Marking, Rendering Inert, and Licensing of Explosive Materials

Introduction

Following several major bombing incidents in the United States in the 1990s, most notably the New York World Trade Center and the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building (Oklahoma City) bombings, considerable discussion at the federal level has focused on ways to reduce the threat of terrorism. In particular, there has been interest in the possibility of reducing the threat through some combination of decreasing the explosive potential of certain chemicals that might otherwise be used to manufacture explosives; introducing additives, called “taggants,” into explosive materials to permit detection or tracing of the material; and imposing licensing or other controls on explosive materials or their chemical precursors. Explosives made from mixtures of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil (ANFO) were used in some of the most publicized bombing incidents. ANFO is the most widely used commercial explosive in the United States,1 and any new legal or regulatory requirements could have a direct impact on a broad range of U.S. industries, particularly the chemical, fertilizer, and mining industries. Other industries and private-sector groups have taken strong positions with respect to various proposals in this controversial area (see the section below titled “Taggant Stakeholders”).

The possible use of taggants was examined more than 15 years ago in a study by the Office of Technology Assessment.2 That study considered taggants to be additives that could survive an explosion and be used to trace the origin of the materials or additives that would enhance the detectability of the explosives prior to an explosion. The former have been used overseas, particularly in Switzerland, for a number of years,3 although a variety of new taggant approaches are being developed. Similarly, remarkable progress has been made in trace chemical analytical instrumentation that could be applied to detection of tagged or untagged explosives. However, questions persist about the efficacy, safety, and cost of using taggants. In addition, industry trade associations and private-sector groups have raised a variety of economic and legal questions that must be considered within the technical context of specific approaches to using taggants.

1  

See Hopler, Robert. 1997. “Today's Commercial Explosives Industry: Trends in Products and Operations.” Washington, D.C.: Dyno Nobel Inc.

2  

Office of Technology Assessment. 1980. Taggants in Explosives. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office. April.

3  

Explosives Symposium, ATF, Fairfax Virginia, September 18–22, 1995.



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--> Marking, Rendering Inert, and Licensing of Explosive Materials Introduction Following several major bombing incidents in the United States in the 1990s, most notably the New York World Trade Center and the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building (Oklahoma City) bombings, considerable discussion at the federal level has focused on ways to reduce the threat of terrorism. In particular, there has been interest in the possibility of reducing the threat through some combination of decreasing the explosive potential of certain chemicals that might otherwise be used to manufacture explosives; introducing additives, called “taggants,” into explosive materials to permit detection or tracing of the material; and imposing licensing or other controls on explosive materials or their chemical precursors. Explosives made from mixtures of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil (ANFO) were used in some of the most publicized bombing incidents. ANFO is the most widely used commercial explosive in the United States,1 and any new legal or regulatory requirements could have a direct impact on a broad range of U.S. industries, particularly the chemical, fertilizer, and mining industries. Other industries and private-sector groups have taken strong positions with respect to various proposals in this controversial area (see the section below titled “Taggant Stakeholders”). The possible use of taggants was examined more than 15 years ago in a study by the Office of Technology Assessment.2 That study considered taggants to be additives that could survive an explosion and be used to trace the origin of the materials or additives that would enhance the detectability of the explosives prior to an explosion. The former have been used overseas, particularly in Switzerland, for a number of years,3 although a variety of new taggant approaches are being developed. Similarly, remarkable progress has been made in trace chemical analytical instrumentation that could be applied to detection of tagged or untagged explosives. However, questions persist about the efficacy, safety, and cost of using taggants. In addition, industry trade associations and private-sector groups have raised a variety of economic and legal questions that must be considered within the technical context of specific approaches to using taggants. 1   See Hopler, Robert. 1997. “Today's Commercial Explosives Industry: Trends in Products and Operations.” Washington, D.C.: Dyno Nobel Inc. 2   Office of Technology Assessment. 1980. Taggants in Explosives. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office. April. 3   Explosives Symposium, ATF, Fairfax Virginia, September 18–22, 1995.

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--> Actions Leading to This Study The language of Title VII of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“Terrorism Prevention Act,” see Appendix D) mandates (through the Treasury Department) a study of issues related to detection, tagging, rendering inert, and licensing of explosives. The Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), which has regulatory responsibility for explosives, has in turn asked the National Research Council to assist in conducting this study,4 whose progress to date is reported in this interim report. (The ATF has its own task force that is also examining many of the same issues of this study. The National Research Council has been tasked with providing a totally independent assessment.) Statement of Task Issues to be addressed in the committee's final report include:5 the viability of adding tracer elements to explosives for the purpose of detection, the viability of adding tracer elements to explosives for the purpose of identification, the feasibility and practicability of rendering inert common chemicals used to manufacture explosive materials, and the feasibility and practicability of imposing controls on certain precursor chemicals used to manufacture explosive materials. The study will include analyses that address risk to human life or safety, value to law enforcement officers, effect of taggants on the quality of the explosive materials for their intended lawful use, and effects on the environment. The analyses will include cost drivers, benefits, and potential drawbacks for various technical alternatives. In order to make sound decisions, the Treasury Department and ATF would like a thorough description of what scientific and technological options exist, including a discussion of technologies that are available, under development, or needed, as well as their potential effects on industry, law enforcement, and consumers. It would also include the identification of technical and economic obstacles that exist and further research and development activities that may be needed. While this study has a science and technology focus, the committee's final report will reflect input from all stakeholders. 4   In accordance with recent amendments to the language of the Terrorism Prevention Act (see Appendix D), the ATF has asked the National Research Council to form an independent panel to study the use of taggants with black and smokeless powder, which had previously been specifically excluded by legislative action. This panel will issue a separate report. 5   See Appendix B for a more detailed description of the statement of task.

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--> Scope of the Study This study will focus on improvised and commercial explosives rather than military or plastic explosives that are the subject of Title VI of the Terrorism Prevention Act. Also, black and smokeless powder are excluded from the scope of this study.6 This interim report does not include any of the committee's conclusions or recommendations, which will be presented in the final report to be published in February 1998. Approach to Conducting the Study The Committee on Marking, Rendering Inert, and Licensing of Explosive Materials was appointed by the National Research Council under the management of the Board on Chemical Sciences and Technology, in collaboration with the National Materials Advisory Board. Four panels, each comprising half of the membership of the full committee, were assigned to address each of the four major tasks (see above bulleted items) in parallel. The full committee has held three meetings for information gathering purposes, focused primarily on the first two tasks of its charge: detection and identification of taggants. Taggant vendors, stakeholders, and outside experts were invited to brief the committee. As the study continues, additional experts, including government and industry representatives as well as individuals from the various stakeholder organizations that are concerned with issues of the study, will be asked to meet with the committee. Technical briefings will also be solicited from representatives of international government and private-sector organizations with relevant expertise. Several committee or subcommittee meetings will involve site visits to allow the committee members to gather information about specific technological problems, manufacturing technologies, or proposed technical solutions to some of the issues being studied. One or more of the site visits may involve international travel so that committee members can evaluate strategies that have been adopted by other countries. 6   As mentioned above, the ATF has requested that the National Research Council form a separate panel to study the feasibility and practicability of tagging smokeless and black powder for purposes of detection and identification.