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Last Best Chance

06.25.2005 | POLITICS

I have a new favorite dinner-party game. I call it, Mention Nuclear Terrorism. The rules are simple: while sitting around a table with a group of people, say "nuclear terrorism." No complete sentence is required; you can even whisper the words under your breath. Like the library scene in Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, the phrase will trigger a flurry of exits. Once the room is cleared, you're free to devour whatever is left on everyone's plates. Trust me, I've gained 15 pounds in the last two months. It works every time.

It's hard to blame people for avoiding the subject. There's not much you can do about it, and a mushroom fireball above Midtown isn't an image you want in your head as you try to fall asleep. But maintaining some kind of sustained discussion would have its upsides. Enough buzz could trigger an exodus to less densely populated parts of the country, engendering a welcome slide in rents. And we'd likely see the return of terror-sex.

But the biggest benefit would simply be taking our future at least partly into our own hands, instead of pretending that smart and patriotic people along the Potomac have things under control. We last saw a burst of this attitude in February 2003, when hundreds of thousands marched through the city against the Iraq war, a criminal adventure that took precious resources away from the search for al Qaeda, and which even the Bush administration admitted heightened the risk of domestic terrorism.

Since then, the threat of nuclear terrorism has been allowed to grow with little attention paid by the public and local pols, most of whom, the mayor in particular, don't seem to understand what's at stake.

New Yorkers weren't always so averse to confronting nuclear threats. Fifty years ago, mass protests forced the scrapping of mandatory citywide air-raid drills, once people figured out they were more about scaring the shit out of them than surviving WWIII. More famously, in 1982 up to one million people gathered in Central Park to protest the arms race and Reagan brinkmanship. It stands as the largest gathering in city history.

And today? If disarmament activists managed to get more than a few dozen people together on the Great Lawn, Parks Commish Adrian Benepe would throw down his trowel and personally lead the riot squad charge, double-fisting night-sticks and screaming about how much time and money has gone into restoring the grass.

But that's assuming you could get more than a few dozen people to mobilize around nuclear issues. Considering the millions of yawns that greeted the opening and closing of last month's failed U.N. conference on the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Benepe needn't worry about his precious tulips. Though we still sit atop the short list of cities most likely to suffer the realization of al Qaeda's avowed goal of an American Hiroshima, New Yorkers can seem as uninterested as the rest of the country when it comes to the nuclear terror clock and the policies that determine the placement of its minute hand.

Lincoln, Nebraska can afford to forget that the world is awash in poorly guarded stocks of highly enriched uranium (HEU). New York City cannot.

As was widely reported in the weeks and months after 9/11, it takes only around 20 kilos of HEU to make a bomb big enough to flatten most of downtown. The technical hurdles to building a functional nuclear device tend to get overstated in media reports, where journalists like to stress the higher likelihood of a dirty bomb attack, but it's pretty easy.

A "gun-style" A-bomb basically requires slamming one grapefruit-size slab of HEU into another at high speed, propelled by a conventional charge. The entire mechanism can be fit into a medium-size suitcase and assembled in a studio apartment. The tallest hurdle for the nuclear terrorist--the only hurdle, really--is not constructing the bomb, but acquiring the raw material.

As for motive, al Qaeda has promised to carry out a nuclear attack and has been searching for weapons-grade material since the early 90s. Bin Laden has always claimed that 9/11 would be followed by a much bigger bang, one that will bring the U.S. to its knees. (Does that make NYC or D.C. the balls?) No one in intelligence agencies anywhere actually believes that the quiet on the American front reflects the effectiveness of Bush's war on terror; it simply confirms the patience of al Qaeda and the group's commitment to making sure the sequel to 9/11 is worth the wait.

Before and after the 2004 elections, Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al Zawahiri issued "final chance" warnings to Americans that some watchers have interpreted as an Islamic gesture made in order to justify the future use of weapons of mass destruction. (Al Qaeda was criticized by some radical clerics for not issuing such a warning before 9/11.) As for which kind of weapons might be used, two al Qaeda-linked militants captured by German intelligence in January were recorded discussing locations at which uranium could be acquired. While it's nice to know this particular cell was still looking, they weren't the first to seek such a purchase, and they won't be the last.

