Analysis & Opinions - The Boston Globe

Nuclear Dangers: Fear Increases of Terrorists Getting Hands on 'Loose' Warheads as Security Slips

| October 19, 1997

The Boston Globe
October 19, 1997, Sunday

HEADLINE: Nuclear Dangers; Fear Increases of Terrorists Getting Hands on 'Loose' Warheads as Security Slips;
BYLINE: By Graham Allison

BODY: The box-office hit film "The Peacemaker" is a pulse-pounding spellbinder in which terrorists hijack nuclear weapons from Russia, smuggle one into the United States, and target New York City. Unfortunately, that make-believe scenario is a real-life worry.

With the end of the Cold War, most Americans believe the country no longer faces a threat to its national security. But, at a congressional hearing this month, Louis Freeh, director of the FBI, was asked whether the United States is under a greater threat from nuclear detonation now than at the height of the Cold War.

He answered bluntly: "If you describe that detonation as a criminal, or terrorist, or rogue operation, I think the answer would be yes. The controls that were in place for many of these weapons and structures during the Cold War don't apply to a terrorist, or organized criminal, or an opportunist who could get access to them."

"The Peacemaker" is awakening in some members of Congress a new interest in combating nuclear terrorism. At the encouragement of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Representative Curt Weldon, Republican of Pennsylvania, held special hearings this month on the threat of nuclear terrorism. At the hearings' conclusion, Weldon said he would sponsor new legislation to address the threat.

The deeper, more uncomfortable truth is that, in the real world, Russian nuclear weapons are starkly easier to steal, export from Russia, and import into the United States than even the movie suggests. It begins with a credible hijacking of a special nuclear weapons train transporting warheads. A collision and a 75-kiloton blast provide cover for a hair-raising escape.

In reality, the collapse of the Soviet Union left a superpower arsenal of 30,000 nuclear weapons, and bomb-usable nuclear materials for an additional 70,000 weapons, scattered across more than 100 sites, in a society in which everything is for sale.

In six well-documented cases involving theft of bomb-usable nuclear materials from Russia, thieves simply put materials in their briefcases, walked out of facilities, and left for foreign destinations. As George Tenet, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, testified recently, none of the key facilities in the former Soviet Union that hold weapons-usable nuclear materials has adequate safeguards and security.

In the movie, pirating the weapons through Russia proves a harrying challenge. In reality, Moscow's newspapers carry ads for companies offering people flights "anytime, anywhere, 24 hours a day." In addition, Russia's long southern border is crossed daily by thousands of trucks, cars, and airplanes, without inspection.

In the movie, techno-fantasy makes US military and intelligence agencies virtually omniscient. Real-time satellite photographs of trucks along the Azerbaijani border allow the heroes to intercept eight of the nine stolen nuclear weapons and monitor the arrival of the terrorist at New York's JFK Airport. In the real world, hundreds of thousands of containers and packages enter the US daily, both legally and illegally, without inspection.

General Barry McCaffrey, the country's drug czar, has stated to Congress: "Four hundred million tons of cargo enter our country every year." If one has any doubt about whether a terrorist could import a nuclear weapon into New York City, it is clear that it could always be wrapped in a bale of marijuana.

On April 19, 1995, terrorists parked a rented truck outside the federal office building in Oklahoma City. The blast killed 168 men, women, and children. If, instead of fertilizer-based explosives, that truck had contained a crude nuclear device made from a grapefruit-sized lump of highly enriched uranium and materials available at Radio Shack, a 15-kiloton explosion would have obliterated Oklahoma City.

Two years earlier, an Islamic extremist cleric and his associates parked a rented minivan with explosives in the basement of the World Trade Center. Their objective was to topple one of the center's two towers, killing 40,000 people. Fortunately, they parked in the wrong location, and only six died. Had that minivan contained a crude nuclear device, the explosion would have destroyed the lower tip of Manhattan, from Wall Street to Gramercy Park.

