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.

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.