Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Chemical Security

The Center for American Progress issued a report back in November looking at potential risks of terroristic attacks on chemical facilities located near large population centers. It's certainly thought provoking: I was surprised by how many bleach (sodium hypochlorite) facilities don't make it by electrolysis of salt water, and also by the amount of HF used in refineries as alkylation catalysts. Some of the proposed changes, such as for the bleach plants, could be made with little problem, while others, such as using soy alternatives to ethylene oxide would be more problematic. If you start changing monomers, you will change the resulting polymer to some degree. It is never a drop-in replacement.

The report is certainly alarmist to some extent: calling these plants the "most dangerous" is possible only with the understanding that they are near large population centers. No mention is made of the actual risk of the danger, such as how likely the plant is to have such a leak. If a decrepit and unguarded twin of one of these plants were located in the Great Basin, it wouldn't be on the list. Additionally, the "Vulnerabilty Zone Population" is the worst case, i.e., when the wind is blowing in the wrong direction.

The report also makes a strong case that railroad shipments of chemicals is (and will always be) a nightmare - extremely difficult to protect and move through populations centers of all sizes.

The subtitle of the report "What You Don’t Have Can’t Leak, or Be Blown Up by Terrorists" while long and wordy is accurate.

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