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Preventing nuclear terrorism

Why is our government doing so little to keep weapons-grade nuclear material out of terrorists' hands?
By Guy Quinlan
January/February 2005 1.1.05

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Shortly before September 11, 2001, a study by the bipartisan Baker-Cutler Commission called the theft or diversion of weapons of mass destruction, or of weapons-usable material, "the most urgent unmet national security threat to the United States today." Similar warnings were repeated in the report of the 9/11 Commission. No one doubts that a nuclear terror attack would have horrific effects: The detonation of even a small nuclear device in the heart of a major city would kill hundreds of thousands.

We also know that, at least since 1992, al Qaeda and related organizations have been trying to obtain a nuclear capability. They have attempted to buy stolen weapons and weapons-grade materials in Russia, the former Soviet republics, and elsewhere, and some of their attempts have come dangerously close to success. Al Qaeda operatives have also received instructions in bomb-making techniques from rogue members of Pakistan’s nuclear program.

The Nuclear Disarmament Task Force at the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City has been monitoring this issue since 1998. Drawing on resources from organizations like the Arms Control Association and the Center for Defense Information, we have been keeping interested UU congregations informed on nuclear weapons issues and sending e-mail action alerts on major arms-control legislation. During these six years we have seen some commendable government statements on nuclear terrorism, but also a disturbing lack of corresponding action. Thus far, our national response has not been even remotely commensurate with the urgency of the threat:

  • The United States has a program (known as Nunn-Lugar, after the senators who originally sponsored it) to aid in the destruction of surplus nuclear weapons and weapons-grade material in the former Soviet Union. But on its present schedule the program will take more than a decade to complete—giving al Qaeda, as one critic put it, “thirteen years to shop around.” Meanwhile, in February 2002 the National Intelligence Council reported to Congress that between 1992 and 1999 there were four confirmed cases of weapons-grade material being stolen from Russian nuclear facilities. In November 2003 a top official of a Russian nuclear power agency was sentenced to prison for attempting to sell uranium yellow cake.
  • On August 15, 2004, the New York Times reported that six U.S. universities are currently using weapons-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU) in research reactors, protected only by campus security.
  • At least 100 other civilian research facilities, in forty countries around the world, are still using HEU, often—as noted by former Senator Sam Nunn—”secured by nothing more than an underpaid guard sitting inside a chainlink fence.”
  • In September 2003 ABC News revealed that one of its investigative reporters, as a test, had smuggled a container of simulated nuclear material by ship from Indonesia to Los Angeles. (The actual contents were depleted uranium enrichment residue, which is harmless but which gives off essentially the same radioactive signature as HEU.) Congress has appropriated $35 million to develop sensitive radiation detectors for U.S. ports, but in August 2004 the New York Times reported that most of the money had yet to be spent.

There are two reasons why many experts, like Graham Allison of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, believe future nuclear terrorism is a major threat. One is the determined efforts of Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations to obtain nuclear weapons or the material to make them. The other is the enormous quantity of poorly protected weapons-usable material that is a legacy of the Cold War. The United States and other governments have made the first prong of the threat a priority, but no knowledgeable observer believes that an organization as sophisticated, well-financed, and highly compartmentalized as Al Qaeda can be completely dismantled in the near future. It’s time to get serious about closing off the sources of supply.


The U.S. government and both major parties officially regard the threat of nuclear terrorism as an important issue, but in practice the response to specific dangers has often been appallingly apathetic. In his new book Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, Allison notes that before the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999 , the United States knew the research reactor near Belgrade housed a large quantity of weapons-usable HEU fuel; indeed, the reactor was marked by the U.S. Air Force as a “no-fire zone,” to avoid dispersing the enriched uranium. But, incredibly, the dangerous material wasn’t removed from the reactor until three years after the war, because the Department of Energy couldn’t get authorization to spend the $5 million needed for removal and cleanup. After a private foundation stepped forward to pay the costs in 2002 , the amount of HEU was found to be sufficient for three nuclear bombs. Apparently Slobodan Milosevic, before he was removed from power, had not sold any of it to terrorist groups—but until the war, and for some months later, there was nothing to prevent him from doing so.

Repeatedly, Congress and the executive branch have treated the potential for nuclear terrorism as a back burner issue, sometimes ignoring it, sometimes subordinating it to other concerns. There have been repeated attempts to cut funding for the Nunn-Lugar threat reduction program or to subject it to collateral restrictions. The United States and Russia have also reached agreement on a plan to destroy more than thirty tons of weapons-grade plutonium, but at a Senate hearing in February 2004 it was revealed that implementation of the plan has bogged down in a dispute over liability coverage.

This kind of neglect is a morally intolerable gamble with the future of our children and grandchildren. Safeguarding weapons-usable material from terrorists must be a major national priority. Intensive diplomacy is needed to persuade Russia and other nations to make it a priority also. We must adequately fund—and greatly accelerate—the Nunn-Lugar program to eliminate loose nuclear material in Russia. We need a crash program to eliminate HEU from vulnerable civilian sites, here and abroad. We also need to strengthen the Nonproliferation Treaty and to prevent more weapons-grade material from being created by negotiating a verifiable Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty.

Given the obvious magnitude of the danger, why have these counterterrorism measures lagged so badly? The answer seems to lie largely in inertia and inattention. For most members of Congress, with honorable exceptions like Senator Lugar (R-IN), the issue is not even on their radar screen. Part of the problem is that our elected representatives are not hearing from constituents for whom nuclear safety issues are a priority. We need to change that.

The Nuclear Disarmament Task Force at All Souls has been working on plans to raise the visibility of the nuclear terrorism issue. Together with other UU congregations in New York State and representatives of other denominations, we will seek a meeting with the defense/foreign policy aides to New York’s senators, urging them to give the nuclear danger a prominent place on the senators’ agendas.

In connection with this effort, we are preparing an interfaith open letter and a concise briefing book on the facts and issues. We hope these materials could serve as templates for similar efforts by UU congregations in other states. In particular, we will be reaching out to congregations in Maine, Indiana, and Oregon that last year joined in our letter and telephone campaign against funding for the development of new nuclear weapons. Each of these states has at least one senator who is believed to be open to persuasion on the issue.

There is nothing inevitable about nuclear terrorism. The material the terrorists need can be denied them, if we commit the effort and resources necessary to safeguard it. As Allison observes in his book: “The United States does not lose gold from Fort Knox, nor Russia treasures from the Kremlin Armory.” The task is a complex and costly one, but it is doable, and the costs of neglecting it would be unimaginable. The time to confront the possibility of a nuclear terror attack is now—not in the future report of a commission investigating how it was allowed to happen.


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