How the World’s Only Superpower Is Vulnerable to Catastrophe

Emanuel PastreichJohn Feffer
Foreign Policy in FocusThe Nation
This article is a joint publication of Foreign Policy In Focus and TheNation.com

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 We’ve been bombarded by stories about outdated software that is subject to hacking and the vulnerability of our communities to bioterrorism.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 bookCommand 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.

Bad Chemistry

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.

Nuclear Headaches

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.

Situation Normal: All Fracked Up

The coal industry continues to slice the peaks off mountains and replace them with vast expanses of barren land that cannot support life. That process fills rivers and lakes with toxic sludge, and regulation is all but nonexistent. From the 1990s on, coal companies have torn up West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee using new technologies that have already destroyed a patch of land larger than the state of Delaware. The run-off from these mining operations has buried 1,000 miles of streams.

The recent contamination of the Elk River in West Virginia with the dangerous chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol used in coal mining left over 300,000 people without safe drinking water. Although the storage of the chemicals was the responsibility of the now bankrupt Freedom Industries, the responsibility for the accident does not stop there. In fact, federal officials never inspected the site, and neither Freedom Industries nor local government officials drew up an emergency response plan.

A few weeks later a pipe failure in Eden, North Carolina dumped 39,000 tons of arsenic-laced coal ash into the nearby Dan River, causing a similar crisis. The situation is growing more serious as state budgets for inspection and regulation are being slashed. Training and preparation for hazardous material disasters is underfunded, and the personnel are unprepared to do their job.

Coal and oil workers are dying in greater numbers as a result of a chronic inattention to safety concerns. So bad is the situation that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has only 95 inspectors to oversee safety rules for all Texas work sites, and few of them have training or experience in the energy sector.

skytruth-ecoflight_jonah_high4_12may06-sm21If you like coal mining, you’re going to love fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, which is latest weapon in the war on the environment. Fracking is a process for extracting natural gas and petroleum from subterranean rock formations by pushing water, sand and a variety of toxic chemicals deep into the ground to fracture the rock and release the trapped oil or gas. The process leaves beneath the surface large amounts of toxic chemicals that have already been shown to contaminate drinking water. The chemicals are so toxic that the water cannot be cleaned in a treatment plant.

Fracking is gobbling up large swathes of the United States because sites are quickly exhausted and the driller must constantly move on, leaving behind toxic chemicals to seep into the water supply. The long-term consequences of leaving extremely toxic substances like benzoyl or formic acid underground for decades are unknown. Without extensive regulation, maintenance and planning for future disasters, the fracking boom is a ticking bomb for U.S. security.

The peril is not just on land. The increasingly desperate search for energy is making extreme measures — like deep-water drilling for oil — profitable for energy companies. The Deep Water Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 resulted in 11 deaths, affected 16,000 miles of coastline, and will cost upwards of $40 billion. That accident didn’t stop the U.S. government from granting Shell a permit to drill in the deep waters of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas off the Alaskan coast, an effort that has already racked up its share of accidents.

Coming Up: Le Deluge

The unending demand for budget cuts is taking a toll on the environment. The Environmental Protection Agency, responsible for a large number of important regulatory activities, experienced cuts of more than six percent in both its budget and workforce: from a nearly $8.5-million budget in 2012 down to $7.9 million in 2013, and from 17,106 employees in 2012 down to 15,913 employees in 2013. This is happening at a time when environmental issues are growing more critical.

Cuts in budgets for maintenance, inspection and regulation will all but guarantee further disasters and tens of billions of dollars in damages. The poor state of American infrastructure would be a problem in any case, but the challenge of climate change has thrown a monkey wrench in all predictions. The New York Panel on Climate Change concluded that rising sea levels will turn what was previously a once-in-100-years flood into something that happens once every 35 to 55 years by 2050 and once every 15 to 30 years by 2080. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 caused more than $108 billion in damages while Hurricane Sandy in 2012 cost more than$50 billion, according to the National Hurricane Center. Climate change combined with poor maintenance is a recipe for massive disaster. Although the costs of the next disaster will certainly exceed the 9/11 attacks in terms of damage, tragically we are cutting back on infrastructure investment at a time we should be increasing it dramatically.

Unfortunately, the constituencies concerned with such safety inspections do not hire the most expensive lobbyists and rarely show up in the press. Inspectors and experts cannot, and should not, be expected to defend themselves in Washington, D.C. The media-obsessed political culture that rules Washington today makes commitment to low-key support for maintenance and long-term safety the kiss of death for congressmen engaged in an unending struggle to raise funds for reelection.

The strategic foolhardiness of cutting back on low-profile programs has become politically smart. But a few more major industrial or infrastructural disasters in the United States will be enough to bring the country to its knees. The American superpower will topple from self-inflicted wounds without a political rival like China or Russia even having to say “boo!”

Emanuel Pastreich directs the Asia Institute in Seoul, South Korea.