? The US supported Castro's overthrow of Batista and supported those who tried to overthrow Castro. Is the US government merely against any Cuban (or Carribean or ...) government which doesn't toe the US line?
(12) Finally, I mention an
issue which arouses more emotion and interest in the
USA than most others. However a professional must not duck difficult
issues. It is here
that his professionalism can be most useful. Is the government of
Israel a terrorist
government because with respect to the Palestinians they follow (to
quote the description
of the Jacobins) "the cruel and impolitic maxim of keeping the people
subjugation by a merciless severity"? Or are the Palestinians all
terrorists because they
belong to an organization opposing the present government of Israel and
its policies and
particularly in its early days, to drive them into the
sea? Although they believed that
Israel imposes a ruthless occupation upon them? Are the Israeli
actions justified because
of Palestinian terrorism (or resistance) or unjustified because
(according to many people)
even the Israeli presence is contrary to US Security Council
The expression "freedom fighter" has been used by those who argue that a particular group is fighting for the freedom of his country against foreign domination and oppression and that this somehow justifies any otherwise unpleasant act that he or she performs. This phrase needs definition more than most others but the definition is inevitably subjective.
A leading theoretical physicist Professor Victor Weisskopf once (in my presence) corrected a Russian interpreter for referring to the October revolution of November 1917 as a rebellion. Rebellion according to OED is organized armed resistance to the ruler of Government of one's country. But when the rebellion succeeds, it becomes a revolution: "the complete overthrow of one's government." Likewise when a terrorist succeeds in his objective of overthrowing the established order, he is regarded as a freedom fighter.
Clearly Jefferson, once a rebel, became a freedom fighter. Most people would not call him a terrorist because he did not engage in violence, although he indirectly urged it. However Jefferson did not, in his writings condemn terrorism. In contrast Monachem Begin was definitely a terrorist organizer in 1945 when he organized various activities such as the blowing up of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. But he later became leader of his country (Israel) which had become free and independent. Bourgiba was jailed as a terrorist by the British in Cairo, but later went on to become the first President of his country (Tunisia). Syria, Iran and Iraq were on a short list of States that the US State Department accuses of encouraging terrorism. Yet Syria supported the USA in the Gulf war and now has a seat on the UN Security Council. Has Syria thereby stopped being a terrorist country? Or were we wrong in thinking it was one before?
In addition to the present bombing in Afghanistan, Americans have to look back at their own history to grasp the complications of such a simplistic distinction.
"Single acts of tyranny may be ascribed to the accidental opinion of the day; but a series of oppressions, begun in a distinguished period and pursued unilaterally thro' every change of ministers, too plainly prove a deliberate, systematical plan of reducing us to slavery".
As I read these worlds aloud a listener thought that these might be the words of Gerry Adams - the leader of the IRA. But they might also be the (translated) words of a Kashmiri leader, or of Yasser Arafat. But no. These words were written by Thomas Jefferson in 1774. They propelled him to the Congress in Philadelphia as a representative from Virginia. Jefferson was clearly accusing George III of the form of terrorism according to the usage I listed first in this memo. This was before the Jacobins came to power and the word "terrorist" became popular.
Indeed on July 4th every year Americans celebrate the day when terrorists became patriots and rebels became statesmen.
I then go on with my difficult questions.
(13) Were the perpetrators of the Boston Tea party "terrorists" as George III might have said, or freedom fighters? They wantonly destroyed private property but they killed no one.
(14) Almost everyone in the USA and many others seem to agree that the people who deliberately flew airplanes into the world trade center were terrorists. But the further one gets into the complicated disagreements, the more difficult it is to agree upon a consistent definition.
(15) In May 1940, after Dunquerque, most Englishmen feared a Nazi occupation of England within a few weeks. Teenagers, including myself, learned rules of unarmed combat. While before 1939 we had been taught the "Queensbury Rules" of boxing, we were now told:"always hit below the belt" and "stamp on the instep". I was shown how to creep up on a German sentry and cut off his head with a sharp wire such as used for cutting cheese. Was this education in resisting unwanted occupation a training in terrorism or training in fighting for freedom?
(16) The birth of Bangladesh 30 years
ago illustrate show how a metamorphosis
can come about. Some people in East Pakistan picked up guns to
oppose the government
of West Pakistan. They were clearly terrorists. As the weeks
passed they became freedom
fighters. When they succeeded they became the first statesmen of
their new country. But
the Pakistani Army objected even as they were losing. On
intellectuals day", the Pakistani army systematically slaughtered
intellectuals: judges, lawyers, physicians and professors. Such
behavior, disguised to
appear as a legitimate and proper response to those trying to destroy
law and order can
also be assumed to be a deliberate attempt to deprive a new nation of
its leadership, is all
too common and can be seen today.
