Our Single Greatest Threat

Andrea Klein
November 27, 2011

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2011

Fig. 1: Photograph of an early U.S. nuclear-power task force, Operation Sea Orbit, 31 Jul 64. The ships are, top to bottom, the USS Bainbridge, the USS Long Beach, and the USS Enterprise. Source: Wikimedia Commons

At this year's Nuclear Security Summit, President Obama called nuclear terrorism the "single biggest threat to U.S. security." As the focal point of his nuclear agenda, Obama asked participating countries to secure nuclear materials that terrorists might use as weapons. [1] While no one denies that an atomic weapon could be devastating in the hands of a terrorist, the world is divided on peaceful use of nuclear technology. Many countries have responded to fears of terrorism by opposing the construction of all nuclear facilities, including power plants. [2] Yet the United States currently operates over a hundred nuclear plants and has powered marine technology with nuclear reactors for over half a century. [3,4] Meanwhile, the world is rapidly burning through its finite reserves of fossil fuels, and nuclear power remains one of the few technologies with the potential to generate the staggering 81 quadrillion BTU of energy the U.S. currently obtains from fossil fuels each year. [5] Once dependence on foreign oil is no longer an option, the U.S. may have little choice but to enter, at least temporarily, into an equally perilous relationship with nuclear energy.

No matter how inevitable this increased dependence on nuclear power may seem, any politician who openly supports it can expect to generate significant controversy. Public opposition to nuclear power has historically been strong in the United States, and occasional reactor meltdowns on U.S. soil have certainly contributed to public fears. The worst of these was the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, which famously inspired a massive protest in New York. [6] International incidents like the Chernobyl catastrophe have also done little to quell mistrust, and their persistent recurrence has helped sustain the American anti-nuclear movement for decades.

Most recently, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster rekindled public fears and forced governments around the world to scale back their nuclear plans. [7] A CBS poll taken soon after found that half of Americans oppose building new nuclear plants, and 44% credit the Fukushima incident with increasing their fear. [8] Despite technological advances in many areas of nuclear safety, public support for nuclear power has failed to improve drastically. This was evident in the poll results: the majority of Americans feel that nuclear power is generally safe, but significantly fewer are actually comfortable with building new plants, especially in their own communities.

Although anti-nuclear sentiments have always peaked immediately after major accidents, the anti-nuclear movement has not been exclusively reactionary. Critics of nuclear power have cited a wide variety of safety, economic, and environmental concerns. For instance, the environmentalist organization Greenpeace, which boasts some three million members, has opposed all nuclear technology since the 1970s. While some have hailed nuclear power as a means of curtailing carbon emissions, Greenpeace considers nuclear power an environmental threat, on par with fossil fuels. [9,10] Interestingly, Dr. Patrick Moore, on of Greenpeace's co-founders, claims that Greenpeace has "failed to distinguish between the beneficial uses of the technology and the evil uses of the technology." By fearfully conflating nuclear power with nuclear weapons, he argues, they have failed to appreciate the potential environmental benefits of a switch to nuclear energy.

Fears that terrorists might gain access to nuclear materials date back several decades. As early as the 1940's, Congressmen questioned the so-called father of the atomic bomb, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, about the possibility that someone might smuggle an atomic weapon in an ordinary suitcase. [11] It seems that no terrorist organization has ever succeeded in obtaining a nuclear weapon, although that hasn't stopped Al-Qaeda from claiming to be on the verge of nuclear capabilities. [12] Assuming a sympathetic state does not intentionally provide terrorists with atomic weaponry, it is still conceivable that terrorists might assemble a crude bomb of their own. The main difficulty would be obtaining enough enriched uranium, which would only be made more plentiful by the expansion of nuclear power. [13] Furthermore, each nuclear plant must be able to avoid a catastrophic meltdown, not only from machine malfunction or human error, but from intentional sabotage. In the wake of 9/11, proponents of nuclear power face more pressure than ever to convince the American public that such a disaster would never occur on U.S. soil. But with each new accident, public opinion drops again, and the nuclear industry loses credibility.

As an unprecedented energy crisis draws nearer, nuclear energy faces widespread unpopularity in a nation that deems it too risky to pursue. Yet until alternative clean energy technologies have matured, the United States may have little choice but to enter into a temporary dependence on nuclear power. While it is difficult to estimate the actual probability of a nuclear incident, either accidental or intentional, the outcome could be disastrous. Thus, the sooner we can transition to non-nuclear, renewable energy sources, the safer we will be against the threat of nuclear terror.

© Andrea Klein The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] D. Jackson, "Obama: Nuclear Terrorism Is 'the Single Biggest Threat' to U.S.," USA Today, 11 Apr 10.

[2] "When the Steam Clears," The Economist, 24 Mar 11.

[3] T. Zeller, "U.S. Nuclear Plants Have Same Risks, and Backups, as Japan Counterparts," New York Times, 13 Mar 11.

[4] H. G. Rickover, "Energy Resources and our Future," U.S. Atomic energy Commission, 14 May 57 (Read into the U.S. Congressional Record - House, Vol 153, Pt.2, p. 2174, 24 Jan 07.)

[5] "Annual Energy Review 2010," U.S. Energy Information Administration, DOE/EIA-0384(2010), October 2011.

[6] R. Herman, "Nearly 200,000 Rally to Protest Nuclear Energy," New York Times, 24 Sep 79.

[7] K. B. Richburg "Japan Crisis Revives Global Nuclear Debate," Washington Post, 15 Mar 11.

[8] B. Montopoll, "Poll: Support for New Nuclear Plants Drops," CBS News, 22 Mar 11.

[9] "The Future of Nuclear Power: An Interdisciplinary MIT Study," Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2003.

[10] A. Madrigal, "Co-Founder of Greenpeace Envisions a Nuclear Future," Wired, 19 Nov 07.

[11] A. Kingsbury, "History's Troubling Lessons," US News and World Report, 18 Feb 07.

[12] C. Hope et al., "WikiLeaks: Guantanamo Bay Terrorist Secrets Revealed," The Telegraph, 25 Apr 11.

[13] C. D. Ferguson, "Preventing a Nuclear 9/11: First, Secure the Highly Enriched Uranium," New York Times, 24 Sep 04.