America’s Homegrown Terror


The greatest dangers for the United States do not lurk in terrorist cells. They come from thousands of nuclear weapons, toxic chemical dumps, radioactive waste storage facilities, complex pipelines and refineries, offshore oil rigs, and many other potentially dangerous but scarcely regulated facilities. (Photo: Dennis Dimick / Flickr)

This article is a joint publication of Foreign Policy In Focus and

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 We’ve been bombarded by stories about outdated software that is subject to hacking and the vulnerability of our communities to bioterrorism.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

If 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 6 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. John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus.

  • wiseoldsnail

    yup . until we lower our consumption, produce our own non-toxic food, and shift our power supply to wind and sun … we’re doomed

    • serious joe

      Reasonable consumption – check.
      Non-toxic food – check

      Shift our, what? You want to run the country on weather-power? Do you expect reliable electricity, day in, day out, or would you like a third-world-type system, where electricity comes on, some time during the day, for a while, and then quits?

      Reliable electricity – check.

      Then you need to learn some things about power generation. First, the whole thing, the “grid” – a network of generators, interconnecting wires, and user’s loads… the grid cannot store electricity. At any given moment, the electricity generated must match, exactly, the electricity used. When the sun doesn’t shine when the winds don’t blow, other generators must pick up the slack. Picking up the slack is called “dispatching” electricity. Or, cutting some slack, when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing and nobody is using electricity at the moment, what happens then? Normally, a “dispatchable” source (like a natural-gas-fired electrical generation facility) would be ramped down, because wind and solar don’t regulate themselves. So, a gas plant has to be on-line to pick up the slack, or to cut some slack as the weather-power fluctuates. Hydro-power doesn’t start up fast enough, or shut down fast enough, to meet the dispatching demands that weather-power brings. Nuclear is a bit more able. Coal really can’t do that. Diesel generators do it pretty well, but at great expense. If you have a bunch of conventional (like nuclear, coal, natural gas, and hydro) then you can add about ten percent, maybe twenty percent, maximum, of weather-power to that system. Any more, and the system can’t pick up the slack or cut the slack fast enough, and the grid becomes unstable, resulting in blackouts, power failures, and the whole third-world sorta thing. Costs soar. Coal and nuclear are at their most affordable when they run at a steady rate – that’s called ‘baseline’… hydro is often at the whims of the weather, the drought, the flood, so hydro has to do what hydro has to do, and the other baseline generation facilities have to gently ramp up or down to make up for it. But the violent, unpredictable variations brought in by solar and wind, they can’t be so easily balanced. To keep things reliable, a natural gas generation facility has to be kept burning all the time, whether it is generating electricity or not. It takes about $10,000 worth of gas, and about eight hours, to take a typical gas plant from cold to hot-n-ready, so you can’t just shut it off and turn it back on as wind and solar demands and supplies change. It is necessary to match the generation capacity of the gas plant to the weather-power, such that, when the weather quits, the gas generation facility is not overloaded, and when the sun shines and the wind blows, the gas generation facility is not completely idle… A gas plant, like your car, gets good economy when a steady foot is pressing on the pedal…. if you floor it, then brake hard, then floor it, then brake hard, your car doesn’t perform in an economical fashion… neither does a natural gas electrical generation facility… so for every megawatt of weather-power you add, you have to have a megawatt of gas, too… because you just can’t count on the weather. So you end up releasing carbon dioxide at about the same rate as if you had NO solar and NO wind, and ran the gas facility at its most economical steady-state… Not so wise, old snail

      • wiseoldsnail

        contrary to your convoluted ‘explanation’ … without storage, our current ‘grid’ system would be meaningless . included in the grid is the production, storage, and delivery of power

        why are you blathering on about these fossil fuel sources of energy? your assumption that i know nothing of these things is only evidence of your superiority complex

        and about nuclear energy? these systems, every one, are absolutely dependent upon government (taxpayer) subsidies … ie i’m paying for the power you use … the costs are set that way, and my taxes literally pay for you to drive your car, since i don’t have one . is that fair? coal and nuclear power are both toxic, dangerous, and expensive . hydro power, except in the tiniest applications, does severe damage to the environment, just like coal and nuclear power do . there’s nothing ‘natural’ about ‘natural gas’ except in it’s untapped condition . fracking is fucking up water table and land and air everywhere it’s done

        people need to, first, REDUCE the use of power . next, implement local production of power, from bicycle power to solar and local on-site wind generators . i have lived in circumstances where all power was derived locally : solar, wind … stored locally by battery systems (which, of course, need to be better and more safely developed with fewer toxic elements)

        you are only thinking grid mentality, which is why your solutions are so very limited . off-grid is how to use natural, non-polluting power sources like solar and wind

        ‘most economical’ is also a very twisted concept you use in a very twisted manner, as there is nothing ‘economical’ about polluting the earth on which we depend for life

  • Hobbes

    Why do we keep talking on this (and we usually all agree on the broad strokes if not the details) but we never get around to doing anything?

