San Francisco Chronicle -- August 1, 2004
Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe
by Ian Garrick Mason
Henry Holt, 263pp, $24.00
In October 2002, President Bush gave a speech in Cincinnati. "Facing clear evidence of peril," he said about Iraq, "we cannot wait for the final proof -- the smoking gun -- that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud." This image struck a chord, for in the years since 1945 the mushroom cloud has grown into a symbol of almost quasi-religious significance, a representation not just of personal death, but also of the death of civilization. Though the symbol's power seemed to fade after the end of the Cold War, it never completely vanished. And in the shadow of Sept. 11 it has regained much of its strength.
As the founding dean of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, a former assistant secretary of defense for policy and plans, and the author of an influential book on decision-making during the Cuban missile crisis, Graham Allison is eminently qualified to ring the alarm bells. In Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, he explains just how easy it is to design and build a nuclear weapon -- a Princeton undergraduate in 1977 famously submitted a working design for one as his senior thesis -- and how easy it would be to smuggle such a bomb into the United States. A 100-pound nuclear weapon, for example, could easily enter as part of a drug shipment. "Approximately 21,000 pounds of cocaine and marijuana are smuggled into the country each day in bales, crates, car trunks -- even FedEx boxes," Allison writes. "Any one of these containers could hold something far more deadly."
Nevertheless, Allison believes that a nuclear attack is preventable, and his book offers a concrete plan of action. The key, he says, is control of fissile materials -- like highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium -- without which a bomb cannot be built. "No fissile material, no nuclear explosion, no nuclear terrorism. It is that simple."
Allison goes on to argue convincingly that much of the world's fissile material, perhaps most of it, can feasibly be recovered and placed under tight guard by the existing nuclear powers. Modeling his ideas on the already successful Nunn-Lugar program he personally helped to set up as the Soviet Union was collapsing in 1991, a program that helped Russia recover literally thousands of tactical nuclear weapons from former Soviet territories, Allison calls for a "grand alliance" that would see America and Russia -- then China, Pakistan and others -- take possession of fissile material lying around in sheds and insecure research reactors in various ex-Soviet and Third World states.
More broadly, he advocates a world based on "Three No's": "no loose nukes, no new nascent nukes" -- by which he means no new facilities for producing fissile material -- and "no new nuclear weapons states." On the first "no" ("no loose nukes"), Allison is utterly persuasive. He rightly castigates the Bush administration for ignoring this basic preventative principle, and points to the appalling fact that this administration has, at least twice, attempted to cut funding for Nunn-Lugar, which continues to secure nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union. One feels like sending cash to the State Department - - anything to help revitalize and accelerate this program.
To deal with states such as Iran and North Korea that wish to build their own fissile materials production capacity (the second "no") in order to guarantee they'll be able to construct nuclear weapons (the third "no") whenever they choose, Allison proposes a mixture of carrots and sticks tailored to the country at issue. In the coordinator's role, he recommends a newly humble and diplomatic America, one committed to building a community of nations that can act in concert to prevent the formation of new nuclear powers. This is all to the good -- even if it is very doubtful that the current administration has the diplomatic skills to attempt it.
Allison even seems to be aware that fear of invasion may be one of the key drivers behind a country's wish to acquire nuclear weapons, because he recommends the United States offer nonaggression guarantees as part of the bundle. As the stick, he advocates threatening to bomb nuclear facilities in Iran or North Korea, should either of those countries choose to reject the world's offer of carrots.
Yet although he excoriates the Bush administration for its invasion of Iraq -- which, among other things, "discredited the larger case for a serious campaign to prevent nuclear terrorism" -- it is hard to see how his own approach would lead to markedly different results. Bombing nuclear facilities is not a less violent and costly alternative to invasion and occupation, but rather a precursor to it. Israel's fabled bombing of the nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981 may have set back Iraq's nuclear weapons program, but it certainly didn't end it, and barely 20 years later, a nervous United States decided that the only way to be sure that the threat was really gone was to conquer the country and replace its government.
Ironically, force is probably no longer even an option with regard to North Korea. Despite Allison's rather optimistic notion that Kim Jong Il might be intimidated by being shown "a special video with extensive footage of American precision-guided munitions," it is likely that North Korea's suspected stockpile of two to eight nuclear bombs is already more than enough deterrence to keep American cruise missiles in their launch tubes. As Allison himself made clear, delivering a nuclear weapon is not much of a problem. North Korea doesn't need an ICBM when it can just go Fed-Ex.