Before Disaster Strikes

In preparation for the 2012 hurricane season, FEMA's Logistics Management Directorate leads a whole community resource support planning session, photo by Brittany Trotter/FEMA

Communities and the nation have difficult choices about the best ways to ensure basic security and quality of life in the face of natural hazards or deliberate terrorist attacks. The stakes are high: The economic damage caused by just one natural disaster in 2012 -- Hurricane Sandy -- is estimated in the tens of billions of dollars. And in 2011, disasters caused approximately $55 billion in damages.

Without innovations to improve resilience, the cost of disasters will continue to rise both in absolute dollar amounts and in losses to social, cultural, and environmental systems at the community level, says Disaster Resilience: A National Imperative. The report calls on the U.S. to formulate a national vision for increasing the country's ability to prepare, respond, and recover, with complementary federal policies and locally driven actions.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, in conjunction with other stakeholders, should develop a national resilience scorecard to help communities assess their resilience and track improvements, the report says. The scorecard should be adaptable to focus specifically on the hazards that threaten each community and should measure both the ability of critical infrastructure to withstand and recover from impacts of earthquakes, floods, severe storms, or other disasters and the social, economic, cultural, and environmental capabilities of the community to respond and recover.

Improving resilience should be seen as a long-term process, but it can be coordinated around measurable short-term goals. The report identifies universal steps that all communities can take to improve their disaster resilience, such as adopting and enforcing building codes and standards appropriate to existing local hazards.

The study by the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine was funded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Department of Energy, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Geological Survey, NASA, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory/Community and Regional Resilience Institute.

A Modern National Weather Service

NOAA photo of 2012's devastating Hurricane Sandy

More than a decade ago, the National Weather Service completed a major modernization effort that involved upgrading weather observing and forecast systems and reorganizing the agency's field office structure. While the effort led to significant improvements, the agency must still keep pace with science and technology, meet expanding user needs, and partner with other weather, water, and climate-related institutions.

To meet these challenges, NWS should evolve and change how it operates by prioritizing core capabilities, evaluating its structure, and broadening collaboration and cooperation with other institutions, says Weather Services for the Nation: Becoming Second to None. Embracing such changes could allow NWS to keep up with technological advances and provide quality services.

The agency's challenges are exacerbated by uncertain and constrained budget resources and increasingly high operational performance standards. NWS should prioritize the capabilities that only it can provide -- such as collecting and integrating observations and issuing forecasts, watches, and warnings, the report says.

The NWS's capacity to serve the public would be broadened by increasing its collaboration and cooperation with other public and private weather, water, and climate organizations. Strengthening its engineering and procurement processes for major systems -- including ground-based sensor, gauge, and radar networks; satellites and ground processing; and major communications and processing systems -- would also amplify NWS's capabilities.

The National Research Council study was funded by the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Climate Change and Security


Much of the discussion about climate change has focused on such effects as floods, droughts, sea-level rise, and storm surges. But could these climate-related events also pose a threat to U.S. national security?

Climate and Social Stress: Implications for Security Analysis says that those events could indeed disrupt social and economic systems in other countries, which in turn would pose security risks to the United States. Security threats are most likely to occur in regions with vulnerable populations, weak infrastructure, limited response capacities, and possible political instability.

The U.S. intelligence community should monitor for and estimate the likelihood of potentially disruptive climate-related events and the ability of countries and regions of security importance to the U.S. to cope with them, the report says. Taking into account the key variables that affect exposure and vulnerabilities, the intelligence community should conduct periodic "stress testing" for countries, regions, and critical global systems that are identified as both vulnerable to the effects of climate change and important to U.S. national security. In addition to assessing the likely effects of potentially disruptive climate events and whether they could threaten security, these assessments could also be used by the U.S. government or international aid agencies to identify and perhaps help high-risk areas reduce susceptibility or improve response capacities to climate-related changes, the report says.

The National Research Council study was funded by the U.S. intelligence community.

Management at National Security Laboratories

Sandia National Laboratories' Annular Core Research Reactor, photo by Randy Montoya/SNL

The National Nuclear Security Administration looks to its security laboratories for scientific, technical, and engineering expertise in managing the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile. However, growing concerns about the overall quality of science and engineering (S&E) work at the Los Alamos, Sandia, and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories prompted Congress to ask the National Research Council for an independent review. The first phase of the study addressed management concerns at the laboratories; a second phase is examining S&E quality.

Scientists and engineers at these laboratories appear committed to their work and core mission, says Managing for High-Quality Science and Engineering at the NNSA National Security Laboratories, a report on the first phase of the study. However, a "broken relationship" between the National Nuclear Security Administration and the labs threatens to erode the quality of the scientific research and engineering being conducted there.