The Planners and Financiers of TerrorismIt becomes even more complicated when one discusses the planners, and financiers, of terrorism. President Bush explicitly stated that he would consider them equally. If we take the implicit modern American usage of a terrorist who opposes by illegal force, including attacks on civilian targets, the established government President Bush must clearly oppose strongly (and even prosecute) the IRA and its financiers, widely believed to reside in Boston and New York. Fortunately the IRA seems to have got the message (although in September 2002 Mr Trimble and others claim that it is not disarming but should do so).
Civilian or Military Targets?Many people with whom I have discussed this issue claim that attacks on civilians break the important barrier that distinguishes a real terrorist from a justified freedom fighter. Some would add the adjective "unarmed" before civilians. Some would add: "with intent to kill". According to this view an attack by an individual against an occupying army or police would not be a terrorist attack, but would be justified resistance. But that leads to problems also. The Boston tea party perpetrators and the Palestinian youth who threw stones at soldiers would clearly not be terrorists according to this definition. But would the Palestinians be terrorists if they threw stones against Jewish worshipers in Jerusalem even though there was no intent to kill? What about bullets against armed settlers even though, according to their contention and belief, the settlers had stolen their land? When applied to state actions, such a definition would have to apply to many more actions that are often accepted. Were the air raids, primarily against civilians in Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki in world war II justified or were they unacceptable state terrorism? What about the actions of a country (USA) that anticipates and accepts "collateral damage" in Vietnam and Afghanistan?
Who were the greater cowards: the Israeli pilots who dropped bombs on the UN refugee camp in Lebanon from a safe height, or the Palestinians who chose certain death to ensure the killing of people, including a dozen unarmed civilians, in Israel? Does it make a difference that the Israeli government apologized for the mistake (but without paying compensation) in the first case, whereas a number of Palestinians were jubilant in the second?Historically countries have romanticized war. The bravery of the soldiers was extolled: one who refused to go into battle was labeled a coward. The bravery of one's adversary was acknowledged even as he was being killed. In my boyhood I saw several films and read books about world war I, and how the British Air Force in particular, honored the bravery of the German pilots. This romanticization of war has, I am glad to say, gone out of style and the demonization of an individual adversary, particularly a weaker one who fights in a different way, has replaced it. The replacement sentiment is, I believe no better, and is perhaps worse because it is a negation of thought. An ABC talk show host was roundly criticized for making some of the above distinctions in late September 2001. That makes the situation even sadder and even more dangerous.
Defense in Depth
This was a long time in preliminaries. But the preliminaries are essential to be sure that we are talking about the same subject. I now come, at last, to the three independent steps that I believe to be essential if we wish to combat terrorism. As is usual in discussions of series of events, it is easier and more important to address the first step in the chain.
Terrorism has been described as a cancer on our society. If we develop the analogy further, I note that cancers can be controlled and even cured until they metastasize to another location. When IRA terrorists, now seemingly, and most of us hope permanently, unemployed as terrorists at home, started training terrorists in Columbia, such metastasis occurred. Many of us fear a metastasis of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. Indeed one Israeli foreign Ministry representative, talking in February 2002on National Public Radio, implied that metastasis had already occurred by blaming the Palestinians for setting a bad example to other arabs. Most of us agree that these long running disagreements can be a breeding ground for terrorism. Edward Rothstein, writing in the New York Times of November 17th 2001 seems to dispute this but that may merely be his interest in a particular case. When disagreements are also seen, or perceived, to exist side by side with wealth, extravagance and aggression of another group, particularly an oppressing group, there is likely to be trouble. In my view the solutions must lie in charity, tolerance, and humility in understanding and helping other peoples.To this end I have circulated the following statement and encourage others to support it:
"We at (state your group), a diverse community of many races, religions, cultures and nations, commit ourselves to work for peace and justice everywhere in the world. We invite others to join in this commitment. We must and will fight ignorance, poverty, hunger, intolerance and injustice wherever and whenever they show their ugly faces. We must succeed so that no one state, no one group or even one individual will ever again have the desperation to perform such an abominable act as the attack on September 11th 2001 or shelter one of the perpetrators"I have no patent on this idea, and indeed it is very similar to one the citizens of the city of Hamburg in Germany adopted in 1998. I would be grateful if any group decides to say the same would let me know. It is, however, difficult to put the aims of the perpetrators of 9/11 in the categories above. The perpetrators were Egyptians and Saudis. Surely not countries being (directly) oppressed by another country. But many analysts have noted that these two countries have governments that are responsive to the needs of the rich but not of the poor. They also leave little room for the poor to express themselves politically. There is no opposition party in the western sense. The poor, and the middle class people who support the poor seem to have no option but to turn to organizations such as the Moslem Brotherhood (in Egypt) who seem to have people dedicated to help the poor. Both the people of the USA and their governments prefer to deal with a stable, even though undemocratic, government than one in political turmoil. The US government supports the governments both of Egypt and Saudi Arabia; providing aid in the former case and protection in the latter. This automatically makes the US complicit in the government's actions and a target for those (the suicide hijackers and Bin Laden) who object. There is no easy way out. The USA gave strong support for President Syngman Rhee of South Korea, and we were fortunate that the Koreans eventually made their own internal reforms. The recent attacks were clearly against symbols of America's domination: the pentagon with its military domination and the World Trade Center with its financial domination. I think that it is important to note that they were not against other targets in America which, as I will discuss later, could do much more damage to US civilian life.
