Bombs Away!

Taking nuke terrorism seriously


"I don't think you can win it," said President George W. Bush when asked a couple of days ago if the war on terror can be won. He added, "But I think you can create conditions so that those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world." Bush is simply acknowledging that terror as a political tool is here to stay. He is right that American security can only be guaranteed by the "spread of freedom and liberty for the long run." Bush claims that Iraq is the central battlefield in the war on terrorism. But even if that is so, few doubt that Islamist terrorists would still dearly love to attack the mainland of the United States, preferably New York or Washington. (Although recent unproved allegations that would-be terrorists have been scoping out the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and bank buildings in Charlotte, NC, of all places, suggest probing for softer targets.)

Attacking the United States directly gives a terrorist more bang for his buck. The Center for Contemporary Conflict estimated that the direct costs for the attack on the World Trade Center were $27.2 billion in lost lives, jobs, business and real estate. As Osama bin Laden himself supposedly bragged in an audiotape last April, "after the strike of the New York blessed days, thanks to God, their losses exceed a trillion dollars. Their budgets have been in deficits for the third year in a row."

Now for some qualified good news: The highest probability terrorist attacks are the ones that cause the least loss of lives. The most likely attack is a conventional car bomb that kills scores of people but is unlikely to destroy the fabric of a city or significantly harm economic activity. The next highest probability terrorist attack uses chemical weapons. Such an attack would be hideous, but it poses a relatively minor threat both in terms of lives lost and long-term economic damage. "Although some models indicate that limited amounts of sophisticated chemical weapons can produce thousands of casualties, it is more likely that a serious chemical attack or incident would produce 1,000 casualties or less," writes Anthony Cordesman in a report for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Cordesman continues, "It would take a highly sophisticated group to launch multiple attacks and produce large amounts of highly lethal agent. As a result, it seems unlikely that either defenders or responders will have to deal with the kind of chemical attack(s) that could cripple a significant part of the economy, paralyze a city, vastly over-saturate available response and medical facilities, cause lasting panic and a loss of faith in political institutions, or threaten the fabric of American society. In this sense, chemical weapons differ fundamentally from biological and nuclear weapons."

Next in this hierarchy of horrors are "dirty bombs," in which conventional explosives are used to spread radioactive materials throughout a city. Terrorists are far more likely to get their hands on radioactive material for a dirty bomb than they are to be able to buy or build a working version of an atomic bomb. Fortunately, dirty bombs pose little more real danger than do chemical attacks.

Also on the list of atrocities that terrorists would want to unleash on the United States come biological attacks. Analysts at the US Centers for Disease Control issued a report that estimated that the economic impact of bioterrorist attack ranged between $477.7 million per 100,000 people exposed to brucellosis to $26.2 billion per 100,000 people exposed to anthrax. However, I suspect that these estimates are too high because few terrorists would be able to optimize the weaponization of these biological agents.

But here's the bad news: The Bush Administration is not doing enough to prevent the low probability, but extremely high impact problem of nuclear terrorism. There has been a lot of speculation about the alleged disappearance of "suitcase nukes" from the old Soviet arsenal, but a report by the Monterey Institute for International Studies convincingly argues that it is unlikely that terrorists have managed to lay hands on such weapons so far. The report's two main conclusions are: (1) "the probability that any portable nuclear devices were lost prior to or after the breakup of the Soviet Union appears low," and (2) since such devices require complicated periodic maintenance, "even if any devices were lost, their effectiveness should be very low or maybe even non-existent."

While suitcase nukes may not be circulating on the black market, nuclear materials certainly are. Again, it's important not to exaggerate the ability of terrorist groups actually to build an atomic bomb, but if they did have the technical capability, they might just be able to obtain the nuclear material needed to pull it off. So the most unlikely, though most devastating scenario, is one in which terrorists explode a relatively small 10 kiloton atomic bomb near ground level downtown in a major city. Such a bomb would create a crater 600 feet across and 170 feet deep and severely damage buildings up 1.2 miles away. The blast would immediately kill or severely injure thousands of people (but probably not tens or hundreds of thousands of people). Depending on wind conditions, radioactive fallout might make areas tens of miles downwind uninhabitable for days to years. The economic impact would be catastrophic. Just consider that the total assessed value of real estate in New York City is $468.3 billion; Manhattan real estate alone is assessed at $168.8 billion. New York City's gross metropolitan product (total economic activity) for 2002 was $448.9 billion.

And nuclear materials are available on the black market. The International Atomic Energy Agency listed 181 incidents of illicit trafficking in nuclear material between 1992 and 2002. The Nuclear Threat Initiative, an anti-proliferation organization headed by former Senator Sam Nunn and TV mogul Ted Turner, lists a hair-raising number of recent reported incidents of attempted trafficking originating inside the states of the old Soviet Union. And these are just the ones in which smugglers were caught.

Which brings me to my problem with the Bush Administration on this issue. Since the fall of the Soviet Empire, the United States has been participating in "Cooperative Threat Reduction" (CTR) programs with Russia and other post-Soviet states. Basically, we've been paying the Russians billions to make sure that their supplies of all sorts of nasty stuff can't fall into the wrong hands. And that's a good deal. The CTR program has provided fencing, electronic monitors, sealed railroad cars for transporting bombs, and is paying to build a secure facility in Mayak, Russia to store nuclear material removed from dismantled bombs. Between 1994 and 2001, the US spending on CTR programs fluctuated between $400 million and $600 million annually.

During the 2000 campaign, George Bush pledged that he would "ask the Congress to increase substantially our assistance to dismantle as many of Russia's weapons as possible, as quickly as possible." One might think after the atrocities of 9/11 that securing post-Soviet nuclear material would be an even higher priority. However, Bush Administration requests for support of the CTR program remains stuck at around $400 million for 2005. Meanwhile, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry promises to "accelerate programs to secure all nuclear weapons and materials in the former Soviet Union within four years."

Given the number of incidents in which nuclear material goes missing in Russia and other states of the former Soviet Union more needs to be done. Until that happy day when the "spread of freedom and liberty for the long run" is enough to guarantee American security from terrorist attacks, President Bush or Senator John Kerry must keep their pledges to increase the funding needed to help Russia dismantle and secure its nuclear weapons and material.