Analysis & Opinions - Chicago Tribune

Lessons From a Horrific Past: Can We Prevent a Terrorist's Hiroshima?

| August 6, 2004


Fifty-nine years ago today, the shock and awe of the first atomic explosion over Hiroshima, Japan, announced the arrival of the nuclear age. The specter of that mushroom cloud haunted Americans throughout the decades of the Cold War. Now, more than a decade after winning that war, many Americans find it hard to believe that we again face the existential threat of an American Hiroshima. Yet we do, this time at the hands of terrorists, led by a legend hiding halfway around the world in a cave.

In the judgment of most people in the national security community who have considered this issue, including former Sen. Sam Nunn, the risk of a terrorist detonating a nuclear bomb on American soil today is every bit as grave as the risk of nuclear war that rightly terrified us during showdowns with the Soviet Union.

Nine months after Sept. 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden's press spokesman, Suleiman Abu Gheith, announced Al Qaeda's objective: "to kill 4 million Americans— 1 million of them children— and to exile twice as many and wound and cripple hundreds of thousands." This number was not plucked out of the air, but based on a gruesome calculus aimed at balancing the scales of justice for deaths of Muslims caused by the "Jewish-Christian crusaders."

To achieve this goal would require 1,400 Sept. 11ths— or just one nuclear bomb.

"The 9/11 Commission Report" had much to say about Al Qaeda's nuclear ambitions. According to the commission, "Al Qaeda has tried to acquire or make nuclear weapons for at least 10 years ... and continues to pursue its strategic goal of obtaining a nuclear capability." The commission also discusses bin Laden's fascination with what he calls an "American Hiroshima."

The unrecognized good news about the prospect of nuclear terrorism is that this ultimate catastrophe is preventable. Unlike bioterrorism, it presents a finite challenge that can be defeated by a finite response. There is a specific list of feasible and affordable actions that, if taken, would reduce the likelihood of a terrorist's Hiroshima essentially to zero.

The strategic narrows of the challenge is preventing terrorists from acquiring nuclear weapons or the materials from which weapons could be made. Here, physics is on our side: no fissile material, no nuclear explosion, no nuclear terrorism. Technologies for locking down valuable or dangerous items are well developed. The United States does not lose gold from Ft. Knox, nor Russia treasures from the Kremlin Armory. Moreover, producing new fissile material requires large, expensive, complex, visible— and thus vulnerable— facilities. Keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists is thus a challenge to our will and conviction, not to our technical capabilities.

In Monday's announcement endorsing some of the recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission's report, President Bush said, "This nation must do everything we can to keep the world's most destructive weapons out of the world's most dangerous hands." Unfortunately, the administration's deeds have not measured up to the president's words. Dozens of actions yet untaken would significantly reduce the likelihood of terrorists successfully executing a nuclear attack.

Consider three incandescent facts: Fewer potential nuclear weapons of highly enriched uranium and plutonium in Russia were secured in the two years after Sept. 11 than in the two years prior.

More than 20 developing countries have risky research reactors with more than a weapon's worth of nuclear material left vulnerable to theft and sale to terrorists.

While the Bush administration has been consumed by Iraq, North Korea has been reprocessing plutonium for six new nuclear weapons and building a production line capable of creating an additional dozen a year.

During the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, President John F. Kennedy judged the likelihood that events would lead to war as 1 in 3. Having peered over that precipice, he determined never to approach it again. Thereafter he moved smartly to establish a hot line with Moscow, negotiate the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and lay the groundwork for the current non-proliferation regime. While confronting the "evil empire," Ronald Reagan repeatedly emphasized that "a nuclear war cannot be won and must therefore never be fought." He thus balanced American military strength with readiness to embrace Soviet leaders' better instincts to end the Cold War without a bang.

Today, America needs a president who will cause both his government and others to take every technically feasible action, on the fastest possible timetable, to prevent Americans falling victim to the first terrorist's Hiroshima.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Graham Allison is director of theBelfter Centerfor Science and International Affairs atHarvard University'sKennedy Schoolof Government. His latest book is "Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe."

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For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham T..“Lessons From a Horrific Past: Can We Prevent a Terrorist's Hiroshima?.” Chicago Tribune, August 6, 2004.