Saturday, May 26, 2018
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Short, readable - and horrifying

NUCLEAR TERRORISM: THE ULTIMATE PREVENTABLE CATASTROPHE. By Graham Allison. Henry Holt and Co. 272 pages. $24.

Graham Allison presents in Nuclear Terrorism an extant threat to the United States that could lead to far more devastating losses than the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The makings of a nuclear attack in the United States - fissile nuclear material - are easily available, to be found in many countries around the world. They are in many cases not carefully guarded nor even systematically accounted for.

The technology isn't that complicated. A nuclear packet the size of a football, if set off, would level an area of an American city within a half-mile radius of the blast and, depending on the city, kill upwards of 500,000 people.

In spite of new post-9/11 precautions, U.S. borders are sieve-like - they are actually indefensible - from the rocky coast of Maine to the Gulf of Mexico. Bringing a nuclear football or its makings in would be a piece of cake.

And there is no shortage of people out there who would like to deliver the United States another setback and major disruptive scare, particularly in a world context that includes the Iraq war and considerable hostility toward the United States based on its posture on the Israeli-Palestinian issue and its go-it-alone foreign and defense policy.

Allison walks us through the problem, inducing an increasing sense of looming terror, with facts, not inflammatory language. The number of nuclear-weapons states has climbed from five to eight, with Iran and North Korea scratching at the door to join Pakistan, India, and Israel, new members added in recent years to the original five members of the nuclear club - the United States, Soviet Union, Britain, France, and China.

Apart from whatever tremors the idea of a country as unstable as Pakistan with nuclear weapons might provoke, there is the fact that since it acquired nuclear weapons in 1998 it has also served as what Mohamed El Baradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, called the Wal-Mart of nuclear weapons proliferation for the Libyas, Irans, North Koreas, and heaven-only-knows-who-else of this world. It claims to have sworn off selling the stuff now, but who knows what some of its citizens might do for money or Islamic zeal?

The author, the founding dean of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and a former assistant secretary of defense for policy and plans, lays out the case that it is very likely, without immediate, comprehensive U.S. government action, that the United States is going to suffer such an attack within the next 10 years. His cold-blooded presentation of the case, in fact, makes it even more terrifying in its promise.

In the second half of the book he seeks to give us reason not to completely jump out of our skins by telling us that such an attack is preventable. He lays out systematically a program of prevention: no unsecured nuclear weapons; no new countries capable of enriching uranium or reprocessing plutonium, the ingredients of nuclear weapons; and no more states with nuclear weapons.

He also presents a seven-step program of what Washington would need to do to deal with the problem of U.S. vulnerability to this sort of nuclear attack. That includes, first, giving the issue of the prevention of nuclear terrorism against the United States top national priority.

After that comes a focused war on terrorism; what he calls a "humble" foreign policy (no thumbs in the eyes of our allies, no gratuitous wars); the construction of a global alliance against nuclear terrorism; strengthening and targeting U.S. intelligence capabilities on this subject; a quick-fix policy on "dirty bombs" (low-yield but lethal attacks with radioactive or other toxic materials); and the building of a multi-layered defense against nuclear terrorism.

Allison's book is short and readable, albeit horrifying in its implications. A paragraph on Page 3 describes a small, easily deliverable weapon that, if set off in New York's Times Square - according to him, not that hard to do - would generate temperatures in the tens of millions of degrees Fahrenheit and produce a fireball and blast wave that would fry New York's theater district, the New York Times building, Grand Central Terminal, Rockefeller Center, Carnegie Hall, the Empire State Building, and Madison Square Garden.

Perhaps to head off any suspicions that he might be a Boston Red Sox fan, he also presents us snapshots of the impact of the same weapon on San Francisco, Houston, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Charlotte, N.C.

To drive home the message, he then immediately quotes a retired four-star general, formerly in charge of nuclear anti-terror programs at the Department of Energy, who says, "It is not a matter of if; it's a matter of when," with respect to the probability of such an attack.

In the face of the threat the author describes and worse, and the difficulty of carrying out the program he puts forward for dealing with it, the reader's reaction will almost automatically be, "This is too hard; no American administration is going to do what is necessary."

If that is true, given the convincing case Allison makes for such an attack occurring, there is almost certainly something very bad waiting for us out there: this very well-informed man is saying that we are doomed to suffer such an attack. The book is an absolute "must" read.

Dan Simpson is a retired diplomat and a member of The Blade's editorial board.

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