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Unconventional-Weapons Warnings from Obama Advisors

Members of Obama’s transition team warn that the United States has not taken seriously the threat of bioterrorism, and that some chemical plants are potential targets.

Two reports in the news this week offer a glimpse of how unconventional-weapons oversight and government regulation of chemical plants might change under the next U.S. administration.

According to the New York Times, a report on the use of unconventional weapons calls congressional oversight of the issue “dysfunctional” and faults the Bush administration for not devoting enough resources to the threat of bioterrorism. The report, the result of six months of deliberation by the bipartisan, congressionally created Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction and Terrorism, will be released this week.

The report’s authors hope that its recommendations will guide the next administration, which is likely, since some of its authors, including Wendy Sherman, have already been advising Obama during his transition.

From the Times story:

Prepared before last week’s deadly terrorist attacks in Mumbai–which American officials say were most likely carried out by Pakistani militant groups based in Kashmir–the report also singled out Pakistan as a top security priority for the coming Obama administration …

The panel’s 13 recommendations focus on fighting the threat of bioterrorism, including improved bioforensic capabilities, and strengthening international organizations, like the International Atomic Energy Agency, to address the nuclear threat. It also calls for a comprehensive approach for dealing with Pakistan …

“Unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013,” the report states in the opening sentence of the executive summary.

And in related news, Chemistry World reports that the U.S. chemical industry is concerned about the release of a report by the Center for American Progress (CAP), a liberal think tank founded by John Podesta, the former Clinton chief of staff who heads Obama’s transition team. The report, “Chemical Security 101,” lists the country’s most dangerous chemical-manufacturing and water-treatment plants. Based on an assessment of chemical facilities’ risk-management plans, the report warns that hundreds of plants in 41 states put 110 million lives at risk. According to the report, these plants could become less vulnerable to terrorism–and would lower the risk to their neighbors–if they switched to alternative chemicals and processes. Bleach plants, for example, could generate chlorine on-site instead of having it shipped in by rail. And the report says that the Department of Homeland Security’s plan for dealing with chemical safety (CFATS), which expires next year, is inadequate.

From Chemistry World:

Paul Orum, a safety consultant who drafted the report for CAP, says the expiration of CFATS in October 2009, ‘could provide an impetus for creating a comprehensive chemical safety programme. Just reauthorising the current programme will not provide effective chemical security.’

Orum and others believe that Obama could significantly strengthen the government’s chemical safety rules after taking office on 20 January, 2009. Obama and incoming vice president Joe Biden have both in the past introduced legislation that pushes chemical facilities to use safer alternatives where practicable.

A Chemical Facilities Anti-Terrorism Act, which requires high-risk chemical facilities to use safer methods and eliminates the exemption of water facilities, was introduced in March 2008, but has not yet been reviewed by the House, nor introduced in the Senate.

In our March/April 2006 cover story, Mark Williams reported on the threat of bioterror. And this year, TR has reported on how Obama used technology in his election campaign and on the science and technology policy challenges that he will face as president.

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