"Why do you use an ax when you can use a bulldozer?"
-- Osama bin Laden
_____Today's Op-Eds_____ • Influence, and Irony, for Sale (Post, April 24, 2005)
• A Shifting Focus on Terrorism (Post, April 24, 2005)
• Unread and Unsubscribing (Post, April 24, 2005)
• A Judicious Compromise: Democrats Should Take the First Step to End the Filibuster Fracas (Post, April 24, 2005)
• Blunt but Effective (Post, April 24, 2005)
convene less than four miles from Ground Zero, the presidential contest
is crystallized by that proximity. The next four years will be the most
dangerous in the nation's history, because the attacks of Sept. 11,
2001, were pinpricks compared with a clear and almost present menace.
This year's pre- eminent question, beside which all others pale, is:
Which candidate can best cope with the threat of nuclear terrorism?
A blood-chilling book on that is "Nuclear Terrorism:
The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe," by Graham Allison, a professor
at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and an
adviser to John Kerry. Allison's indictment of the Iraq war -- as a
dangerous distraction from and impediment to the war on nuclear
terrorism he advocates -- is severable from his presentation of stark
facts about the simultaneous spread of scientific knowledge and
apocalyptic religious worldviews.
A dirty bomb -- conventional explosives dispersing
radioactive materials that are widely used in industry and medicine --
exploded in midtown Manhattan could make much of the island
uninhabitable for years. As many as one in every 100 Manhattanites
might develop cancer. Perhaps even more people would die in the panic
than would be killed by radiation. But even dirty bombs are relative
The only serious impediment to creating a nuclear
weapon is acquisition of fissionable material -- highly enriched
uranium (HEU) or plutonium. In 1993 U.S. officials used ordinary bolt
cutters to snip off the padlock that was the only security at an
abandoned Soviet-era facility containing enough HEU for 20 nuclear
weapons. In 2002 enough fissile material for three weapons was
recovered from a laboratory in a Belgrade suburb. Often an underpaid
guard and a chain-link fence are the only security at the more than 130
nuclear reactors and other facilities using HEU in 40 countries.
Allison says that at least four times between 1992 and
1999, materials usable in weapons were stolen from Russian research
institutes but recovered. How many thefts have not been reported? The
U.S. Cold War arsenal included what are known as special atomic
demolition munitions, which could be carried in a backpack. The Soviet
arsenal often mimicked America's. Russia denies that "suitcase" nuclear
weapons exist, so it denies reports that at least 80 are missing.
Soviet military forces deployed 22,000 tactical nuclear warheads --
without individual identification numbers. Who thinks all have been
accounted for? Russia probably has 2 million pounds of weapons-usable
material -- enough for 80,000 weapons.
In December 1994 Czech police seized more than eight
pounds of HEU in a parked car on a side street. A senior al Qaeda
aide's proclaimed goal of killing 4 million Americans would require
1,400 Sept. 11s, or one 10-kiloton nuclear explosion -- from a
softball-sized lump of fissionable material -- in each of four large
Of the 7 million seaborne cargo containers that arrive
at U.S. ports each year, fewer than 5 percent are inspected. Less than
10 percent of arriving noncommercial private vessels are inspected.
Given that 21,000 pounds of cocaine and marijuana are smuggled into the
country each day, how hard would it be to smuggle a softball-sized lump
of HEU on one of the 30,000 trucks, 6,500 rail cars or 50,000 cargo
containers that arrive every day?
President Bush recently said that Democratic critics
of rapid development of ballistic missile defenses are "living in the
past." Perhaps. Some missile defense is feasible and, leaving aside
costs, desirable. But costs cannot be left aside. Kerry, were he
politically daring and intellectually nimble, might respond:
"The president is living in 1983, when Ronald Reagan
proposed missile defenses to counter thousands of Soviet ICBMs. A
nuclear weapon is much less likely to come to America on a rogue
nation's ICBM -- which would have a return address -- than in a
shipping container, truck, suitcase, backpack or other ubiquitous
thing. So allocating vast amounts of scarce financial and scientific
resources to missile defenses rather than other security measures is
On the other hand, Allison argues that any hope for
preventing, by diplomacy, nuclear terrorism depends on "readiness to
use covert and overt military force if necessary" against two potential
sources of fissile material -- Iran and North Korea. But the candidate
Allison is advising has opposed virtually every use of U.S. force in
his adult lifetime.
Intelligent people can differ about all that Allison
says. But campaign time is becoming scarce for intelligent differing
about how to prevent some American Ground Zero from becoming so
poisoned by radiation that no one will be able to come within four
miles of it.