Listen to Clyde Lane, Homeland Security's chief nuclear scientist, speaking at a conference in Miami this week:
"A number of terrorist groups have the capabilities to produce a crude radiological weapon, which would combine conventional explosives with radioactive material. Given the relative ease of creating a dirty bomb, the fact that one has never been set off is slightly puzzling.
Talk about your double-dares –- this one trumps President Bush's "Bring it on." Layne then makes a bad situation worse by shaming terrorists because, never mind a dirty bomb, they haven't made a real nuclear bomb.
"The RDD [radiological dispersion device] seems to be fairly simple, so why haven't we seen some of these?"
"There is enough information on the Internet to piece together a workable nuclear weapon design," he says. In fact, "It is something that's doable with reasonable machine shops and casting facilities." Yeah, get to work, you slacker terrorists.
In fairness, Layne may have been reduced to hyperbole by his frustration over the difficulties of securing "loose nukes" (nuclear materials in Russia). Not to mention intercepting nuclear materials on their way from states "of proliferation concern" to the US.
According to Mark Valencia in the June Arms Control Today, the Bush administration's Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), intended for just that purpose, has been ineffective. Other nations, leery of us, thanks to not only the Iraq War, but the Bush administration's poor record on nuclear nonproliferation, have been reluctant to sign on.
Equally suspicious are those of us stateside who, since the days of the transparently political terror alerts, view WMD warnings as a means of fear-mongering us into docile acceptance of yet more NSA spying. Besides, as Stephen Younger, former head of nuclear weapons research and development at Los Alamos Laboratory, makes clear in his new book "Endangered Species," constructing a nuclear weapon actually is rocket science.
There's more to it, he writes, than: "Just put a slug of uranium into a gun barrel and shoot it into another slug of uranium into a gun barrel and shoot it into another slug of uranium. . . . There are many tricks of the trade that even the most complete set of instructions won't contain, a fact apparent to anyone who has ever tried to follow the instructions for a complex do-it-yourself project."
Still, minimizing the terrorist threat just because the administration hypes it is a trap liberals and progressives fall into all too readily. Of course, there are multiple obstacles to creating a nuclear bomb, none, as Iran has learned through painful experience, larger than getting those damned cascading centrifuges to properly enrich uranium.
Purchasing -- or stealing -- weapons-grade uranium are other options. Let's go, Chechen rebels! Pinch some from a poorly secured Russian nuclear facility. Come on, al Qaeda! Divert a few shekels from requisitioning grenade launchers to buying enriched uranium on the nuclear black market.
More to the point, why haven't terrorists gotten their hands on a "nuclear suitcase," as seen on "24" this season? The Russians encased comparatively low-yield bombs in what looks like a heavy piece of luggage. The US version, stuffed in a backpack instead, was called, ironically, SADMs (Small Atomic Demolition Munitions).
One defector from the GRU (Russia's largest intelligence agency) said the number of these tactical nukes missing from Russian nuclear facilities, "is almost identical to the number of strategic targets upon which those bombs would be used." In other words, plenty for every major city in the US with enough left over for places like the Mall of America.
Meanwhile, we hate to break the news to Clyde Layne but the real reason terrorists, particularly al Qaeda, may have made neither a dirty bomb nor a nuclear bomb is that they might already have suitcase bombs in their possession. Why haven't they used them? Commentators never pass up a chance to remind us that al Qaeda gives more than lip service to the homily "Patience is a virtue" (its only one apparently).
Meanwhile, according to Mr. Nuclear Terrorism himself -- Graham Allison of Harvard's Belfer Center -- there is "yet another reason for thinking some of these weapons may be unaccounted for." Unlike the rest of Russia's nuclear weapons, they "had no individual serial numbers on them."
Even before "24," a show of such cultural impact that it's got West Point students salivating over the prospect of torturing an "enemy combatant," the Cold War, of course, ended. Then, during the last presidential election, Dick Cheney issued a string of variations on his pronouncement that "you've got to get your mind around" the concept of terrorists using an WMD on an American city. Consequently, nuclear fear in America has migrated from use of nuclear weapons by states to "non-state actors" (a nice way of referring to terrorists).
As if to make it official, former Secretary of Defense William Perry and his associates have just released a report called "The Day After" (sorry, Mr. SecDef, no points for originality), which was excerpted in The New York Times. Concentrating on prevention and survival of a nuclear terrorist attack, it also attempts to rescue the fall-out shelter from the oblivion it shares with "duck and cover."
But states with nukes –- like the US –- remain equally dangerous. With their plans to deploy missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, Bush & Co. seem bound and determined to revive the Cold War.
Maybe Russia is a bone Cheney and his people are throwing Condoleezza Rice, to whom Sovietology is a first love. It could serve as a reward to her for going down with the Fatah ship in Palestine. Or, more important, it might divert her from continuing to diplomatically triangulate with Iran and the International Atomic Agency, thus clearing the decks for air strikes against Iranian nuke sites.
On the other hand, there was some rare good news on the nuclear disarmament front. Last week, the House Appropriations Committee voted to increase Department of Energy nonproliferation programs by $940.7 million. It also eliminated $88.8 million worth of proposed funding for the Reliable Replacement Warhead. (Their selling points are greater simplicity and lower maintenance than existing warheads.)
But, as Kyle Atwell reports on Nukes of Hazard, a blog affiliated with the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation: "The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) released its markup of the Defense Authorization Bill yesterday. . . . and allotted just over $195 million for the RRW program, a 165% increase from the president's request of $118.8 million." He concludes: "My guess is that the House will keep funding low, the Senate will keep funding high, and a middle ground will be hashed out in the joint committee."
Can we ever reach nuclear disarmament, a destination ever more distant, using baby steps like that? Ian Anthony heads up the Nonproliferation and Export Control Project for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. "The decisions taken by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council," he said, "will keep nuclear weapons in their arsenals beyond 2050."
Meanwhile, on War in Context, Paul Woodward said, "What winning the Cold War really meant was that by luck rather than design, we didn't all get incinerated." Do we really want to continue to consign our fortunes to Lady Luck?