To bolster the security of our critical infrastructure, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) yesterday announced its plan to simulate chemical attacks on Boston’s subway system, known as The T. But, Bostonians, do not despair: your activities will not be disrupted, subway schedules will not be altered, and you might not even realize the study is happening…unless you notice the presence of white coats and research gadgets, which could always be mistaken for MIT shenanigans…
Using a harmless tracer gas, the DHS Science & Technology Directorate will team up with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority to study airflow characteristics of chemical smoke and gas in dozens of T stations and subway cars. This will take place from December 5 to 11. According to the DHS release, the study will yield “data that will help guide the design of next generation detection systems and enable transportation systems to strengthen evacuation, ventilation and other incident response strategies.”
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s agenda since 9/11 has included expanding its network of chemical sensors, though its bid last year for funding to install more sensors was denied by the Transportation Security Administration, an arm of DHS. Underlying the rejection was skepticism about the effectiveness of sensors in an actual emergency. As TSA spokesman Christopher White explained: “Current chemical detection systems do not warn the traveling public or system operators in a real-time environment that would deter or prevent a catastrophic event or attack…We’re very focused on active items, funding active activities and projects that would deter a terrorist attack.”
But that was back in 2008, and chemical sensor technology has presumably advanced since then. This month’s study will further augment the usefulness of sensors by helping to shape ideas for new designs, to determine ideal placement locations, and to increase understanding of chemical attack dynamics in general.
The potential for chemical terrorism is not simply the stuff of TV thrillers. In 1995, members of the millennial Japanese mystical cult Aum Shinrikyo (now called Aleph) released sarin nerve agent into the Tokyo subway system. Failure to develop an effective delivery system limited its impact, but the attack still claimed twelve lives and injured over a thousand. Scientists recruited by Aum Shinrikyo had previously experimented with biological agents, including anthrax. Thankfully they were unable to get over the technical hurdles involved in weaponizing the pathogens.
Although Aum did not achieve its goal of mass casualties, its 1995 attack revealed frightening possibilities common to all major cities. The vulnerability of Russia’s old chemical weapon stockpiles as well as advances in dual-use technology, such as microreactors, compound those risks. Let’s hope some valuable discoveries will be made in Boston this month.