Commentary: How to Prevent Nuclear Terror

Allison's third No requires that the so-called nuclear club (which ideally should have no members) should be limited to the present eight members (the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China, Pakistan, India and Israel) or else the membership will mushroom (sorry) out of control. Both Iran and North Korea, which probably already has a couple of bombs, must be persuaded in one way or another to give up their nuclear aspirations, and this "persuasion" should not be a simplistic choice between ineffective pleading and counterproductive bombing.

Pressure must continue to be carefully applied to Pakistan, whose black marketers have recklessly sold "nuclear starter kits" and personal consulting services to anyone willing to pay for them.

Misplaced Priorities

In fact, all three of these No's require "muscular diplomacy." Given the way the United States is viewed around the world today, however, this is going to be even more difficult than it otherwise would be. This fact is at the root of Allison's contention that the Bush administration has misplaced priorities and squandered opportunities to improve national security. (Instead of fixing the gaping hole in our roof in preparation for the upcoming hurricane, we're spending time and money sewing a rip in our umbrella.)

Implementing the three No's will be expensive. Allison's estimate of the cost of securing all the fissile material in the world, for example, is $30 billion to $40 billion (although getting rid of the more extreme vulnerabilities would cost considerably less).

Work must be done and money expended in this country as well — very much less than the $200 billion authorized (though not all spent yet) in Iraq — but still a substantial amount for a deficit-burdened budget. More containers coming into this country must be inspected and more radiation sniffers and detectors purchased. As Allison notes, 30,000 trucks, 6,500 rail cars and 140 ships bring in 50,000 cargo containers every day. Only one in 20 of them is screened, and even these screenings will not always detect nuclear weapons or enriched uranium or plutonium.

The seven Yeses that Allison discusses are important, but rather standard proposals. In particular he stresses putting together global alliances with specific aims.

The virtue of this is underlined by a telling comparison. Unlike the Iraq war with its ever-changing rationales (talk about flip-flopping!) and largely unilateral prosecution, the Gulf War had a clearly delineated goal and more than 90 percent of its cost was paid by our allies. His other Yeses include getting better intelligence, conducting a more humble foreign policy and pursuing a more focused policy against Islamic terrorists that does not produce more of them than it neutralizes.

Allison credits the Bush administration for quickly recognizing the nexus between terrorism and nuclear weapons, but decries its "absence of urgency" in dealing with nuclear nonproliferation. "We've either been plodding along at a snail's pace or gone backward, way backward."

Some of the book's premises, facts and conclusions may be questioned, but Nuclear Terrorism has a subtitle that everyone should take seriously: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe.

Professor of mathematics at Temple University, John Allen Paulos is the author of best-selling books, including Innumeracy and A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market. His Who's Counting? column on appears the first weekend of every month.

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