Analysis & Opinions - The Washington Post

Must We Wait for the Nuclear Morning After?

| April 30, 1995

The Washington Post
April 30, 1995, Sunday

HEADLINE: Must We Wait for the Nuclear Morning After?
BYLINE: Graham Allison

BODY: What is the message of the Oklahoma City bombing for American national security? First, the oft-repeated assertion that with the end of the Cold War, the United States faces no direct or immediate threat to our security at home is dead wrong. As the most open society on a shrinking globe, America's democracy is also most vulnerable to terrorists' attacks. Such actions threaten not only our security but also our freedom.

Second, more deadly acts are surely yet to come. As a consequence of the collapse of the former Soviet Union, a vast potential supermarket of more than 30,000 nuclear weapons, plus weapons-grade uranium and plutonium sufficient to make an additional 100,000 weapons, is becoming accessible.

Third, President Clinton, Sen. Dole and Speaker Gingrich should seize this occasion to mount a serious, sustained strategy to combat this clear and present danger. In the absence of a determined program of action, we have every reason to anticipate acts of nuclear terrorism against American targets before this decade is out.

What prevented the Oklahoma City bombers or the terrorists who sought to topple the World Trade Center two years earlier from causing much greater damage? Certainly, no moral or humane inhibition about killing children. The operative constraint was the technical capacity for destruction that they could readily acquire.

That limit to massively destructive acts is loosening monthly as a consequence of natural forces inside Russia that are easy to describe and difficult to arrest. The central truth about Russia today is that it is convulsed by a genuine, continuing revolution. Deep forces, including the deepest yearning for freedom, are melting down all the structures of a totalitarian, command-and-control economy, government and state. These include the systems and people who have controlled a superpower arsenal of nuclear weapons and nucle ar-weapons materials. Collapsing controls, individuals' discovery that they must take responsibility for their own well-being, organized criminal mafias and natural human greed -- all these conspire to create conditions in which nothing can be secure from loss, theft or sale.

Suppose that instead of the van carrying several thousand pounds of explosives used to destroy the federal building, terrorists instead had used 100 pounds of highly enriched uranium. Assuming a simple, crude, well-known design, an explosion fashioned from this material would create a nuclear blast equivalent to 10,000 to 20,000 tons of TNT. Under normal conditions, this would devastate a three-square-mile urban area. Oklahoma City would have disappeared.

Had the World Trade Center been attacked with such a device, the tip of Manhattan, including all of Wall Street, reaching up to Gramercy Park, would have been destroyed.

Over the past year, dribs and drabs of nuclear material have begun to trickle out of Russia. The flow is increasing; a cache of 80 pounds of Uranium 235 was seized by Slovak authorities this month. In a dramatic success, last November the United States purchased from Kazakhstan highly enriched uranium sufficient to make about 20 weapons. The current trickle forewarns of an impeding flow of nuclear weapons materials and indeed of weapons themselves.

What then is to be done?

The American government must recognize the threat and get real in combating it. Nuclear terrorism should be topic number one on President Clinton's agenda for the May 9 Moscow summit. His objective should be to agree at the summit on an urgent joint U.S.-Russian program of action that can be implemented this summer.

Immediate steps to secure more than 1,000 tons of highly enriched uranium and plutonium should include transferring excess nuclear materials into secure ministry of defense weapons storage bunkers, installing advance technical protection electronics at all nuclear facilities and conducting a comprehensive joint inventory of total fissile materials stockpiles in Russia and the United States.

Second steps should include accelerated purchase and transfer of all excess highly enriched uranium from Russia to the United States, construction of internationally protected "fences outside the fences" of all sites housing weapons or fissile materials in Russia and the United States that are not deployed as part of active arsenals and an international plutonium bank.

To motivate the Russian actions required, we will have to pay the piper. In the high Cold War, Defense Secretary Weinberger observed that American offense strategic nuclear weapons programs had one common feature: Each cost $ 30 billion and took 15 years to deploy. He was thinking about the MX missile, the B2 bomber and the Trident submarine. At $ 1 million per weapon, the United States could secure 30,000 weapons for $ 30 billion. This would constitute the biggest bang for the buck in the history of U.S. defense programs.

The United States should foot one-third of the bill, with Europe and Japan co-investing to prevent threats as serious to their security as to ours.

Possible? Yes. Likely? No -- given current levels of consciousness about the threat and capacity in the U.S. government to move beyond business as usual. Must we wait for the nuclear morning after?

The writer is director of the Center for Science and International Affairs at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham T..“Must We Wait for the Nuclear Morning After?.” The Washington Post, April 30, 1995.