On March 20, 1995, a religious sect, Aum Shinrikyo, unleashed a Sarin gas attack on the riders of the Tokyo subway system. Twelve people died, and more than 5,000 were injured. With $ 1 billion in the bank, an 8-acre chemical weapons factory in Tokyo, and a farm in Australia where the group practiced gassing sheep, the group's plan was to kill those governing Japan. According to former US Senator Sam Nunn, "The Aum had made extensive contacts in Russia in an effort to obtain military training, equipment, and weapons, including laser weapons and even nuclear weapons."

At Senate hearings, the CIA confessed that at the time of the gas attack, Aum Shinrikyo was unknown to US intelligence or law enforcement.

Just last month, General Alexander Lebed, former head of Russia's Security Council, chilled "60 Minutes" watchers with the statement that 100 of the former Soviet Union's special suitcase-sized bombs were unaccounted for. Lebed provided no hard evidence for his allegation. But neither the Russian government's protests nor the US government's response provide little comfort. Russian officials claimed that such a loss was "physically impossible." But, as an example of what can happen, more than 50 nuclear weapons were lost at sea by the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War.

Secretary of Defense William Cohen said in response to Lebed's allegations, "We have been assured by the highest officials that they have very strict controls over the systems," carefully withholding any independent assessment of his own.

The examples make vivid the threat of "loose nukes." Among the most urgent threats today is theft of nuclear weapons from Russia, sale of these weapons to terrorist groups or rogue states, and use of these weapons to threaten Americans abroad or at home. Today's nuclear threat is unlike any in the past. A superpower arsenal remains in the midst of a society in turmoil, in which all central control systems are collapsing, including the systems meant to control nuclear weapons in a state that is increasingly free, chaotic, and criminalized.

In response, the United States must recognize the danger of loose nukes as a Category I threat to its national security, and must mobilize a high-priority, all-azimuth response to this threat.

"Avoiding Nuclear Anarchy," a book by four Harvard University researchers, describes a multilayered strategy that is straightforward, feasible, affordable, and certain to substantially reduce the risk of nuclear terrorist attacks on the United States or its allies. Summarized succinctly, a strategy for containing loose nukes is as simple as ABC.

"A" is for this A-1 problem that deserves absolute priority in our dealings with Russia and the former Soviet Union. Giving priority to containing loose nukes in Russia means making this operational objective more important than the many other items on America's agenda with Russia, whether constraining Russian sales of nuclear reactors to Iran or enlarging the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to Russia's borders.

"B" is a "two-fer" and stands for "buy" and "bilateral." The United States should buy all the weapons-usable materials Russia will sell. We have contracted to buy 500 tons of highly enriched uranium from Russia over the next 20 years. That uranium should be bought now, taken and used to fuel civilian nuclear reactors.

"Bilateral" is a reminder that 95 percent of the actions that have to be taken to secure and control nuclear weapons and weapons-usable material will be taken by Russians. The US government can help motivate them to make the weapons secure for themselves as well as for us.

"C" is a "three-fer:" using US purchase of the weapons as leverage through "conditionality" that requires Russian agencies to concentrate and control the weapons and bomb-usable material that remain in Russia.

The concept would follow the demonstrated success of the International Monetary Fund in its program for stabilizing the ruble. Equivalent economic leverage from payments for Russian nuclear materials, administered on a strictly conditional basis, would assist and motivate the Russians to take specific steps to control the weapons and material that remain in jeopardy.

A full program of action would march further down the alphabet. The total cost of a serious program would be $ 4 billion per year, a substantial portion of which could be shared with European and Japanese allies.

This year, next year, or a year after when Americans find themselves victims of a nuclear terrorist threat like that in "The Peacemaker," how will the nation account for its behavior?

Certainly the president, the leaders of Congress, and the public will not be able to claim credibly that they did not, in fact, know. Let's hope "The Peacemaker" can help awaken the country from its slumber.

Graham Allison is director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, and is a former US assistant secretary of defense.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham T..“Nuclear Dangers: Fear Increases of Terrorists Getting Hands on 'Loose' Warheads as Security Slips.” The Boston Globe, October 19, 1997.