Step 2: Keeping Terrorists at Arm's length
(some would add an intermediate stage- keeping weapons out of the hand of a terorist)
Step 3: Making Society Safer
America is an
extraordinarily safe place - although there is a higher murder rate
in America than in England. My father's house in
London was robbed 3 times in 25
years. My house in America has never been robbed in 46 years,
although we accidentally
left the doors unlocked for a month during one vacation. That is, in
fact, one reason why
the 2,800 people killed in the World Trade Center attack was so
troubling. It is here that
President Bush has paid most attention, and created the Office of
Homeland Security. It
is here that Risk Analysts such as those who go to PSAM6 meetings can
provide the most help. The problem must be considered carefully.
Postmortem on the World Trade CenterWorrying about the world trade center is somewhat like fighting the previous war - with all the strategic mistakes that trying to fight the last war encourages. Nonetheless I start with my own postmortem on the world trade center collapse. I have read and recommend, the report in May 2002 of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and also an important factual paper, "The World Trade Center Catastrophe: Was the Type of Spray Fire Proofing a Factor in the Collapse of the Twin Towers", by Dr Arthur M. Langer and Dr R.G. Morse which appeared in the July 2002 issue of the Journal of the Indoor and Built Environment. As I read the FEMA report I believe it missed the major conclusion. Although the building was a strong building, and built according to code, no one in the building industry, had considered what Norman Rasmussen emphasized. This is what safety analysts such as the participants in PSAM6, consider everyday: the low probability high consequence accident. A terrorist will consider a high consequence event- and convert it from low probability to high probability. We must consider such accidents in advance of the terrorist and make our society as secure as we can. In that we have available the tool of the event tree. I n this connection I note one paper that was presented to the 2002 PSAM6 conference, Dr Christie and collaborators. If a full risk analysis is made, including full attention to the non safety related procedures, a nuclear power plant has a fatality risk that is 30 times smaller than if the plant designers and operators merely meet codes and NRC regulations. That probably applies all over society. My major conclusion is that the building industry, as all other industries, MUST do a full event tree analysis and pay particular attention to high consequence events.
There are smaller problems with the FEMA report. Steel buildings, and in particular steel supports are more vulnerable to fire that concrete or even wood. US builders may not have understood this, but the captured tape that was released on December 14th 2001 showed that Osama bin Laden understood it well. Steel conducts heat more readily, and can bend and melt at fire temperatures. At the World Trade Center the steel uprights and horizontal floor supports were originally planned to be insulated with asbestos to retard fire. Langer and Morse suggest that the inferior properties of the fiberglass insulation as compared to asbestos was an important issue, in the collapse. Certainly the insulation did not stick to the beams at the time of collapse. These authors suggest that the material was sprayed on steel beams that were rusty and the material may well have peeled off again. Electricians and members of other crafts often scrape off insulation to install their own devices. Some photographs of the fallen beams suggest that, indeed, many of the beams were denuded of insulation. It appears that no one checked that the insulation was secure after the other construction trades had done their worst. There were no enforced regulations at the time. It is possible that if the original asbestos had been used, or the building redesigned, it would be standing today. It is irrelevant whether Langer and Morse are right. What IS relevant is that no one seems to be able to disprove their suggestions. This suggests that any and all tall buildings built at that time be checked in detail to see whether the insulation is still present.My colleague Dr Pompei suggested a simple method. Test the insulation by a reverse process. Apply heat to a steel beam at one location, measure the temperature at all nearby locations and compare with a calculation assuming that all insulation is in place. This might cost $50 million per building. But that is cheap compared with bombing Afghanistan.
