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Nightmare Scenario

07.31.2004 | BOOKS

Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe
by Graham Allison
Times/Henry Holt, 249 pages, $23

Back in the mid-1980s, a popular bumper sticker reminded drivers that one nuclear bomb could ruin their whole day. It might have added that one book about nuclear terrorism could ruin their whole summer vacation. Expect more than standard-issue insomnia from Graham Allison's Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe. Side effects also include curiosity about rents and cultural life in Omaha, NE, a newfound appreciation for the joys of televised golf and a yen for barbiturates the size of pickles.

This is not because the author possesses any sparking-wick intelligence that's been kept under lids. The information contained in the book is startling, but it's not new. If you've followed the news over the last decade, you're likely acquainted with most of the main bullet points recounted here. Fears of loose Soviet nukes date back to 1991. Alexander Lebed's claim that 84 Russian suitcase nukes have gone missing occurred in 1997. Osama Bin Laden boasted possession of several of these devices as early as November 2001, telling a journalist, "If you have contacts in Russia and with other militant groups...[suitcase nukes] are available for $10 million and $20 million." And we've known since last year that the international nuclear black market birthed and nursed by Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan is bigger and more sophisticated than most experts had dared imagine.

So if we already know all this, why does Nuclear Terrorism terrify so completely? Because reading a book is different than watching television or scanning a newspaper. A killer meteor could be minutes from Earth, and a look at the new Chevy truck will always be up next on CNN. A senior al Qaeda official can claim possession of 10 nuclear bombs, and Matt Drudge will still have an adjacent link to a shark attack in Australia. But in policy tracts there are no lighthearted human-interest stories on the next page to facilitate a quick forgetting--no hypertext exits and no commercial breaks. Nuclear Terrorism is full immersion in the darkest waters of your post-9/11 consciousness.

Graham Allison was the founding dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and is currently the acting director of the university's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, which since 1991 has attempted to track the fate of the nuclear arsenal left behind by the Soviet Union. Also a former assistant secretary of defense, Allison does not believe we can afford to keep switching channels. "On the current path," he writes, "a nuclear terrorist attack on America in the decade ahead is more likely than not." If current trends are allowed to continue beyond the next decade, a nuclear attack becomes "inevitable."

In case anyone hasn't read John Hersey's Hiroshima since high school, Allison spends a sobering few pages describing what a 10-kiloton attack would do to midtown Manhattan and its residents. He follows this with a series of FAQs that amount to a sort of "everything you ever wanted to know about nuclear terrorism but were afraid to ask" resource. Each chapter title is in the form of a question, and Allison's answers uniformly deflate the wishful thinking that infects the media, where "technological hurdles" are frequently cited in downplaying the threat of nuclear terror in favor of far less destructive radiological weapons. (It is a strange world indeed where dirty bombs are the good news.) Across the board, the situation is worse than most people probably assume.

Who Could Be Planning a Nuclear Terrorist Attack? Three years before 9/11, the head of the Congressional Task Force on Nonconventional Terrorism told an audience in Washington, "There is no longer much doubt that bin Laden has succeeded in his quest for nuclear suitcase bombs." Allison believes the biggest threat to be a dark alliance between al Qaeda and Pakastani nuclear scientists, nine of whom have been underground since 1998, some with known extremist sympathies. Since even the simplest devices require relatively sophisticated maintenance, the aid of sympathetic Pakistani or disgruntled Russian scientists is crucial. Such help is ready for hire.

The list of suspects is not limited to al Qaeda, however. Allison mentions groups generally assumed to have a more local focus, such as Indonesia's Jemaah Islamiyah and Chechen separatists. He also fingers radical splinter groups within Hezbollah and tiny millenarian sects like Japan's Aum Shinrikyo, whose nuclear ambitions were as real as its $1 billion bank account before Japanese authorities busted the group in 1995.

What Nuclear Weapons Could Terrorists Use? And Where Could Terrorists Acquire Them? Part of the Cold War arms race on both sides involved an ongoing effort to reduce the size of their nuclear bombs, first so they could fit onto missiles, later so they could be delivered into enemy territory on the bodies of individual commandos. (Happily, Dr. Edward "Strangelove" Teller died before realizing his dream of designing a nuclear bomb that could be concealed as a golf ball.)

