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The Boston Globe SUNDAY, AUGUST 22, 2004
BOOK REVIEW by Jay Singh
Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe
By Graham Allison
Times, 263 pp., illustrated, $24


On our current course, "a nuclear terrorist attack on America in the decade ahead is more likely than not," says Graham Allison in his latest work, "Nuclear Terrorism." In an era of color-coded terror alerts and rigorous security checks, Allison provides a rare dose of alarmism well informed. A founding dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and author of the definitive text on the Cuban missile crisis, "Essence of Decision," Allison helped secure 12,000 nuclear weapons in Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine in the first Clinton administration.

Although nuclear policy wonks won't find much new in these pages, Allison's explanation of the threat will enlighten nonexpert readers. Nuclear facilities around the world are vulnerable to thieves seeking nuclear weapons or fissile material required to make a bomb. There are several confirmed cases of weapons-grade fissile material being stolen from Russian institutes, and dozens of Russian tactical nukes could be missing. Building a bomb is easy once terrorists get enough fissile material, a roughly softball-size chunk of highly enriched uranium. If a Princeton undergraduate could design a bomb in 1977 using only public documents, Allison says, Al Qaeda could do it today using the Internet. And the bomb could be smuggled into the country through one of the many avenues drug smugglers use, or simply via Federal Express or ship container.

Yet Allison believes a war on nuclear terrorism is winnable. Only governments have the resources to make fissile material, and if all this material were secure, nuclear terrorism would be impossible. "No fissile material, no nuclear weapon, no nuclear terror. It's that simple," Allison reasons. Senator Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican, speaking as a surrogate for President George W. Bush, recently offered a different take: "The number one goal, frankly, is to eliminate the terrorists. Weapons of mass destruction mean nothing without terrorists."
Yet Bush has no coherent strategy to prevent nuclear terrorism, Allison contends. Programs that Bush has implemented, such as the Proliferation Security Initiative, a 60-country voluntary program to intercept ships carrying nuclear material, are inadequate in Allison's view. Washington's strategy should be centered on three goals, he says. First, secure all nuclear weapons and material to a new standard (no loose nukes). Second, get countries to surrender the right to enrich uranium by guaranteeing them cheap reactor fuel for peaceful use (no new nascent nukes). Third, stop North Korea and Iran from developing nuclear weapons (no new nuclear states). Promoting all these goals, Allison says, should be a nuclear terrorism czar, a post for which Allison would vie if Democratic nominee John Kerry, whom Allison advises, prevails in the upcoming election.

These lofty goals are easier outlined than achieved. Russian officials are hypersensitive to nuclear facility inspections; teaming up with Washington in Allison's suggested alliance isn't likely to change that. Verifying countries' compliance with new rules would be politically difficult in countries such as India and Iran. Any further association with the United States will hurt, not help, leaders such as Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf. Allison admits that achieving his strategic goals will take a "long, hard, slog." The US president, he estimates, will have to spend at least an hour on this issue every day. And the US Congress will have to support and fund programs according to the new priorities.

It's difficult to envision Allison's "grand alliance" under President Bush, whose foreign policy team has shown disdain for arms control treaties and is unlikely to sponsor a new one. Also, Bush's commitment to developing new low-yield, bunker-busting nuclear weapons is an impediment to concessions from other countries.

Allison most convincingly argues that the Bush administration has failed on the supply side of the nuclear equation. Less plutonium and bomb-grade uranium were secured in the two years since 9/11 than in the two years before. Instead of boosting funding for the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which secures loose nukes and fissile material in partnership with Russia, Allison says, the White House has kept the program's funding flat at around $1 billion, even after a 2001 Department of Energy advisory board recommended an annual allocation of $3 billion. Last month, the administration insisted that the proposed Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty have no verification regime, thereby gutting a treaty that would have curbed new fissile material, even in countries that have not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, such as India and Pakistan.

Allison also advocates a "multilayered defense" to make nuclear delivery more difficult. This means spending more on things such as nuclear smuggling interdiction, radiation portal detectors at US borders, and inspection of air cargo that enters the country. While Washington pinches pennies, Allison notes, it spends $10 billion annually on missile defense, useless against nuclear terrorism.

As for curtailing Iranian and North Korean nuclear ambitions, the lack of good military options casts a shadow over Allison's optimistic view that a negotiated settlement with those two countries can be reached. He states that a negotiated agreement with the two rogues is unlikely without a credible threat to eliminate their nuclear capabilities with air strikes. But both Tehran and Pyongyang have scattered their material enough to ensure bombing would merely set back rather than eliminate their nuclear programs. With the US military commitment in Iraq, they know US ground troops are not an option.

Eliminating every terrorist, however desirable, is much harder than securing all nuclear materials. So if there ever were a nuclear attack in America, Allison's supply-side focus would look awfully pragmatic the day after. The $5 billion to $10 billion Allison suggests we spend annually defending against this threat would look modest. Sympathetic world leaders would pledge to help us secure the world's nuclear material. That doesn't sound unreasonable after a nuclear attack. Should it sound unreasonable before one?

Jai Singh is editorial assistant at Foreign Policy magazine.






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