Reducing the Risk of Nukes

In October 2002, President Bush made the case for waging war against Iraq by raising the specter of nuclear terrorism:

"If the Iraqi regime is able to produce, buy, or steal an amount of highly enriched uranium a little larger than a single softball, it could have a nuclear weapon in less than a year. And if we allow that to happen, a terrible line would be crossed. Saddam Hussein would be in a position to blackmail anyone who opposes his aggression. He would be in a position to dominate the Middle East. He would be in a position to threaten America. And Saddam Hussein would be in a position to pass nuclear technology to terrorists.

"Some citizens wonder, after 11 years of living with this problem, why do we need to confront it now? And there’s a reason. We’ve experienced the horror of September the 11th. We have seen that those who hate America are willing to crash airplanes into buildings full of innocent people. Our enemies would be no less willing, in fact, they would be eager, to use biological or chemical, or a nuclear weapon.

"Knowing these realities, America must not ignore the threat gathering against us. Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof – the smoking gun – that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud."

To put it charitably, President Bush clearly overstated the nuclear threat posed by Iraq – not only did Saddam Hussein not have WMD or an active nuclear weapons program, he had no history of supporting al-Qaeda or giving chemical or biological weapons to the terrorist groups he did support. Yet the potential threat of nuclear terrorism cannot be ignored. In 1998, when asked by ABC News if he had acquired nuclear weapons, bin Laden replied, "I would state that to acquire weapons in defense of Muslims is a religious duty." And according to the former head of the CIA’s bin Laden Unit, Michael Scheuer, "We had found that he and al-Qaeda were involved in an extraordinarily sophisticated and professional effort to acquire weapons of mass destruction. In this case, nuclear material, so by the end of 1996, it was clear that this was an organization unlike any other one we had ever seen."

The question is: What is the appropriate response to this potential threat?

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) created the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) "to improve the Nation’s capability to detect and report unauthorized attempts to import, possess, store, develop, or transport nuclear or radiological material for use against the Nation." But trying to detect a nuclear weapon to prevent a terrorist attack is a last ditch effort and amounts to a needle-in-the-haystack operation because simply being able to detect the presence of radiation (as one indicator of nuclear material) is not sufficient (if the concern is a nuclear device rather than a radiological weapon such as a dirty bomb). For example, there are legitimate commercial sources of industrial and medical radiation that do not constitute a nuclear threat. Moreover, there are many everyday sources of radiation, such as fertilizers, ceramics, bananas, kitty litter, and smoke detectors.

The reality is that trying to play defense against a nuclear terrorist threat is more than likely a losing proposition and that any success would probably be the result of sheer luck. The problem of being able to detect nuclear materials and the limits of current technology to do so is best illustrated by the fact that twice (in September 2002 and September 2003) ABC News was able to smuggle a 15-pound (6.8-kilogram) cylinder (about the size of a soda can) of depleted uranium metal, loaned by Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), into the United States – passing through U.S Customs in Staten Island, N.Y., in 2002 and Long Beach, Calif., in 2003.

What makes the ABC News stories particularly scary is the fact that the quantities of weapons grade plutonium (WGPu) or highly enriched uranium (HEU) required to build a nuclear weapon – and thus be detected – are relatively small. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a "significant quantity" of WGPu to make a first generation nuclear bomb is 8 kilograms; a Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) study concluded that only 1 kilogram of WGPu was needed to build a nuclear fission weapon. According to the IAEA, a "significant quantity" of HEU is 25 kilograms; the NRDC study concluded only 2 kilograms of HEU was needed to build a nuclear fission weapon. This problem is further compounded by the fact that potential sources of fissionable nuclear material are widespread. According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), in 2003 there were over 50 tons (over 45,000 kilograms, or enough nuclear material to build 1,800 weapons) of HEU in civilian power and research programs in over 50 countries.

Therefore, one of the more important U.S. efforts is the Nunn-Lugar cooperative threat reduction (CTR) program, which seeks to stop proliferation at its source by assisting Russia and the former Soviet countries to destroy or secure nuclear weapons and materials. The United States should consider conducting similar efforts with other nuclear powers (Pakistan, India, and Israel), as well as with potential future nuclear powers (North Korea, Iran) – all of which likely share a common concern over nuclear safety and security, but may not have the requisite experience, expertise, or technical capabilities. It may not be possible to lock up nuclear weapons and materials to a Fort Knox "gold standard" as proposed by Graham Allison, but every effort should be made to minimize the possibility that existing nuclear stockpiles can be easily accessed or compromised – especially since only relatively small quantities of weapons grade plutonium or highly enriched uranium are needed to build a nuclear device. In the grand scheme of things, the several hundred million dollars spent annually on CTR is cheap insurance.

Cooperative threat reduction is important, but not a panacea. Ultimately, the United States must engage in a foreign policy that reduces the motivations both for proliferation and terrorism. Toward that end, U.S. policymakers must reexamine their penchant for military interventionism as the default response. The President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq is just one example, but the U.S. appetite for military intervention predates the Bush administration. Since the end of the Cold War marked by the opening of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the United States has engaged in nine major military operations: Panama in 1989, the Persian Gulf war in 1991, Somalia in 1992, Haiti in 1994, Bosnia in 1995, Iraq (Operation Desert Fox) in 1998, Kosovo in 1999, Afghanistan in 2001, and Iraq in 2003 (if enforcing the no-fly zones over Iraq is considered a military operation, then the total is 10 and the possibility of military action against Iran is a looming 11th). It is also important to realize that President Clinton’s war in the Balkans was essentially no different from the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein. Both were unnecessary military actions against sovereign states conducted without the formal approval of the UN Security Council, neither state represented an imminent threat to U.S. security, and both actions were rationalized on humanitarian grounds.

The net result of unnecessary U.S. military interventionism is to create a powerful reason for countries that are unable to match U.S. conventional military power to acquire nuclear weapons as perhaps the only reliable deterrent against U.S. military action. Moreover, U.S. interventionist policy is a strong source of motivation for anti-American terrorism – including the 9/11 attacks. So making noninterventionism the default policy would be a twofer.

Unfortunately, we cannot completely eliminate the risk of nuclear terrorism. But changing U.S. foreign policy would go a long way toward dramatically reducing it.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.