Journal Article - Daedalus

Reducing the Greatest Risks of Nuclear Theft & Terrorism

| Fall 2009

Excerpt from "Reducing the Greatest Risks of Nuclear Theft & Terrorism":

In April 2009, President Obama warned that there was still a real danger that terrorists might get and use a nuclear bomb, calling the possibility "the most immediate and extreme threat to global security." He announced "a new international effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years."

Keeping nuclear weapons and the difficult-to-manufacture materials needed to make them out of terrorist hands is critical to U.S. and world security — and to the future of nuclear energy as well. In the aftermath of a terrorist nuclear attack, there would be no chance of convincing governments, utilities, and publics to build nuclear reactors on the scale required for nuclear energy to make any significant contribution to coping with climate change.

But Obama's four-year goal will not be easy to achieve. At sites in dozens of countries around the world, the security measures in place for plutonium or highly enriched uranium (HEU) — the essential ingredients of nuclear weapons — are dangerously inadequate, amounting in some cases to no more than a night watchman and a chain-link fence. Changing that in four years will take sustained White House leadership, broad international cooperation, a comprehensive plan, and adequate resources.1 The fundamental key to success will be convincing policy-makers and nuclear managers around the world that nuclear terrorism is a real threat to their countries' security, worthy of new investments of their time and resources to reduce the risks — something many of them do not believe today.

Resources for this mission are not infinite, and choices will have to be made. Clearly there is little prospect of arranging for every building that has some plutonium or HEU to have a division of armed troops to guard it. It is critical to focus resources on reducing the most serious risks. But how can we judge where those most serious risks lie?

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For Academic Citation: Bunn, Matthew. Reducing the Greatest Risks of Nuclear Theft & Terrorism.” Daedalus, vol. 138. no. 4. (Fall 2009):

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