Securing the Material, Eliminating the Threat
Why it must remain a top priority for world leaders
Nuclear terrorism. The words make one shudder when thinking of the implications of such an act. The world’s leaders say nuclear terrorism is the greatest threat we face—with good reason.
There are clear indications that Al Qaeda has been actively seeking nuclear weapons for years. There’s ample evidence, including a statement from the man himself, that Osama bin Laden sought and was prepared to use a nuclear weapon. We also know that Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan and his network sold nuclear secrets worldwide. There are regular media reports about smuggling incidents that seem to indicate a black market for weapons-usable nuclear material.
The explosion of one crude nuclear bomb in any major city would change the world forever. Not only could it cause death on a mass scale, but it could also trigger global economic disruption, environmental degradation, and a wider conflict requiring a military response. According to nuclear security expert Matthew Bunn at Harvard University, “a 10-kiloton bomb (equivalent explosive power to 10,000 tons of TNT and modestly smaller than the Hiroshima bomb) detonated in midtown Manhattan in the middle of a workday could kill half a million people and cause $1 trillion in direct economic damage.”
Admittedly, experts don’t agree on how high the odds are that a nuclear terrorists bomb will be detonated in the next ten years. Some say it’s as low as 1 percent and others say it’s as high as 50 percent. But even if there’s little chance of it, working to eliminate the threat is an investment well made by world leaders.
The easiest way to prevent a nuclear attack by terrorists is to make sure they don’t acquire weapons-usable nuclear material. Securing these materials is crucial because once terrorists have acquired enough, then it becomes significantly more difficult to stop them from using the material in a bomb. In this issue of Courier, you’ll find an overview explaining the nuclear material of concern, where it is in the world, and how feasible it is that terrorists could build a bomb with the material.
Shortly after his election, President Obama made preventing nuclear terrorism a top policy priority. In a public speech in Prague in April 2009, he declared that the United States would lead a global effort to secure all materials in four years. A year later in April 2010 Obama hosted 47 world leaders at the first ever Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC.
All nations attending the Nuclear Security Summit last year agreed to take measures to keep terrorists from acquiring nuclear material and most made specific pledges to take action. In an article by Michelle Cann, research analyst at the Partnership for Global Security, you’ll find an analysis of the progress made toward these commitments. Next year world leaders will come together once again for a second Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, South Korea.
The United States cannot solve this problem alone. Nor can governments. Only truly global cooperation across all sectors can prevent nuclear terrorism. Also in this issue, the foundation’s director of policy and outreach Keith Porter takes a look at a “whole of society” approach to addressing the problem.
There has been a serious effort to scoop up and lock down the world’s nuclear materials since the end of the Cold War. Yet nearly 20 years later, we are far from having all of the materials secure. And we are at risk of them falling into the wrong hands.
Almost three years ago the Stanley Foundation began a programming effort focused on the security of weapons-usable nuclear materials. From our point of view, preventing a nuclear terrorist attack from taking place anywhere is an achievable and common sense goal the world’s governments can agree on. The stories in this edition demonstrate how securing the material eliminates the threat.
— Jennifer Smyser, Program Officer, The Stanley Foundation
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A quarterly publication, Courier provokes thought on world affairs by giving readers insight into issues driving foundation programming. Winter 2013 issue PDF (287 KB)
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