New York Times
September 5, 2004
'Nuclear Terrorism': Counting Down to the New Armageddon
- Reviewed by JAMES HOGE
are striving to acquire and then use nuclear weapons against the
United States. Success, as defined by Osama bin Laden, would be
four million dead Americans. Mounting evidence makes this much abundantly
clear. Documents discovered in Afghanistan seem to reveal Al Qaeda's
detailed knowledge of nuclear weaponry, while intelligence confirms
the terrorists' attempts to acquire nuclear material on the black
In reaction, President
George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry are giving pride of place
to catastrophic terrorism in their foreign policy platforms. Both
proclaim it the nation's No. 1 security challenge. Meanwhile, policy
analysts have urgently recommended preventive measures in a flurry
of reports, books, journal articles and Congressional testimony.
Now the Harvard scholar
Graham Allison is sounding his own warning in ''Nuclear Terrorism''
-- a well-written report for general readers on the threat and what
it will take to reduce it. He addresses all the big questions: who
could be planning an attack; how they might acquire and deliver
the weapons; when they might launch the first assault. Allison touches
on chemical and biological dangers, but he separates out the far
more lethal nuclear threat for special attention. Nonnuclear radioactive
(''dirty'') bombs and chemical or biological devices would kill
in the thousands. A 10-kiloton nuclear bomb, delivered to Times
Square by truck and then detonated, could kill up to one million
Some experts think a
terrorist attack with nuclear weapons is already unstoppable. Allison
disagrees -- up to a point. He argues that prevention is still possible,
and he gives the Bush administration some credit for several post-9/11
initiatives meant to tighten the security of nuclear weapons and
material. However, he calls for far bolder measures, more money
and forceful American leadership to improve what is at present rather
lax international cooperation. His bottom line is blunt: anything
less will make nuclear terrorism inevitable.
Allison blames both the
White House and the Congress for falling short of meeting the challenge.
To take one example, since 9/11 the rate of funding has hardly changed
for the Nunn-Lugar program, which was established to destroy or
secure Russia's enormous stockpile of fissile material and nuclear
weapons. Much remains to be done. Of special concern is Russia's
large supply of suitcase-size nuclear bombs, which terrorists could
smuggle into the United States in cargo containers or as airline
baggage. The safeguards on these weapons are loose at best. (In
1997, Russia acknowledged that 84 of some 132 such weapons were
At present, it will take
13 years, in Allison's estimation, to secure Russia's fissile material.
Allison's position, adopted by the Kerry campaign, is to spend whatever
dollars are necessary to complete the job in four years, though
achieving this objective would also require elimination of Congressionally
imposed impediments to Nunn-Lugar and overcoming Russian resistance
to intrusion into their facilities.
We face many vulnerabilities
-- limited intelligence of the terrorists' plans; poorly protected
ports, borders and nuclear power plants. But the most urgent danger
is that terrorists could acquire the fissile material with which
to construct a nuclear weapon in a relatively short period of time.
Russia presents the greatest problem; 90 percent of all existing
fissile material outside the United States is stored within the
former Soviet Union. Still, it's not the only region we need to
focus on. At least 32 countries possess weapons-grade fissile material.
Allison would round up
all fissile material and ban the creation of any more. This is a
daunting task. Allison himself observes that there are some 200
locations around the world where nuclear weapons or fissile material
could be acquired, and he pinpoints the most dangerous -- Russia
because of its huge supplies, shaky safeguards and extensive corruption;
Pakistan because of its indiscriminate spreading of nuclear know-how
and equipment; North Korea because of its history of selling missile
systems and its apparent nuclear development program; and lastly,
the research reactors (some 20-odd) with significant quantities
of bomb-grade uranium located in developing countries.
Allison's other remedies
-- like imposing intrusive nuclear power plant inspections and sanctioning
violators -- may also prove difficult to implement in the real world
of suspicious governments and corrupt officials. Because the United
States is widely viewed with hostility these days, it may not be
able to marshal the international support needed to shut down black
markets or block the emergence of new nuclear weapons states. And
then there is the question of money. Governments are reluctant to
spend lavishly on prospective threats when tax-conscious citizens
have not yet experienced any consequences.
As a champion of the
idea that nuclear terrorism is preventable, Allison emphasizes the
elements of an offense -- improved intelligence, tighter treaties,
more transparency and intrusion. But a stronger homeland defense
is also needed in case prevention by offense fails. And currently,
homeland security is getting short shrift. For the 2005 budget,
Congress has allotted $7.6 billion to improve the security of military
bases but only $2.6 billion to protect the nation's vital infrastructure.
Within the Department of Defense, $10 billion is spent annually
on missile defense, compared with only a few billion on all other
Homeland security becomes
an even higher priority if one broadens one's thinking about the
potential damage from nonnuclear weapons to include more than simply
the number who would die. Allison is less concerned with biological
and chemical weapons and so-called dirty bombs because they kill
in the thousands, not millions. But these unconventional arms can
still cause mass disruption; a few anthrax incidents, after all,
virtually shut down the Congress. The release of pathogens in a
public space, or a biological attack on the food supply system,
or a dirty bomb set off in a seaport could have enormous economic
consequences. Large-scale government efforts are needed to minimize
the danger of such attacks.
What makes the job of
prevention all the more difficult is that the threat of nuclear
terrorism is growing at the same time as the need for nuclear-generated
electricity. Allison points out that all signatories to the Nuclear
Nonproliferation Treaty are permitted to enrich uranium and reprocess
plutonium to make fuel for peaceful power reactors, provided they
declare what they are doing and submit to periodic inspections.
In other words, states can come to the brink of nuclear weapons
capability without explicitly violating the treaty. Then, without
penalty, they can withdraw from the treaty and turn enriched uranium
or plutonium into bombs.
This is a loophole that
both Iran and North Korea have sought to take advantage of. Allison
and other experts argue that the United States should not discard
the treaty but take the lead in fixing it. Their preferred solution
is to distinguish ''fuel cycle'' states from ''user states.'' Those
states where fuel-producing facilities already exist would provide
enriched fuel to other states that wish to generate electricity
from nuclear reactors. Coupling this with stiffer inspection provisions
and penalties for withdrawal from the treaty would return the nonproliferation
treaty to an important (if limited) role in countering proliferation.
Nuclear dangers come
in several forms, those that might be mounted by states and those
from terrorists that cannot be contained by treaties alone, no matter
how strict. Allison covers all the potential eventualities but might
have been clearer in setting priorities, since resources are limited.
Rogue states, capable of launching nuclear-tipped missiles, may
ultimately be a threat. But the evidence indicates that the danger
currently lies elsewhere. The urgent threat is nuclear terrorism,
and funds need to be freed up to fill the considerable holes remaining
in our counterterrorism programs.
but accessible treatment of this vital subject is a major contribution
to public understanding. In turn, an informed public could spur
the government to complete the counterterrorism agenda. Only then,
as Allison argues, will nuclear terror against America prove preventable.
is the editor of Foreign Affairs magazine.
Copyright 2004 The New
York Times Company