Expert Report

Each report is produced by a committee of experts selected by the Academy to address a particular statement of task and is subject to a rigorous, independent peer review; while the reports represent views of the committee, they also are endorsed by the Academy. Learn more on our expert consensus reports.

The chemical sector is a key part of the national economy and has been designated by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as one of 17 sectors comprising the nation's Critical Infrastructure. Although its products represent only 2 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product, those products underpin most other manufactured goods. To assist DHS in characterizing and mitigating the vulnerabilities faced by the nation from the chemical industry, this study examines classes of chemicals and chemical processes that are critical to the nation's security, economy, and health. It identifies vulnerabilities and points of weakness in the supply chain for these chemicals and chemical processes; assesses the likely impact of a significant disruption in the supply chain; identifies actions to help prevent disruption in the supply chain and mitigate loss and injury should such disruption occur; identifies incentives and disincentives to preventative and mitigating actions; and recommends areas of scientific, engineering, and economic research and development. The report concludes that the consequences of a deliberate attack on the chemical infrastructure would be expected to be similar in nature to the accidents we have already experienced. Under limited circumstances, such an attack could cause catastrophic casualties and loss of life, but it would take several simultaneous events to cause catastrophic economic consequences. Poor communication could amplify societal response. Overall, the recommendations in this report emphasize the benefit of investments to improve emergency preparedness for and response to chemical events. They also highlight the potential to minimize the physical hazards through development of cost-effective, safer processes that reduce the volume, toxicity, or hazardous conditions under which chemicals are processed.

Key Messages

  • Accurate information analysis and communication before, during, and after an event between parties charged with responding and with the public may be the best short-term means to mitigate the possible consequences of an event.
  • By analogy with past accidents involving the chemical industry, it is possible that a single terrorist incident involving the chemical infrastructure could result in catastrophic loss of life or injuries.
  • Multiple attacks on the chemical infrastructure may not be immediately recognized as such. Prompt recognition and communication that an incident is an actual case of terrorism and may be part of a series of attacks offers the best opportunity to take actions that may limit the consequences of such attacks.
  • Near-term benefits can be obtained from research efforts directed toward enhancing emergency preparedness, emergency response, and disaster recovery. This offers an immediate means to mitigate the effects of a terrorist attack on the chemical infrastructure.
  • Public response is significant in determining the consequences of attack on the chemical infrastructure.
  • Some strategies to address terrorism reduce the chance of a successful attack, some reduce the consequences of such an incident, and some relocate the vulnerability that is, these strategies may reduce the chance of direct casualties, but still leave financial and cascading impacts. All of these factors must be taken into consideration when assessing vulnerabilities of the chemical infrastructure.
  • The economic effects of a single terrorist incident involving the chemical infrastructure could be significant, but multiple terrorist events would be required to achieve nationally catastrophic economic consequences.
  • When confronting the potential for terrorist attack, it is essential to constantly reassess both the progress being made and the possibility of unintended consequences when implementing a solution. The threat from terrorism is not static, and it is not unreasonable to assume that terrorist tactics will evolve with emerging technologies designed to defeat their threat.
  • Toxic, flammable, and explosive materials present the greatest risk of catastrophic incident. In the absence of specific threat information, it will be most appropriate to invest in mitigation and preparedness for general classes of vulnerabilities.