An intrusive degree of oversight stemming from past security and safety concerns at one of the labs has led to a breakdown of trust, the report says. However, the change in management and operations contractors at Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore in 2006 and 2007 -- while stressful and adding some $100 million annually to each laboratory's overhead -- is not the root cause of this problem.

Safety and security systems at the laboratories have been strengthened to the point where the labs no longer require special attention, the report says. An understanding is needed to rebalance the relationship and rebuild trust between NNSA and lab management. In addition, Congress should support the broadening of the laboratories' missions into other areas of national security research, which would potentially increase the laboratories' appeal to top-quality scientists and engineers.

The Research Council study is being funded by the National Nuclear Security Administration.

Animal Disease Research Needs

infrared image of cow infected with foot-and-mouth disease, photo by Craig Packer/USDA Agricultural Research ServiceProper detection, diagnosis, and response to outbreaks of animal disease are essential to protecting public health, the food supply, and animal agriculture. Currently the aging Plum Island Animal Disease Center located off Long Island conducts large-animal disease research, but it is too small to meet the nation's needs. And the facility does not have Biosafety Level 4 laboratory capability, which is essential for working with exotic and dangerous agents that affect both humans and animals and at present have no vaccine or treatment available.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security selected Manhattan, Kansas, as the site for a new facility, the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF), and in 2010 the department published a risk assessment of that site. At the request of Congress, the National Research Council reviewed the assessment and found it contained flawed methods and assumptions in determining the possibility and costs of an accidental pathogen release. In response, Congress mandated that DHS revise its assessment to address the shortcomings and directed the Research Council to evaluate the updated assessment.

Evaluation of the Updated Site-Specific Risk Assessment for the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kansas says that while the revised assessment is a significant improvement over the original, there are still a number of technical deficiencies, and the analysis inadequately characterizes risks associated with operating NBAF at the proposed site. DHS's assessment underestimates the possibility of an accidental pathogen release, and some of the risk analysis methods were misinterpreted and misapplied during analysis.

Another Research Council report on the proposed facility, Meeting Critical Laboratory Needs for Animal Agriculture: Examination of Three Options, explores constructing NBAF as designed, building a scaled-back version, or maintaining current capabilities at the Plum Island center while conducting Biosafety Level 4 large-animal operations at capable foreign laboratories.

Out of these options, the report concludes that constructing NBAF as designed or as a scaled-back version could meet the nation's needs in the long term. However, the proposed as-designed facility would cost a considerable $1.14 billion and does not leverage existing national resources for high-level biocontainment. With the second option, a partnership between a central national laboratory of reduced scope and size and a distributed laboratory network can effectively protect the United States, potentially save money, reduce redundancies while increasing efficiencies, and enhance the cohesiveness of a national system of biocontainment laboratories. However, the cost implications of reducing the scope and capacity of a central facility are not known. The third option, maintaining the Plum Island facility, would come with substantial costs, and there could be logistical difficulties in partnering with international laboratories, especially during an emergency. The report stresses that Plum Island should remain in operation until a suitable replacement opens.

Since the reports were released, DHS has issued a contract to build a central utility that will serve the planned national laboratory in Kansas.

Both studies were funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Better Oversight of Vehicle Electronic Systems

©Hemera/ThinkstockIn recent years, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration received numerous complaints about Toyota vehicles accelerating suddenly without warning, leading to accidents and injuries. Some motorists suspected faulty electronic throttle systems, but NHTSA attributed the problem to drivers pressing the gas pedal by mistake or to gas pedals sticking or getting entrapped in floor mats. Although a subsequent investigation by NASA would support those conclusions, persistent questions led NHTSA to ask the National Research Council to examine the issue.

NHTSA's decision to close its investigation of Toyota's electronic throttle systems was justified, concludes The Safety Promise and Challenge of Automotive Electronics: Insights From Unintended Acceleration. However, the entire incident underscores the increasing role of electronic systems in automobiles and the new safety oversight challenges that the agency must be prepared to meet.

It is "troubling" that NHTSA could not convincingly address public concerns about the safety of automotive electronics, the report says, especially since electronic throttle systems are relatively simple technologies. To respond effectively and confidently to claims of defects in the more complex electronic systems, both in present-day and future vehicles, NHTSA will require access to additional specialized technical expertise.

The report recommends that NHTSA establish a standing technical advisory panel of individuals with backgrounds central to the design, development, and safety assurance of automotive electronics systems. NHTSA should also conduct a comprehensive review to determine the specific capabilities needed to monitor and investigate flaws in electronics-intensive vehicles.

Since the report was released, NHTSA has appointed and convened the recommended expert panel.

The Research Council study was funded by NHTSA.

New Direction for NASA

Photo courtesy NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble CollaborationNASA's endeavors in human spaceflight, Earth and space science, and aeronautics are hampered by a mismatch between the programs to which the agency is committed and the budgets provided. The pace and approach to a number of NASA's programs, projects, and activities will not be sustainable if the NASA budget remains flat.

