Commentary: How to Prevent Nuclear Terror

Nuclear terrorism is a horrifying possibility, but it needn't be a paralyzing one. That's the message of a new book, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, by Graham Allison. He begins by sketching a realistic scenario in which as many as a million lives could be lost following explosion of a nuclear device in a large American city. Such a toll would be hundreds of times as great as that of Sept. 11.

Understandably enough, most of us would rather talk about Kitty Kelley's book or possibly counterfeit memos than such a prospect. Unpleasant though it is, we should pay close attention to the feasible steps that Allison argues can greatly reduce the probability of such a nuclear terrorist attack.

Compared to the cost in human life, financial resources and international goodwill of the Iraq war, Allison argues that these steps are almost cheap. Formerly dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and assistant secretary of defense for policy and plans in the first Clinton administration, the professor backs up his dire warnings with considerable expertise.

His outline of what must be done to avoid a calamity is comprised of three No's and seven Yeses. The heart of the book, however, is the Noes, which are: No loose nukes, No new nukes, No new nuclear states.

The Three Noes

The first and most important No requires that the United States help secure Russia's huge and poorly guarded stockpiles of fissile material (enriched uranium and plutonium) and nuclear weapons. Of particular concern is its supply of so-called suitcase nuclear bombs, an unhealthy fraction of which are unaccounted for.

Securing the stockpiles is being done in a limited way under the auspices of the Nunn-Lugar Act, which was passed by Congress for this purpose. Allison argues, however, that it will take 13 years to secure all of Russia's fissile material at the rate we're going and that we should spend the money to help them do the job in four years. (This position, it should be noted, has been endorsed by the Kerry campaign, for which Allison serves as a consultant.)

Obtaining fissile material is the primary difficulty facing those trying to make a weapon. No material, no bomb. But with enough enriched uranium or plutonium, some knowledge of physics, and a little Internet surfing, a crude weapon can easily be made in less than a year. And the unfortunate fact is that in Russia there is enough fissile material vulnerable to theft to make 30,000 additional nuclear weapons. Furthermore, though it contains 90 percent of all existing fissile material outside the United States, Russia is not the only worry. Allison writes that 32 other countries have some, and about 25 of the 130 nuclear research reactors in 40 countries contain sufficient fissile material to produce at least one nuclear bomb.

The second No requires that we ensure that more fissile material is not produced by countries such as Iran whose generators' avowed rationale is the peaceful production of electricity. Easier said than done, but he recommends strengthening the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty's terms regarding these reactors. The deal that would be needed for this to work might include a program whereby countries with nuclear capabilities would sell enriched uranium to those countries that want or need electricity from nuclear reactors.

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