Although most of the public discussion is about preventing an accident of the same type as occurred on September 11th I believe that it is unlikely that it will be attempted again soon. For the last 10 years airplane hijackings have been handled peacefully by the pilot following instructions of the hijacker and arguing (negotiating) when the plane has landed. Pilots basically "gave in". After September11th that has clearly changed. Pilots will obviously resist even though the probability of a terrorist being a suicide bomber is probably small. As we saw, the consequences of a successful suicide hijacking are large. But there are a number of technical steps that can betaken. They have even been suggested and put aside. Barring the cockpit door is obvious. The pilot could have a special button that a pilot can press to alert FAA of a hijacking just as bank tellers alert police by a button when a bank robbery is in progress. It is also possible to set by such a button, or by command from the ground, a preset flight and landing pattern. These have their own possibilities for sabotage, but there seems to have been no study and discussion.
It takes very little thought to realize that society is very vulnerable
and terrorism. But it can be made more secure. We could start by taking
precautions. There is clearly potential for a terrorist to cause great
harm by making sure
that we do not store a lot of fuel in one place nearby a lot of people
in one place. Oil
tanks and Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) facilities should be in remote
areas. In my
opinion it is more important to locate such sensitive facilities in
remote areas than it is to
locate nuclear power plants in remote areas. I commend the citizens of
London who, a
century and a half ago in 1848, decreed that petroleum products not
come up the river
Thames closer than 30 miles east of London bridge. The accumulation of
hundred 17 million gallon tanks (LNG, oil, ammonia) in Canvey island
(30 miles east of
Tower Bridge) was not good. That planners allowed seaside vacation
bungalows to be
built at the east end of the same island, with two bridges to the
mainland converging on
one traffic circle (roundabout) was NOT good. It prevented evacuation
occurred whether caused by the IRA, Okaeda or the Tamil
Tigers. But the decision of the
UK government to ask the Atomic Energy Authority experts in Risley to
carry out a
safety analysis was excellent. Their (1978?) report, CANVEY, to
the UK Health and
Safety Executive is an excellent example of clarity of thinking and
exposition. One can
doubt their numerical assessment of safety, particularly because they
did not address
international terrorism although they addressed sabotage; but it
is hard to doubt the
improvement that addressing their simple improvements achieved. But few
have been as cautious as the good citizens of London 150 years ago. I
give here a number
of examples in my personal experience and knowledge of how this simple
Fuel storage:Co-location of long unprotected rail, gas pipe and water pipe lines is a recipe for disaster. I am well aware of the financial and social advantages that using a common, already paid for both politically and financially, right of way can afford, whether in a capitalist country or one with a "centrally planned economy". But we only have to look at the Soviet LPG accident in the late 1980s,when a gas pipe line leaked and was set alight by a couple of electric trains on the co-located railroad to see the problem. In this little publicized accident 800 people were burned to death - far more than Chernobyl yet with less international publicity and consequent domestic concern. In the USA, an overloaded freight train derailed in Cajun Pass and broke the accompanying gas pipe line which later exploded- killing 2 people. This has always seemed to me fruitful ground for a terrorist - and terrorists like Osama Bin Laden are now more intelligent than many politicians.
There has been recently a lot of public attention paid to possible accidents in nuclear power plants. plant safety, including accidental aircraft hits. Now they must be specifically applied to possible terrorist attacks. Yet few other facilities are studied with the same thoroughness. In this, we can thank one again those who made the decision 40 years ago to build strong containments. The record shows that these are among the few facilities where sabotage has been considered, and even direct hits from large aircraft. Those close to airfields (such as Seabrook NH) are designed to withstand a crash of a Boeing 747at 500 mph. Others will withstand a large aircraft at landing speed (200mph) but even if parts of a faster plane penetrates the containment, there is no reason to believe that such a release could be large. A direct hit from a large aircraft could put such a power plant out of action - maybe for ever, the most important issue for public confidence is the possibility of radiation release. The probability of release is hard to calculate, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is rightly reexamining the issue as a matter of urgency. One matter is clear: hitting the containment vessel will not cause the worst accident. 20 years ago I discussed sabotage with Norman Rasmussen. "It is hard for a saboteur to do more than the clowns at Three Mile Island did on their own." But the probability can be increased. Many in this audience know better than I that there are some places an airplane could hit that might cause real trouble. But do not tell me - except in general terms. I might tell a terrorist by mistake. Fortunately hitting some spent fuel in its storage casks will not do asmuch as many people fear. The casks are hard to break open; almost impossible to burn. There is no radioactive iodine left, and it is hard to vaporize the fuel.Blackouts
