Summary: President Bush has called nuclear terror the defining threat the United States now faces. He's right, but he has yet to follow up his words with actions. This is especially frustrating since nuclear terror is preventable. Washington needs a strategy based on the "Three No's": no loose nukes, no nascent nukes, and no new nuclear states.
Graham Allison is Douglas Dillon Professor of Government and Director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. From 1993 to 1994 he was Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy and Plans.
Arms Control, Nuclear Weapons and Disarmament
The Four Faces of Nuclear Terror And the Need for a Prioritized Response
By William C. Potter, Charles D. Ferguson, and Leonard S. Spector
Foreign Affairs, May/June 2004
Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe
Graham Allison. New YorkTimes Books, 2004.
The Nuclear Tipping Point: Why States Reconsider Their Nuclear Choices
Edited by Kurt M. Campbell, Robert Einhorn, and Mitchell Reiss. WashingtonBrookings Institution Press, 2004.
The Future of Arms Control
Michael A. Levi, Michael E. O'Hanlon. WashingtonBrookings Institution Press, 2005.
Lawrence Freedman. CambridgePolity Press, 2004.
How to Counter WMD
By Ashton B. Carter
Foreign Affairs, September/October 2004
THE THREE NO'S
President George W. Bush has singled out terrorist nuclear attacks on the United States as the defining threat the nation will face in the foreseeable future. In addressing this specter, he has asserted that Americans' "highest priority is to keep terrorists from acquiring weapons of mass destruction." So far, however, his words have not been matched by deeds. The Bush administration has yet to develop a coherent strategy for combating the threat of nuclear terror. Although it has made progress on some fronts, Washington has failed to take scores of specific actions that would measurably reduce the risk to the country. Unless it changes course -- and fast -- a nuclear terrorist attack on the United States will be more likely than not in the decade ahead.
The administration's inaction is hard to understand. Its behavior demonstrates a failure to grasp a fundamental insight: nuclear terrorism is, in fact, preventable. It is a basic matter of physics: without fissile material, you can't have a nuclear bomb. No nuclear bomb, no nuclear terrorism. Moreover, fissile material can be kept out of the wrong hands. The technology for doing so already exists: Russia does not lose items from the Kremlin Armory, nor does the United States from Fort Knox. Nascent nukes should be kept just as secure. If they are, terrorists could still attempt to create new supplies, but doing so would require large facilities, which would be visible and vulnerable to attack.
Denying terrorists access to nuclear weapons and weapons-grade material is thus a challenge to nations' willpower and determination, not to their technical capabilities. Keeping these items safe will be a mammoth undertaking. But the strategy for doing so is clear. The solution would be to apply a new doctrine of "Three No's": no loose nukes, no new nascent nukes, and no new nuclear states.
GETTING A GRIP
A few numbers starkly illustrate the scale of the problem the United States now faces in trying to control the spread of nuclear weapons materials. Just eight countries -- China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States -- are known to have nuclear weapons. In addition, the CIA estimates that North Korea has enough plutonium for one or two nuclear weapons. And two dozen additional states possess research reactors with enough highly enriched uranium (heu) to build at least one nuclear bomb on their own. According to best estimates, the global nuclear inventory includes more than 30,000 nuclear weapons, and enough heu and plutonium for 240,000 more.
Hundreds of these weapons are currently stored in conditions that leave them vulnerable to theft by determined criminals, who could then sell them to terrorists. Even more "nascent nukes" (the heu and plutonium that are the only critical ingredients for making nuclear bombs) are at risk. Almost every month, someone somewhere is apprehended trying to smuggle or steal nuclear materials or weapons. Last August, for example, Alexander Tyulyakov -- the deputy director of Atomflot (the organization that carries out repair work for Russian nuclear icebreakers and nuclear submarines) -- was arrested in Murmansk for trying to do just that. The situation is so bad that three years ago, Howard Baker, the current U.S. ambassador to Japan and the former Republican leader of the Senate, testified, "It really boggles my mind that there could be 40,000 nuclear weapons, or maybe 80,000 in the former Soviet Union, poorly controlled and poorly stored, and that the world is not in a near-state of hysteria about the danger."
In making his case against Saddam Hussein, President Bush argued, "If the Iraqi regime is able to produce, buy, or steal an amount of uranium a little bigger than a softball, it could have a nuclear weapon in less than a year." What the president failed to mention is that with the same quantity of heu, al Qaeda, Hezbollah, or Hamas could do the same. Once built, nuclear weapons could be smuggled across U.S. borders with little difficulty. Of the seven million cargo containers that will arrive at U.S. ports this year, for example, only two percent will be opened for inspection. And once on U.S. soil, those weapons would likely be used. Prior to September 11, 2001, many experts argued that terrorists were unlikely to kill large numbers of people, because they sought not to maximize victims but to win publicity and sympathy for their causes. After the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, however, few would disagree with President Bush's warning that if al Qaeda gets nuclear weapons, it will use them against the United States "in a heartbeat." Indeed, Osama bin Laden's press spokesman, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, has announced that the group aspires "to kill 4 million Americans, including 1 million children," in response to casualties supposedly inflicted on Muslims by the United States and Israel.