Without national agreement on the agency's strategic goals and objectives, NASA cannot be expected to establish or work toward achieving long-term priorities, says NASA's Strategic Direction and the Need for a National Consensus.The White House should take the lead in forging a new consensus on NASA's future in order to more closely align the agency's budget and objectives and remove restrictions impeding efficient operations.

The report notes, for example, that an interim goal of NASA's human spaceflight program is to visit an asteroid by 2025. However, there is limited evidence that the goal is widely accepted by NASA's own work force, by the nation as a whole, or by the international community. Such lack of consensus as well as budget uncertainty has undermined NASA's ability to guide program planning and allocate funding.

To reduce the discrepancy between the overall size of NASA's budget and its current portfolio of missions, facilities, and personnel, the report identifies options the nation could pursue, including instituting an aggressive restructuring program and engaging in more cost-sharing enterprises with other agencies, the private sector, and international partners.

The National Research Council study was funded by NASA.

A Safe Nuclear Weapons Stockpile

infrasound station in Qaanaaq, Greenland that is part of a high-tech global network that monitors for nuclear tests, photo by Owen Kilgour/Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty OrganizationFirst proposed nearly 50 years ago, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty would prohibit nuclear-explosion testing in all environments and establish a global network of monitoring stations to help track compliance. The treaty will enter into force after ratification by the 44 countries that possessed nuclear power or research reactors in 1996 and participated in the treaty's negotiation. The U.S. Senate considered and declined to provide consent to ratifying the treaty in 1999, although the U.S. has observed a testing moratorium since October 1992.

The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty: Technical Issues for the United States finds that the U.S. is now in a better position than at any time in the past to maintain a safe and effective nuclear weapons stockpile without testing and to monitor clandestine nuclear testing abroad. The report does not take a stand on whether the U.S. should ratify the treaty.

U.S. global monitoring capabilities are superior to those of the International Monitoring System (IMS), which is now nearly complete, and can focus on countries of national concern. However, the United States should support the completion and operation of the IMS regardless of whether the treaty enters into force, the report says. The IMS provides valuable data to the U.S., both as a common baseline for international assessment and as a way of revealing potential violations when the U.S. needs to keep its own data classified.

Technologies for detecting clandestine testing have improved significantly in the past decade. And although weapons threats could arise without being detected even if a test ban existed, they would not require the U.S. to return to weapons testing in order to respond.

The National Research Council study was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Department of State, Carnegie Corporation of New York, and National Academy of Sciences.

Improving U.S. Missile Defense

a ground-based missile interceptor being lowered into its silo at the Missile Defense Complex at Fort Greely, Alaska, U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Jack W. Carlson IIIU.S. missile defense systems are designed to protect the U.S. homeland, military forces, and allies against nuclear or conventional ballistic missile attacks from regional actors such as Iran or North Korea. One such system is known as boost-phase missile defense, which is supposed to shoot down enemy missiles immediately following their launch.

Making Sense of Ballistic Missile Defense: An Assessment of Concepts and Systems for U.S. Boost-Phase Missile Defense in Comparison to Other Alternatives says to more effectively defend against ballistic missile attacks, the U.S. should concentrate on defense systems that intercept enemy missiles in midcourse.

While boost-phase systems are theoretically possible, they are not "practical or feasible" because they would have only a few minutes in which to intercept enemy missiles during the boost phase, and air- or ground-based systems generally cannot be located close enough to potential threats to be effective. Space-based interceptors of boost-phase launches would require hundreds of satellites and cost as much as $500 billion to acquire and operate over a 20-year span -- at least 10 times as much as any other approach, the report estimates.

Midcourse defense systems provide more battle space for multiple opportunities to identify and shoot down targets, the report says. Currently, the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, which deploys 30 midcourse interceptors at military bases in Alaska and California, provides an "early but fragile" U.S. homeland defense capability for a potential threat from North Korea. However, the GMD has limited ability to defend the U.S. from missiles launched by countries other than North Korea, and current planned improvements will not adequately address these.

To overcome these shortcomings, the report recommends adding a third interceptor site to the U.S. Northeast and several technical fixes to make the GMD both more effective and less expensive, such as developing smaller but more capable interceptor missiles using already tested technologies and employing a suite of X-band radar components at five existing early-warning radar sites. Provided that the U.S. GMD system is improved, then the final phase of the program in Europe -- aimed at preventing long-range missiles launched in Iran from reaching the U.S. -- should be canceled. This phase would be unnecessary for European defense and less than optimal for U.S. protection.

Since the report was released, the Obama administration has canceled the last phase of the program in Europe.

The National Research Council study was funded by the U.S. Missile Defense Agency.