Race between cooperation and nuclear catastrophe

Vulnerable, but attack not inevitable

Though seen by some analysts as inevitable, a terrorist attack with a nuclear weapon may yet be averted if ongoing international efforts are intensified, said Sam Nunn, director of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

As previously reported in Bioterrorism Watch, some experts contend that terrorists eventually will detonate a nuclear warhead in the United States, most likely using a small tactical warhead that could be placed inside a vehicle.

"Increasingly, we are being warned that an act of nuclear terrorism is inevitable," Nunn said recently in a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

"I am not willing to concede that point. I do not think a nuclear explosion on American soil is inevitable, but I think it is possible. We have to do everything we can to prevent it. Unless we greatly elevate our effort and the speed of our response, we could indeed face the kind of disaster that is being predicted. We are in a race between cooperation and catastrophe, and the threat is outrunning our response."

A former U.S. senator, Nunn now leads the NTI’s mission to secure nuclear weapons and materials before they fall into the hands of terrorists. "I am not sure we grasp the devastating world-changing kind of impact of a single nuclear explosion.

"If a 10-kiloton nuclear device goes off in midtown Manhattan on a typical working day, it would kill at least a million people. Ten kilotons — a plausible yield for a crude nuclear weapon — has the power of 10 million tons of TNT. To haul that much TNT, you would need a cargo train 100 cars long, but if it were a nuclear bomb it could fit in the back of a truck," he added.

Beyond the immediate deaths and lives that would be shortened by radioactive fallout, the casualty list also would include civil liberties, privacy, and no small portion of the world economy, he noted.

"Are we doing all that we can to prevent a nuclear attack on America?" Nunn asked. "The simple answer is, No we’re not.’ We have, however, taken a number of important steps."

Those include efforts to continue to secure and destroy nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union. In addition, the major industrial powers have agreed to match U.S. funding to reduce nuclear threats and safeguard enriched plutonium in nuclear research facilities.

"There are over 100 of these research facilities in various locations around the globe that have bomb grade material, many of them with almost no security," Nunn warned.

Fortunately, international efforts such as the proliferation security initiative controls are tightening on the movement of nuclear weapons, delivery systems, and related technology, he pointed out.

Russia and the United States also are cooperating in an effort to convert global nuclear reactors to low-enriched uranium fuel rather than the highly enriched, bomb-grade material that still is used at many facilities.

The existing threat, however, is considerable. Nunn presented a chilling scenario for a nuclear terrorist attack that begins with the theft of 50 kilograms of highly enriched uranium from a research facility in Belarus — an independent nation that was formerly part of the Soviet Union.

"The [terrorists] head for a safe house that is equipped with machine tools, chemicals, bomb designs, and a nuclear weapons expert lured away from a former Soviet Union nuclear site," Nunn said. "Everything necessary to turn a terrorist group into a nuclear power."

In the scenario, the bomb is assembled and successfully dispersed through a terrorist network, leaving world governments at a distinct disadvantage. "Frustrated heads of state begin to realize that once the terrorists have the bomb, the chances of finding it are very, very small," he said. "Almost zero. [It’s] possible, but we would have to be very, very lucky."

Thus, in Nunn’s scenario, though the combined security forces of many governments deploy to guard hundreds of ports, airports, and thousands of miles of coastline around the globe, the bomb moves through a border crossing, undetected by radiation sensors because it is shielded by a thin layer of lead.

"At midday in a city of several million people, the world suffers its first nuclear strike in 60 years," he said. "The day after, what would we wish we had done to prevent it? I believe we would wish we had made it a top priority, a global effort to upgrade the security of all nuclear weapons and weapons usable materials at their source to prevent theft or diversion anywhere in the world."

Cooperation between the United States and Russia is key, particularly in securing tactical, battlefield nuclear weapons in both the United States and Russian arsenals.

"These are small battlefield weapons that are not the subject of any arms control agreement," Nunn explained. "We don’t know how many tactical nuclear weapons the Russians have or where they are located. We hope the Russians know. But we do know that they are transportable, mobile; and if one of them got in the hands of terrorists, we would have a different world."

The global cleanup and clampdown has begun in earnest in the wake of 9/11, but much more needs to be done if an attack is to be diverted. "The day after, we [will] wish we would have done all of these things," he added. "My question is, why aren’t we doing them now?"