Ammonium Nitrate: Regulate It
Usually I am opposed to government regulations, as they restrict our lives and impose excessive costs on the economy. But defense against violence and terror is a legitimate activity for the governance of a people, and we face greater dangers now than ever before.
by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior Editor
It is well known that ammonium nitrate can be used to make a bomb. This chemical is normally used as a nitrogen fertilizer, and is widely available. No permit is required to sell or buy it, and there is no register of buyers or sellers. Some 1.7 million tons of ammonium nitrate were sold last year in the USA, at about $200 per ton.
Plants use nitrogen from two molecules, ammonium nitrogen (NH4) and nitrate nitrogen (NO3). Ammonium nitrate has the molecule NH4NO3, half ammonium and half nitrate. The product is also known as nitric acid and ammonium salt.
Ammonium nitrate is hazardous. It is a strong oxidizer. Contact with other materials can cause an explosion. It is harmful if swallowed or inhaled or comes in contact with skin. It is itself not combustible, but the heat of a reaction with other substances can cause a fire. It is, however, stable when properly stored for farm fertilizer. When released to the soil, ammonium nitrate leaches into groundwater, where it biodegrades.
According to experts on the subject, simple contact with other materials, (such as reducing agents) will not cause ammonium nitrate to explode. Heat, pressure and usually some initiator such as a regulated explosive must also be present to detonate ammonium nitrate. The high density grade of ammonium nitrate used as fertilizer is also more difficult to detonate than industrial grade used in commercial blasting. The World Trade Center bombing used Urea nitrate, not ammonium nitrate.
Ammonium nitrate was first synthesized by Johann Glauber in 1659; he combined ammonium carbonate and nitric acid. The full power of the explosive was not discovered until the end of World War I. Fritz Haber won the Nobel Prize in 1918 for inventing the ammonia synthesis process. Throughout the war, ammonia synthesis plants were built and used in Germany to supply the country with explosives.
The main ingredient used in the truck bomb that murdered 168 people and destroyed the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995 was two tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. The Irish Republican Army, Tamil Tigers and some Middle Eastern groups have also used the ammonium nitrate bomb.
Despite its use in terror and destruction, today in the USA one still does not need a license or even personal identification to buy ammonium nitrate. The National Academy of Sciences has recommended banning sales of packaged ammonium nitrate unless dealers required IDs from buyers and keep accurate records. It also suggested putting chemical markers in fertilizer to aid bomb-sensing equipment and licensing fertilizer dealers.
In my view, it would be a legitimate part of national defense against terror to adopt the NAS suggestion for all sales of the substance. Farmers have been opposed to restrictions that would create delays and add to costs. But registration and tagging need not hinder the farmer. The cost should be borne by the U.S. government as part of national defense. There need also not be any delays. The chemical can be required to be tagged before a sale, and the identity of the buyer and seller recorded. Farmers could register personal and business information ahead of time so that there would be no delays when an ID is presented.
It is possible for terrorists to manufacture ammonium nitrate, but anything we can do to make it more costly and difficult for its use would reduce the dangers. It seems to me that the cost of monitoring the use of ammonium nitrate is well worth the reduction in the risk of its use in terrorist attacks. Ammonium nitrate is one case in which sensible regulation is warranted.
-- Fred Foldvary
Copyright 2001 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.
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