  • Kevin Schmidt

    Emanuel and John, you both need to look up the definition of terrorism, because neither of you know what you are talking about.

    Everything you spoke of was done for profit, not to intimidate the public or government for political change.

    • John Feffer

      Actually we were careful not to define any of the homegrown disasters or infrastructure risks as “terrorism.” We simply compared the level of threat to what is ordinarily associated with terrorism.

  • larzneilson

    I believe the cheating scandal related to a USAF requirement that officers in that program score 100 percent on exams for promotion. The report I heard indicated that this did not impact their professional competence. That said, yes, there is a scary amount of stuff out there and I agree with the gist of this article.

  • Lucretzia

    gee, if we didn’t have the blackhole of defense sucking trillions out of what could be used to solve most of these problems.. How many trillions can the pentagon not account for between 1996- 2006- something like 6 trillion? and do we really need twelve carrier task forces when drones and cyberwarfare already make them obsolete?

    • serious joe

      gee, if we didn’t have the black hole of green energy, of climate change insanity, sucking billions out of what could be used to solve most of these problems.. How many billions of dollars has obummer flushed down the toilet?

      Evergreen Solar ($25 million)*
      SpectraWatt ($500,000)*
      Solyndra ($535 million)*
      Beacon Power ($43 million)*
      Nevada Geothermal ($98.5 million)
      SunPower ($1.2 billion)
      First Solar ($1.46 billion)
      Babcock and Brown ($178 million)
      EnerDel’s subsidiary Ener1 ($118.5 million)*
      Amonix ($5.9 million)
      Fisker Automotive ($529 million)
      Abound Solar ($400 million)*
      A123 Systems ($279 million)*
      Willard and Kelsey Solar Group ($700,981)*
      Johnson Controls ($299 million)
      Brightsource ($1.6 billion)
      ECOtality ($126.2 million)
      Raser Technologies ($33 million)*
      Energy Conversion Devices ($13.3 million)*
      Mountain Plaza, Inc. ($2 million)*
      Olsen’s Crop Service and Olsen’s Mills Acquisition Company ($10 million)*
      Range Fuels ($80 million)*
      Thompson River Power ($6.5 million)*
      Stirling Energy Systems ($7 million)*
      Azure Dynamics ($5.4 million)*
      GreenVolts ($500,000)
      Vestas ($50 million)
      LG Chem’s subsidiary Compact Power ($151 million)
      Nordic Windpower ($16 million)*
      Navistar ($39 million)
      Satcon ($3 million)*
      Konarka Technologies Inc. ($20 million)*
      Mascoma Corp. ($100 million)

      • marsilius

        Not many, in the context of six trillion. Those listed don’t add up to anywhere close to that amount, and most of these weren’t boondoggles anyway. It appears you are just listing actions that you don’t agree with, from your anti-green perspective.

  • Marschall Clark

    where is the states getting the money to wage all these wars? I thought they were broke

  • Ezra Pound

    America started going down hill in the 1930’s when we turned control of our institutions over to an unaccountable elite composed of elements that did not consider themselves “American” per se, but as “global citizens.” These “globalists” – “liberal” and “conservative” – have been leading America over a cliff ever since. With the rise to total dominance of the Jewish element in Neo-conservatism, America has seen its condition (across the spectrum) go into a tailspin. Americans need to liquidate the current socio-political regime in this country and institute a North American equivalent of Aleksandr Dugin’s “Eurasianism.”

    • serious joe

      Yeah, Ezra, they’re not conservative or liberal, republican or democrat. They’re PROGRESSIVES.

  • disqus_Sl6zUojXR9

    And you didn’t even mention the knockout punch on the horizon for the tittering remnants of Empire; The “Big One” earthquake that will destroy the west coast. Then all the emperor’s horses and all the emperor’s men won’t be able to put Humpty Uncle Sam back together again.

  • windship

    This is actually a spiritual crisis of immense proportions. The cognitive dissonance leads to further insanities. We done crapped in our own nest, and still pretend we didn’t.

  • serious joe

    The greatest dangers for the United States do not lurk in terrorist cells. They come from thousands billions of dollars spent that no one has; debt and politics, not oil or frakking or drilling or splitting atoms.

  • Andrew_Nichols

    As a tourist I travelled Route 66 and was genuinely shocked at the decrepit state of so much of the USA. Rotting derelict houses in urban areas unrepaired pot holes, dangerous powerpoles. Outside the the front window much of America is absolutely crumbling – and still they lavish money on the military? Weird mob.

  • J. Williams

    we’re also destroying ourselves with paranoia- by turning on each other. a divided congress legislating on behalf of special interests is creating gridlock and destroying the lives of average americans- by creating too many regulatory barriers for individuals. corporations, those with the monetary power, have the ability to get around such regulations- but the average citizen does not; and they are being trampled in the melee. we’re creating enemies within our own country; when peoples lives have been forever altered by hysterical and paranoid legislation.