WASHINGTON – A terror attack on a tanker delivering liquefied natural gas at a U.S. port could set off a fire so hot it would burn skin and damage buildings nearly a mile (1.6 kilometers) away, government scientists say in a report expected to influence where new multibillion-dollar terminals will be built.
The report from a government nuclear weapons lab, a 160-page unclassified version of which was obtained Monday by The Associated Press, characterizes an LNG tanker spill from a terror attack as a low probability. If successful, however, it would become ‘a high consequence event’ that could produce massive injuries and property damage, the report said.
The yearlong study by scientists at Sandia National Laboratory, a premier federal research facility, provides the most detailed analysis to date of the potential public safety impact of a terrorist attack on an LNG transport tanker.
While the report does not recommend prohibiting tankers from carrying LNG through heavily populated areas, it says those shipments should occur only after ‘the most rigorous deterrent measures’ are in place to reduce the probability of an attack.
The tankers, each of which carries up to 30 million gallons (113.56 million liters) of LNG, arrive every few days at four U.S. terminals: Everett, Massachusetts, on Boston’s outskirts; Cove Point, Maryland; and Elba Island, Georgia, and Lake Charles, Louisiana, on the Gulf coast. In its minus-260 degrees Fahrenheit (minus-162 degrees Celsius) liquid state, LNG cannot explode and is not flammable. If a missile or explosive should tear a hole in a tanker or a storage tank, however, the escaping liquid would be transformed instantaneously into a gas and probably would ignite in a massive fire.
The Sandia report said terrorists, using readily available weapons and technology, could blast a 10-foot (3-meter) hole into the side of an LNG tanker.
The assessment evaluates a range of scenarios that would result in release of millions of gallons of LNG from a transport tanker. The scenarios include a takeover of a vessel by an insider or hijacker, external attacks using explosive-laden boats, triggered explosions or rocket-propelled grenades or missiles. Under some circumstances an attack could produce cascading damage that could result in failure of as many as three of a ship’s five LNG cargo tanks, which would increase the fire’s intensity and lengthen its duration. Discussions of specific threats were included only in the classified version of the report, but the unclassified version examined the general impact such an attack and LNG fire on water would have to people within a mile (1.6 kilometers) of the spill.
‘We are not recommending that there be any kind of `no ship zone,” said Mark Maddox, a deputy assistant secretary at the Energy Department, which commissioned the study.
Even with many details left out of the unclassified version, the report describes a harrowing potential for disaster if a terror attack were to succeed in releasing millions of gallons of LNG from a double-hulled vessel that typically carries more than 30 million gallons (113.56 million liters) of the frosty liquid fuel.
The scientists identified ‘several credible’ scenarios that the report said would result in at least one – possibly as many as three – of a tanker’s five cargo tanks being breached.
That would ignite a pool of fire to spread several hundred yards (meters) in all directions, the report said.
While ‘the most significant impacts to public health’ and the most severe destruction of buildings would be within a 550-yard (500.5-meter) radius of the fire, heat that could burn the skin and damage houses could extend to nearly a mile (1.6 kilometers) away.