By Nicholas Kristof,
New York Times, USA,
10 March 2004
A Nuclear 9/11
The risks of a nuclear attack on American soil are increasing, while the war on proliferation is slipping backward
A 10-kiloton nuclear bomb (a pipsqueak in weapons terms) is smuggled into Manhattan and explodes at Grand Central. Some 500,000 people are killed, and the U.S. suffers $1 trillion in direct economic damage.
That scenario, cited in a report last year from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, could be a glimpse of our future. We urgently need to control nuclear materials to forestall that threat, but in this war on proliferation, we`re now slipping backward. President Bush (after ignoring the issue before 9/11) now forcefully says the right things - but still doesn`t do enough.
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"We`re losing the war on proliferation," Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr., a military expert and executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, says bluntly.
Until recently, nuclear trends looked encouraging. President Kennedy and others in the early 1960`s expected dozens of countries to develop atomic weapons quickly, but in fact controls largely worked. Even now, only eight nations definitely possess nuclear weapons.
And there`s more good news. While I believe that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake, at least Saddam Hussein won`t be making warheads soon. Likewise, partly thanks to Mr. Bush`s saber-rattling, Libya is abandoning its weapons program.
But all in all, the risks of a nuclear 9/11 are increasing. "I wouldn`t be at all surprised if nuclear weapons are used over the next 15 or 20 years," said Bruce Blair, president of the Center for Defense Information, "first and foremost by a terrorist group that gets its hands on a Russian nuclear weapon or a Pakistani nuclear weapon."
One of our biggest setbacks is in North Korea. Thanks to the ineptitude of hard-liners in Mr. Bush`s administration, and their refusal to engage in meaningful negotiations, North Korea is going all-out to make warheads. It may have just made six new nuclear weapons. Then there`s Iran, which has sought nuclear weapons since the days of the shah, and whose nuclear program seems to have public support. "I`m not sure there is a way to get an Iranian government to give it up," a senior American official said.
Finally, there`s the real rogue nation of proliferation, Pakistan. We know that Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Islamist father of Pakistan`s bomb, peddled materials to Libya and North Korea, and we don`t know who else.
"It may be that A. Q. Khan & Associates already have passed bomb-grade nuclear fuel to the Qaeda, and we are in for the worst," warns Paul Leventhal, founding president of the Nuclear Control Institute.
It`s mystifying that the administration hasn`t leaned on Pakistan to make Dr. Khan available for interrogation to ensure that his network is entirely closed. Several experts on Pakistan told me they believe that the administration has been so restrained because its top priority isn`t combating nuclear proliferation - it`s getting President Pervez Musharraf`s help in arresting Osama bin Laden before the November election.
Another puzzle is why an administration that spends hundreds of billions of dollars in Iraq doesn`t try harder to secure uranium and plutonium in Russia and elsewhere. The bipartisan program to secure weapons of mass destruction is starved for funds - but Mr. Bush is proposing a $41 million cut in "cooperative threat reduction" with Russia.
"We`re at this crucial point," warns Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "And how we handle these situations in the next couple of years will tell us whether the nuclear threat shrinks or explodes. Perhaps literally."
The steps that are needed, like negotiating seriously with North Korea and securing sites in Russia, aren`t as dramatic as bombing Baghdad. But unless we act more aggressively, we will get a wake-up call from a nuclear explosion or, more likely, a "dirty bomb" that uses radioactive materials routinely lying around hospitals and factories. To clarify the stakes, here`s a scenario from the Federation of American Scientists for a modest terrorist incident:
A stick of cobalt, an inch thick and a foot long, is taken from among hundreds of such sticks at a food irradiation plant. It is blown up with just 10 pounds of explosives in a "dirty bomb" at the lower tip of Manhattan, with a one-mile-per-hour breeze blowing. Some 1,000 square kilometers in three states is contaminated, and some areas of New York City become uninhabitable for decades.