The U.S. set the pace of miniaturization, with the Soviets usually catching up a year or two later, often with the aid of stolen designs. By the 80s, the U.S. was producing nukes that measured 24 inches by 16 inches by 8 inches and packed yields up to 10 kilotons--roughly the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Many were fitted in special casings that looked like normal suitcases; some Russian versions even fit into briefcases. Unlike America's suitcase nukes, the Soviet line wasn't built with individual serial numbers or self-locking mechanisms. In May of 1997, Yeltsin's national security advisor Alexander Lebed told Congress that the Russian government could not account for 84 of these suitcases. It is small comfort that the missing bombs cited by Lebed were relatively small at one kiloton--or 1000 tons of TNT.

How Could Terrorists Deliver a Nuclear Weapon to Its Target? This, Allison explains, is the easiest part of all. A terrorist could ship a nuclear bomb in a bag of golf clubs via FedEx, walk it over the border with a Mexican guide or smuggle it inside one of the millions of containers carried annually into this country on inter-modal transport, only three percent of which are searched at point of entry. Allison cites Sen. Chuck Schumer in noting that more than 22,600 planes carrying unscreened cargo enter New York every month.

As for the new "port security" measures announced earlier this month, Allison unpacks the depressing science of why such measures are all but useless. Because background radiation makes weapons-grade nuclear material impossible to detect unless at extremely close range, even the most sophisticated sensors cannot home in on a bomb without precise intelligence on its location. Allison quotes one expert who admits the only way to find a nuclear bomb hidden amid other cargo or in an urban environment is "with a screwdriver." Unless each cargo container is opened and searched by hand, any talk about port security is largely aimed at reassuring the public.

Even if a terrorist group proved unable to buy a complete, functioning weapon on the black market, the barriers to building a multi-kiloton nuclear device are so low that an enterprising group could step right over them once they had the basic ingredients. The hardest of these to acquire is fissile material. Once acquired, a functioning bomb is not hard to make. In a simple gun-model bomb, one baseball-sized "bullet" of weapons-grade uranium is shot at high speed down a barrel against a second slab of enriched uranium. The result is a chain reaction that could reduce much of Manhattan to radioactive rubble and kill about a million people before you can say, "Iraq is a central front in the war on terror." American scientists at Los Alamos were so sure of this design's reliability that they didn't even test it before dropping it on Hiroshima.

Allison points to the states of the former Soviet Union as the most likely black-market source for nuclear materials. Russia alone holds an estimated two million pounds of weapons-grade uranium--enough for 80,000 bombs--while the country's security measures are notoriously lax. In 2000 alone, Russian customs chief Nikolai Kravchenko reported more than 500 incidents of illegal transportation of nuclear or radioactive materials across state borders. And other sources of fissile material abound. Since 1954, 43 countries have acquired enough material for 1000 bombs as part of the Atoms for Peace program overseen by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Needless to say, this program has been rapidly losing supporters in recent years, including IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei, despite being a lynchpin of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The last elements in this black puzzle are motive and will. Allison doesn't spend much time on this, but is confident that when extremists are able to mount a successful nuclear attack on America, they will. (Those interested in pursuing this point should see journalist Paul L. Williams' Osama's Revenge, just published by Prometheus. While Williams comes off at times like a public access tv quack, he has collected some important and under-reported material.)

Midway through Nuclear Terrorism, one could be forgiven for abandoning hope. In the first 120 pages, Allison has knocked the legs out from under every reassuring myth about why a nuclear attack is less likely than other forms of terrorism. The technological hurdles to building a nuclear bomb from scratch are not prohibitory. Tons of nuclear material around the world sits in facilities less safe than the gold at Fort Knox. Suitcase nukes are for sale on the balck market, as is the expertise needed to maintain and detonate them. Oh, and all of those new safeguards we keep hearing about? They don't work.

