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The Continuing Threat of Nuclear Terrorism

by Michael Levi
October 29, 2012


Micah Zenko and I have an op-ed on nuclear terrorism today in USA Today. The opening paragraph captures the theme pretty well:

“President George W. Bush called it his ‘ultimate nightmare.’ Sen. John Kerry, running for president in 2004, said that it was ‘the greatest threat that we face.’ They were both talking about the terrifying possibility that a terrorist group could acquire a nuclear weapon and attack the United States. Yet this year, over the course of three presidential debates, the issue barely surfaced. That is dangerous: Nuclear terrorism remains one of the very few vital risks to America, and the next president, whoever he is, will need to work vigilantly to prevent it.”

We trace the history of shock and trance on the issue (not the only area where that occurs) back through the 1970s, warn against crying wolf but emphasize that the threat is still vital, and offer some thoughts on what to do. Since the piece is short, those ideas are presented only briefly, so I thought I might expand on them a bit more here.

The first is to continue the removal of weapons-useable nuclear materials from as many states as possible in order to consolidate them in more secure locations. This is an old idea but one that hasn’t fully run its course yet. You can find some early thinking on it here. Another related idea – continuing to convert civilian reactors that use highly enriched uranium so that they operate using lower grade materials – didn’t make it into the piece, but remains important. Here’s a paper (PDF) about that scheme.

The second strain of policy we emphasize is the need to deal with insider threats to facilities. We’ve done a decent job improving the “guns, guards, and gates” at nuclear facilities around the world; we still need to step up our game, though, when it comes to preventing thefts by facility employees. This is a particularly challenging problem for countries like Pakistan where extremist movements are strong.

Our third emphasis is the need to extend the basic agreement underlying Nunn-Lugar cooperation with Russia. This challenge, which has emerged as a concern in recent weeks, deserves its own op-ed. For now, take a look at this, this, and this for more information.

The starting point for any of this, though, is a serious recognition of the continuing threat. Take a look at the full op-ed here for more on that.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Steve Jones

    Worse than that, the only time I have seen it mentioned was in that video of Mitt Romney where he seemed a little confused between fissile material and radioactive material, and between a nuclear bomb and a dirty bomb.

  • Posted by Princeps

    Well, just by putting terrorism behind every word does provide for the evidence of an actual threat.
    If your objective is to promote enhanced safeguards for nuclear materials abroad and at home, for your own sake of security, then please say so. But to invoke the threat of nuclear terrorism your argument must show actual evidence that “terrorists” are actively striving to attain such materials and assemble a nuclear device in the first place.
    If North-Korea could not detonate a nuclear warhead properly, and if the Jihadists in Pakistan are unable to steal a nuclear warhead, then how strong is your actual case for nuclear terrorism?
    Thus before we embark on this grand plan of yours and invest our scarce political and fiscal resources, we should make sure that nuclear terrorism is real and alive in the world of today.
    If it is not… then why should we care?
    If it is… then why should we do it by merely enhancing safeguards?

  • Posted by Matt

    How is Obama coming on limiting Pakistan’s support for terror and their quest for ever more nukes?

    The threat to America includes possible uses in other countries most obviously Israel. Even if a bomb was used on China the repurcussions for America and the rest of the world would be severe. We seem to be drifting towards disaster and waiting for an attack as it seems we always do before we actually start working to solve the problem. We can’t be serious about Russia but turn a blind eye to Pakistan, North Korea or Iran. All three have real and expanding programs and have little concern about proliferating to terrorists whom they consider their allies. We seem far to passive as we have seen little change out any of them. They must believe the reward still outweighs whatever it is we are doing to them. Otherwise they would have canceled their programs years ago. This is not a partisan issue at all. Bush didn’t get it done either.

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