What should we do?In all the above examples most elements of society have not even begun to think about the societal vulnerabilities that exist. Firstly society needs to consider the most elementary precautions using the "defense in depth" philosophy. Then we can use the full panoply of techniques to assess the relative vulnerabilities of different parts of society. We can, and should, study sabotage and terrorism with the imagination (perhaps the imagination of a physicist) which we apply to other potential accidents. We should imagine what a terrorist might do and then devise a system to make it hard for him to do it. This is the "defense in depth" and the "Event Tree Analysis" that are already successfully applied to nuclear power as nuclear power plants. We must imagine what a terrorist might do, make it unattractive, and also make the consequences low. This should be done in a comparative way so that excessive resources are not spent on one vulnerable point in society to the exclusion of all others. The actual risk that a terrorist poses is hard to calculate. We may therefore need an intermediate goal ,in the same way that NRC has an intermediate safety goal for US light water reactors; the reduction of core melt frequency to less than 1 in 10,000 per year. I suggest that assessed vulnerability could be the basis for such a goal. The Department of Homeland Security has been created and is being funded. It is our job to influence that department and to make sure that they use the best techniques that we can offer. In that direction, why was not the head of that department come to this particualr meeting? Was he invited? (The answer was no)
Until recently America only experienced random, uneducated, terrorists. Until 1970 few experts thought further. But in 1970 it became clear that there could be educated terrorists with a"cause". These educated terrorists might take a reactor safety course at MIT to learn the weak points of a reactor, or my "Risk Analysis" course to learn all sorts of risky technologies that could be disturbed. But I thought that 19 terrorists acting in concert was very unlikely. I was wrong, and all of society must now recognize that the probability is, alas, quite large.
Those who have been unable to get public attention properly latch on to any seemingly related event or idea to raise their unheeded concerns. I am among them. I am, therefore, in delighted agreement with the general idea that there is now MORE emphasis among the US public on considering the dangerous proliferation of nuclear weapons. In that sense 9/11 may have been a blessing in disguise. 9/11 was a "wake up call" to America. Just as Chernobyl may have been a "wake up call" to the USSR and a blessing in disguise. Marshal Yazov, defense minister of the Soviet Union, at a small meeting in his office in May 1991 stated to a small group of us that the Chernobyl accident persuaded hard line Soviet generals that a nuclear war could not be won. "If a reactor that was not supposed to explode made this much mess, a nuclear war would destroy the planet". I have worried about nuclear weapons proliferation for 50 years. I have worried about biological weapons for 40 years. I have worried about chemical weapons for 60 years since I was trained to cope with them in world war II. However, although are very nasty, chemical weapons are not really weapons of mass destruction in the same sense. But on issues of weapons of mass destruction it is not enough to raise concern in the State Department. Concern about proliferation of weapons of mass destruction must be raised in every citizen by instruction in every school, not only in the USA but all over the world. Mankind has a capability, which since 1945 has become very clear, of destroying itself completely. Indeed, from a technical point of view, destruction of the human race by these weapons of mass destruction seems far easier than planning for the continuation of the human race. A terrorist may prefer to destroy the human race. Most of us prefer to plan for its continuation.. But it is not enough to prefer it. We must think and act. As scientists said loudly in 1945 - everything (technically) has changed but our ideas have not.
Comparison of Risks
I frequently urge that everyone would gain perspective by comparing the risks of the activity one is considering with other risks which may be more familiar. I believe that it is useful to do this for terrorist activities.2,800 people were killed at the World Trade Center. This was indeed terrible. But over 40,000 people are killed every year on US highways by automobile and truck accidents. Is this not more terrible? Yet somehow it does not seem so. I can identify two aspects which account for the difference. Firstly, a large number of people killed at the same time is psychologically more disturbing than the same number of people killed over a period of time. This seems to be true of other accident situations. Secondly, terrorism and the fear of more, even worse, terrorism seems to be even more disturbing than an accident of equivalent magnitude. Analytically, in a decision theoretic framework, one can take account of this by assigning a higher amount of money to avert a terrorist risk than other risks - perhaps $50,000,000 per life rather than the $6,100000 per life now being used by US EPA and its equivalent in NRC.
“If you still want to belong to an organization dedicated to killing Americans, there’s always the tobacco lobby.” (One Taliban soldier to another.)
ID: 47397, Published in The New Yorker February 4, 2002
Richard Wilson's Home page
Presentation to first Sakharov Conference on Physics on a visit to the Armenian/Azeri border
Presentation to Conference on Self Determination, Moscow, 1999
Letter to President Bush September 2001
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