In their first debate last fall, George Bush and John Kerry both claimed to understand the severity of all this. But the second Bush administration, after repeatedly conjuring up mushroom clouds to justify its policies and terrify rural Ohioan voters, has failed to deliver on its rhetoric. In the four years since 9/11, roughly the same amount of weapons grade material has been secured at Russia's porous supply depots as was secured in the four years before 9/11. Looking ahead, only one-quarter of one percent of the 2006 Pentagon budget is slated for programs to secure the rest of it--a fraction of that slated for the ongoing missile defense fiasco and other juicy but useless defense-sector gravy trains. The Dept. of Homeland Security, meanwhile, is paying $250,000 a pop for radiation detection systems that can't tell the difference between uranium and low-level radiation emitted by everyday products like cat litter.

"If you put Los Alamos Laboratories at Long Beach, you could detect [nuclear materials entering port]," says Tom Cochran, head of the nuclear division at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Because of the fact that you can't really detect uranium readily or reliably, you ought to have a very high priority on rounding it up and eliminating it, particularly [its] commercial uses."

Most nuke-watchers agree. The good news is that they believe securing the world's existing supply of HEU is doable, since it's scattered around the world at hundreds of locations, not thousands. With a war-footing level of attention, resources and cooperation between the nuclear powers--specifically the U.S. and Russia--experts believe the world's stockpiles can be accounted for and secured in the next few years, in time to greatly reduce, if not eliminate, the risk of weapons-grade material falling into terrorist hands. The price tag put on the entire project by Harvard Univerisity's Graham Allison is $10 billion, matched by an equal amount of political capital and energy on the part of every G8 government.

Few outside the Bush administration, however, believe securing the world's production and traffic in nuclear materials is possible without fundamental changes in America's foreign policy and the way it organizes its defenses. To paraphrase U.N. Atomic Energy chief Mohamed ElBaradei, it's hard to lecture on the dangers of smoking while French inhaling a menthol.

"There have been several important missed opportunities caused by Bush policies," says Mathew Bunn of Harvard University's Belfer Center, which closely monitors the twin threats of proliferation and loose material.

"The U.S. is walking away from its commitments that are crucial to strengthen. If we want other countries to accept constraints, we're going to have to accept constraints."

Bunn recently co-authored the new installment of an annual report called "Securing the Bomb." Now in its fourth year, the report was commissioned by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), an organization co-chaired by former senator Sam Nunn and funded by Ted Turner. At the moment, Nunn, who has devoted his life to the issue since 1989, is struggling to maintain a guarded optimism.

"We are in a race between cooperation and catastrophe," the former senator told a Tokyo audience last week. "And right now the threat is outpacing the response."

An adequate response, argues Nunn, would involve the nuclear powers' setting an ambitious timetable for securing all nuclear material storage facilities, as well as new stringent and transparent international standards for doing do; devaluing nuclear weapons in their own military postures; strengthening the Test-Ban Treaty with renewed U.S. support; creating a new international regime for the production and distribution of nuclear fuel for peaceful purposes; and crafting a creative new strategy of "cooked carrots and sharp sticks" to knock North Korea and Iran off the nuclear path. All of this, he says, must be done with urgency.

This is an imposing list, and it gets wonky fast. It also doesn't lend itself easily to public participation. But Nunn strongly believes the public has a crucial role. Last month his organization released a straight-to-video nuclear-terror docudrama called Last Best Chance, starring Fred Thompson as President. It won't have an impact anywhere near that of 1983's The Day After, which jolted the nation and bolstered the Freeze movement when broadcast primetime on ABC, but it's a noble attempt to encourage public demand for swifter action. In the last few weeks alone, more than 30,000 people have ordered free DVD copies from

In any national resurgence of interest in nuclear issues, New Yorkers should be out in front. Last month Bloomberg signed on to a mayoral climate change initiative started by Seattle mayor Greg Nickels. Why shouldn't New York's mayor lead the charge in setting up a similar coalition built around the threat of nuclear terrorism? Why aren't the city's politicians expressing outraged opposition to policies that fail to adequately confront the danger?

All politics may be local, but the definition of local has changed. What happens at a storage facility in Siberia is as important to New York as what gets built on the Hudson Railyards. Because there's no point in developing waterfronts, building Freedom Towers or winning the Olympics if a handheld nuclear bomb can come through the Holland Tunnel one drizzly afternoon and take it all away.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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