Luckily, there's a subtitle: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe. Though not as long as the first half of the book, the final chapters do offer a way out. "Keeping nuclear weapons and materials out of the hands of the world's most dangerous people is...a challenge to our will and determination, not our technical capabilities," he writes. Allison then presents an ambitious but feasible plan to head off the threat. Readers may recognize his main proposals from a policy speech given earlier this month by John Kerry, whom Allison is advising. Should Kerry win, it's likely that Allison would join the administration in some capacity, possibly in the very cabinet- level post Allison recommends be created to focus like a laser on the threat of nuclear terrorism.

Allison's plan of attack is guided by a simple equation: No fissile material, no nuclear explosion, no nuclear terrorism. Because securing global stocks of fissile material is a finite challenge, it has a finite solution. We just need to account for what currently exists, remove it from insecure locations, lock it down and monitor all future production like a fox. Crafting and enforcing a new "gold standard" for so much dispersed material is no mean task, but Allison makes a strong case that we have little choice but to succeed. The price tag he gives for accomplishing this is $10 billion, roughly what is currently being spent on a missile defense system that does not appear to work.

Allison's strategy builds upon an organizing principle consisting of "Three Big No's": No Loose Nukes, No Nascent Nukes, No New Nuclear States. After securing fissile material, brakes must be put on new nuclear-weapons designs, and a new international consensus on arms control and disarmament forged to replace the Non-Proliferation Treaty regime, currently in terminal crisis. New intelligence capabilities will also be needed.

To get there, Allison firmly believes new leadership is required, and the Bush administration gets poor marks from the professor. Though he credits the White House with publicly describing the urgent nature of the threat, he sees no coherent strategy for fighting nuclear terrorism behind the rhetoric. GOP foreign policy and budget priorities "suggest the Bush administration and Congress do not fully grasp the nature of the nuclear terror threat."

As evidence, Allison cites the administration's flat-line funding for programs like the Co-operative Threat Reduction Program, which safeguards weapons-grade material in Russia; its support for ongoing U.S. nuclear weapons research, which fuels the logic of proliferation; and its dithering response to the ongoing double-crisis in Iran and North Korea and the collapse of the arms-control regime that it portends. Any president who makes nuclear terrorism a top priority, he believes, will have to make a serious investment in time and energy. "Even with the best possible security team," writes Allison, "the issue will initially require an hour of the president's time every day--tracking progress, breaking logjams, calling foreign leaders whose governments are backsliding, and holding individuals accountable."

The book's strongest fire is reserved for the Bush administration's post-9/11 obsession with Saddam Hussein. Though the president sold the Iraq war as the central battle in the war on terror, Allison adds his voice to the chorus of those who believe the decision to invade was a massive and costly blunder.

By devoting most of its energy and leverage to Iraq during 2002 and 2003, the United States neglected higher-priority threats...North Korea and Iran were essentially given breathing room to advance their own nuclear ambitions. Al Qaeda and affiliated terrorist groups had an opportunity to recover, adjust, and adapt following the war in Afghanistan... While the U.S. government did not quite shut its eyes, it nonetheless blinked at evidence of Pakistani nuclear black marketeering.

Defenders of the current administration scoff at the idea that Bush has weakened national security. They defend the notion that fire must be fought with fire, and that bunker-busting mini-nukes should be produced for this purpose. Most loudly, they point proudly to Muammar Qaddafi's decision to come clean about its WMD programs after a successful maritime intervention uncovered centrifuge parts bound for Libya under the banner of Bush's Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). But while PSI is a welcome recognition that space-based missile defense alone cannot protect America from nuclear attack, random and legally contentious naval searches on the high seas will not solve the problem, either. Unless initiatives like PSI are part of a comprehensive effort to secure the world's stocks of nuclear materials and technology--coupled with a bold new vision for arms control--such programs will never amount to more than another finger in an increasingly leaky dyke.

Allison's own prescription does not guarantee success. If it does come, it will take time; he admits a "long, hard slog" ahead. But within the goals so urgently set forth here is the sobriety, vision and toughness needed if we are to have a fighting chance in preventing the worst. The governments of the world have a common interest in seeing Allison's proposals through, and he is confident that most await strong U.S. leadership. It isn't just Americans who will suffer the consequences of failure. As Allison reminds us, "We do not need to wait for a nuclear 9/11 to envision what any president and every member of Congress, indeed every citizen, will demand on the morning after."

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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