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A Radioactive Challenge: Preventing Nuclear Terrorism
January 2011

Editor’s Note: A new series of feature articles in think. will examine the main themes of the three issue areas on which the Stanley Foundation focuses its programming—global leadership, nuclear material security, and genocide prevention. Each article will lay out the concerns, international trends and dynamics, and underlying reasoning on which our approach and advocacy are based. We will also strive to inspire you to learn more, take action, and work with us as we push for better US and global policies that lead to a secure peace.

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. In September 2009, Mohammed ElBaradei, near the end of his 12 years as director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said, “The gravest threat faced by the world is of an extremist group getting hold of nuclear weapons or materials.”

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 is seeking and would 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 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 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.

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.

The easiest way to prevent a nuclear attack by terrorists is to make sure they don’t acquire weapons-usable nuclear material. There are two types of material they could use to build a nuclear bomb—highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium. Securing these materials is crucial because once terrorists have acquired enough of these materials, then it becomes significantly more difficult to stop them from using it in a bomb. That’s why time is of the essence in global efforts to prevent a nuclear terrorism incident.

The United States has long played a leadership role in nuclear materials security. 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 Obama hosted 47 world leaders at a Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC. Ongoing, sustained US leadership is crucial to not only reaching the four-year goal but also to attaining effective, long-term nuclear materials security.

Yet the United States cannot solve this problem alone. Only global cooperation can prevent nuclear terrorism. 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. This was one of many important steps that need to be taken to address the threat.

Almost two years ago the Stanley Foundation began a programming effort focused on the security of 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. Securing the material eliminates the threat.

But, what are the practical policy steps that need to be taken to prevent this kind of catastrophe from happening anywhere in the world? What kind of international cooperation is needed to meet the four-year goal set by President Obama? Are current efforts enough to not only reach the goal, but to also achieve sustainable security of nuclear material?

In upcoming editions of think., we’ll explore these questions and more with you.

Jennifer Smyser


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