September 19th 2014 IMO introduced a new panel to address new LNG/Liquid Natural Gas ships and optimise eco-friendly vessel designs to work better under current situations. As with every new and ambitious innovation, side-effects are present as LNG ships are, arguably more dangerous; with examples ranging from making ships more prone to explosions and being terrorist targets.
This new IMO panel introduces a code which presents goal-based approaches which are meant to be specified to given areas and vessel builds and requirements; promising to manage risk and address every need which forms the basis for design, construction, operation using LNG. This law would apply to new ships as well as conversions of existing ships.
So what are the assumed risks that associate with LNG ships? Terrorism dominates the assumptions based on LNG risks especially after US media generated enough attention after 9/11 attacks which created a scenario where the ship’s natural gas containers can be lined with explosives and transforming the ship into a highly explosive device. If an explosion of an LNG vessel (from gunfire or explosive devices) was to occur, what will form is a large pool of fire and a low order flash fire of LNG liquid aerosolised by the blast; all LNG hazards are localised; leaving thermal radiation effects. (2nd degree burns) Most LNG accidents happened due to confinement of LNG vapors.
So how does the new IMO initiative aim to adapt to risks due to side-effects of using LNG? Mandatory arrangement and provision of services, installation and inspection of machinery as well as control. Firstly, leaks are a common cause for hazard which are missed due to less attention paid; therefore inspection and focus of IMO on maintenance and control will likely prevent accidents of this nature.
LNG, however is not flammable UNLESS vaporised but still leaves an array of risks which associate with LNG fuel. If spilled near an ignition source the evaporating gas in a combustible gas-air concentration will burn above the pool. Resulting pool fire will spread as the pool expands; burning of the fires is intense and rapid; more so than gasoline and are impossible to extinguish until all the LNG burns out. Thermal radiation can damage buildings and people at a considerable distance from the fire.
However there is also a chance that spilled LNG would not ignite and instead, form a vapor cloud which is able to drift away from the site of spill. Upon encountering an ignition source it ignites but does not always explode due to the cloud having only a fraction of combustible air-gas material. Another word on releases of LNG gases concerns releases in water since ships can encounter accidents while at sea and of varied distance from populated spots; releasing LNGs in water directly. This release is arguably, the most dangerous as this is a flame-less/rapid phase transition explosion which is cause by heating up and instant re-gasification. However, hazard zones are smaller than normal LNG spills therefore area of effect is smaller but dangerous regardless since it is physically invisible which increases the likelihood of entrance to the affected zone.
So far, we have established that LNG spills are dangerous due to explosions that happen upon vaporisation which then creates an intensely burning, inextinguishable blaze whose magnitude will be felt from great distances. However how do LNG spills physically affect the personnel themselves? Firstly, LNG is liquefied by cooling to -160 degrees centigrade, -260 Fahrenheit thus it is very low temperature which can injure people and damage equipment; warranting other chain-reaction issues relating to damage to equipment. LNG, if vaporised also creates asphyxiation hazards; while not toxic, LNG vapor is still dangerous as it displaces oxygen/breathable air with clouds rising as they warm.
When talking about the human factor involving side-effects of modern maritime it always has to be connected and related to modern disasters; physical and cyber terrorism which are not directly addressed by the IMO panel. As ships are now required to use LNG fuel it means that logistics will be transportation, storage, processing and building the vessels themselves; creating a large, visible infrastructure which is theoretically attractive for terrorists for mass hostage seizes and creating a destructive, unstoppable blaze.
To begin discussing terrorism and LNG it is important to talk about the whole infrastructure of the LNG network. The network consists of inter-connected transportation and storage facilities with both having their own distinct physical characteristics which affect operational and security risks and needs to address both. The three elements of an LNG network are tanker ships, (currently 142 tankers in service worldwide with combined cargo capacity of 16 million cubic meters of LNG) marine terminals and storage facilities.
LNG tankers get unloaded, regasified and stored or sold to domestic markets; unload terminals consist of docks, LNG handling equipment, storage tanks and interconnections to regional gas transmission pipelines. The fuel itself is stored in refrigerated tanks which are surrounded by container impoundments which limit the spread during a spill. All this, especially in the modern day are mostly computer-controlled.
Terrorism and “cyber-terrorism” are cases that warrant their own analysis but regardless, remain a part of an appendix of maritime innovations. The analysis conducted so far spoke about disasters which relate to technical issues; something that the new IMO panel addresses. Unfortunately, technical issues are only half the problem since the negative state of the economic and geo-political sphere carries over to the maritime landscape as terrorist and pirate attacks are likely and prominent which require more attention regarding new technological innovations. While organisations such as IMO do pay attention to said issues, they fail to address them relating to the context of new initiatives.