October 10, 2004
Scariest Scenario: Nukes
The two most
disagreeable men in America (at least with each other) agreed on
something terribly important when they met last month for their
and President Bush both asserted that the single greatest danger
facing the United States is nuclear proliferation - the least frightening
way of saying nuclear terrorism. Their synchronized skating on the
issue excited unexcitable moderator Jim Lehrer so much that he even
paused to confirm it.
described the danger in any detail, since spooking the electorate
has its limits, even in a campaign year. Besides, why bother? We
have Graham Allison, founding dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of
Government (and a former assistant secretary of state steeped in
the minutiae of "loose nukes"), to offer chapter and verse.
So get scared.
Get very scared.
begins with an Oct. 11, 2001 CIA tip, never corroborated, placing
al- Qaeda terrorists in New York City with a 10-kiloton nuclear
bomb they stole from Russia.
took some quiet appropriate action, the report remained unconfirmed,
and Oct. 11 didn't follow Sept. 11 into history. But the false alarm
gives Allison, one of America's top experts on nuclear terrorism,
a chance to bring these threats, so to speak, to your neighborhood.
had exploded that bomb in Times Square "adjacent to the Morgan
Stanley headquarters at 1585 Broadway, Times Square would vanish
in the twinkling of an eye. The blast would generate temperature
reaching into the tens of million of degrees Fahrenheit. The resulting
fireball and blast wave would destroy instantaneously the theater
district, the New York Times building, Grand Central Terminal, and
every other structure within a third of a mile of the point of detonation."
to make too much of a New York thing, Allison also provides block-by-block
analyses for similar hypothetical events in San Francisco, Houston,
Washington, Chicago, and his hometown, Charlotte, N.C.
sensibly advance Part One, titled "Inevitable," of his
two-part book. In it, Allison quotes everyone from Tom Ridge to
Warren Buffett to nuclear terrorism expert Eugene Habiger as they
voice some version of: "It's not if, it's when."
five chapters thus directly mean to jolt readers and public officials
with the gravity of the threat. To the author's credit, he does
that with a maximum of fact and a minimum (though a tad) of liberal
Much of nuclear
terrorism's danger involves what might be called the author's "Axis
of Angst" - Russia, Pakistan, North Korea and Iran.
an official bipartisan review of potential nuclear terrorism conducted
in 2001 by Howard Baker and Lloyd Cutler, there may be as many as
80,000 "poorly controlled and poorly stored" nuclear weapons
in the former Soviet Union. Heightening the anxiety, Russian general
Alexander Lebed famously told a group of visiting U.S. congressmen
in 1997 that Russia couldn't account for 87 Soviet suitcase bombs.
we may never know the full damage done by the "Wal-Mart of
private-sector proliferation" run by Pakistani nuclear scientist
and centrifuge-design thief Abdul Khan. But black markets like his
continue to function. A 1998 report in the Arabic-language magazine
Al Watan Al Arabi said that "bin Laden's followers had purchased
twenty nuclear warheads from Chechen mobsters in exchange for $30
million in cash and two tons of opium."
And then there
are North Korea and Iran. Both share ritual defiance of the United
States, lack of respect for nonproliferation, a taste for piecemeal
deceptions, and plain ambition to join the nuclear club.
doesn't stop with our foreign enemies. He gives equal time to ways
we make ourselves vulnerable to the worst terrorism imaginable.
"Of the seven million cargo containers that arrive in U.S.
ports each year," reports Allison, "fewer than 5 percent
are opened." Similarly, even after 9/11, less than 10 percent
of all air cargo gets screened.
chapters of information overload in that vein, including lucid explanations
of such terms as "spent reactor fuel" and "reprocessing,"
a gentle reader may start thinking about living wills.
start makes Allison's convincing shift in Part Two ("Preventable"),
to how we can render nuclear terrorism "The Ultimate Preventable
Catastrophe," all the more impressive.
If Part One
persuades that the nuclear 9/11 can't be prevented, Part Two makes
you think it's inevitable only if we keep doing what we've done
so far. We might head it off if we toughen up. Allison's wonderfully
informative second half presents a slew of carefully recommended
He argues that
we must put far more money and attention into the Nunn-Lugar-Domenici
Soviet Nuclear Threat Reduction Program, in which the United States
and Russia join forces to safeguard the former Soviet Union's nuclear
He urges that
we stop diverting antiterrorist resources to marginal enterprises
such as the war in Iraq (that's the spinniest Allison gets). He
wants us to aggressively monitor unsecured uranium or weapons-grade
plutonium on the black markets. He recommends opposing new production
facilities for enriching uranium or reprocessing plutonium, even
if a nation, like Iran, claims it's for peaceful purposes.
finished there. The U.S. president, he believes, must pull Russia's
President Vladimir Putin into a serious partnership on nuclear terrorism
and make the issue an "absolute national priority." We
need a new "gold standard" for protection of nuclear weapons
against terrorists that's worthy of Fort Knox. Finally, we shouldn't
research and develop new nuclear weapons if we want the rest of
the world to take our nonproliferation strategies seriously.
Lest you remain
fatalistic, Allison makes some good historical points that feed
his optimism. While President John F. Kennedy predicted there would
be 20 nuclear states by now, anti-proliferation efforts interfered,
and today the number rests at 8. Allison's own valiant work with
Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar in the early '90s amazingly succeeded
in getting Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine to cede their weapons
back to Russia.
may tire of Allison's policy-oriented approach, particularly in
the book's closing sections. He's always announcing that he has
a four-step plan to solve this problem, a five-step one for that.
And not every Allison suggestion works. For instance, his idea of
offering nuclear fuel to a suspected renegade, Iran, picked up by
Kerry, was just rejected by Iran.
Terrorism succeeds at its chief task: making one superbly literate
in the frightening realities of its subject. If officials follow
Allison's expert advice, we might happily make it back from "when"