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Published: Saturday, 10/15/2005

Danger of nuclear terrorism very real

BY PHINEAS ANDERSON

INITIALLY, this will not be a comfortable essay to read, but it ends with some ideas on what needs to be addressed to help prevent a very significant threat to our national security.

I am talking about the real possibility of a nuclear terrorist attack in America. Graham Allison, founding dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, wrote a book some months back titled Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe.

It is an eye-opener.

The focus of this essay is a nuclear bomb blast, which is different in magnitude in regard to potential loss of life when compared to a "dirty" bomb, chemical or biological weapons.

A 10-kiloton nuclear bomb set off at Toledo's Main Library downtown would vaporize everything from Washington Street to Cherry Street and from the Maumee River to 18th street.

Buildings a mile and half out from the library, beyond Waite High School in East Toledo on one side of the city and the Old West End on the other side, would be shattered and ravaged by fire and radiation.

This same bomb, with less power than the one set off in Hiroshima, would kill a million people if set off in Times Square in New York City.

The United States has deployed thousands of atomic demolition munitions with yields of one to 15 kilotons in Europe and elsewhere. Russia's arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons is larger and more widely dispersed. The Russians developed a suitcase nuclear device of 1-kiloton that could be set off by one individual within 30 minutes.

We are in more danger now of suffering a nuclear blast in our homeland than we were when dealing with the Soviet Union under the nuclear weapons policy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). Today, terrorists are committed to killing Americans, and avenues to secure or build nuclear weapons have not been sufficiently closed.

Suleiman Abu Gheith, Osama bin Laden's press secretary, itemized death and injuries the United States and Israel, in his view, have caused Muslims.

Nine months after 9/11 he announced that al Qaeda and other Muslim terrorist affiliates have the right therefore "to kill 4 million Americans, 2 million of them children ...." It would take 1,400 Sept. 11 attacks to equal that number. Nuclear weapons would be a far more efficient way of reaching their goal.

Thousands of nuclear weapons and more than 2 million pounds of weapons-usable material, enough to make more than 80,000 nuclear weapons, are vulnerable to theft at poorly secured storage sites in Russia's 11-time-zone expanse.

According to Russian customs chief Nikolai Kravchenko, there were more than 500 incidents of illegal transportation of nuclear and radioactive materials across Russian borders in the year 2000 alone.

Russia is not the only problem. Pakistan, through the work of nuclear bomb developer A. Q. Khan, created a worldwide, decades-old black market in nuclear materials, designs, and technologies. Khan is under house arrest and President Pervez Musharraf has installed safeguards, but things remain very dicey in terms of terrorist access to nuclear weapons technology and materials in Pakistan.

Additionally, as stated in the Financial Times Aug. 7, 2004, "more than a weapon's worth of nuclear material remains at risky research reactors in 20 developing countries, including Belarus, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan."

Once fissile material is secured by terrorists, building a bomb, according to Theodore Taylor, the nuclear physicist who designed America's smallest and largest atomic bombs, is "very easy. Double underline. Very easy."

Princeton student John Aristotle Phillips, as far back as 1977, clearly showed that making a bomb was within the grasp of undergraduate science majors. In 1979, the Progressive magazine printed an article on the physics of the hydrogen bomb in great detail and that article is now available on the Internet.

Our borders are vulnerable to terrorists sneaking a nuclear device or materials into the states. Knowing how easy illegal cartels smuggle drugs into this country, terrorists could use the same routes.

Richard Bonner, commissioner of the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, said in 2003 that "the system of containerized shipping is vulnerable to terrorist exploitation." Though improvements have been made, still only a fraction of all cargo shipments are inspected.

One could take a fatalistic point of view and say a nuclear bomb blast in America is inevitable. One encouraging sign: if al Qaeda or other terrorist groups like Jemaah Islamiyah had the bomb, why have they not exploded it? After all, the will is there.

The consequences of a nuclear blast in one of our cities are so horrendous that we cannot simply wait for it to happen.

Though the President and some members of Congress imply preventing a nuclear terrorist attack is at the top of their agendas, the pace of change is far too lethargic and funding clearly insufficient.

Partly due to inadequate funding of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, it will take until 2017 before Russia's nuclear weapons and materials are either destroyed or secured and borders sufficiently monitored. At the current rate, bomb-usable material from research reactors around the world will not be removed until 2020.

Vulnerability studies of our nation's 55 largest ports are not due until 2008.

Due to a lack of funding, radiation-sniffing portals for container trucks to drive through are only found at a few of the many border crossings into our country.

Our global war on terror, according to a 2004 Army War College study, is "strategically unfocused."

More money is required to rapidly secure nuclear weapons and materials facilities in the United States to a standard not unlike protecting gold in Fort Knox. At many facilities we are far below that standard now.

We need to recognize that the war on terror is a battle of alliances, and that we need to improve our relationships with other countries, particularly in regard to intelligence matters. Our international standing has fallen to the lowest point in modern history, according to recent polls.

To date, our strategy of dealing with Iran, and particularly North Korea, has proven ineffective. We need to devise alternative strategies to block the emergence of these two nuclear weapons states.

Our political leaders are simply not doing enough on this score and they need to be urged to do more, fast.

What could be more important?

Phineas Anderson, retired head of Maumee Valley Country Day School, also worked at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in Washington, D.C.



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