Sunday, March 30, 2008

Graham Allison has alarming op-ed on nuclear threat

Graham Allison is the author of the 2004 book from Times Books, “Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe.” Today (March 30, 2008), Allison has a summary editorial based on largely the same material in the Commentary (Section B) of The Washington Times, “Preventing a nuclear terrorist attack.,” link here. It’s probably a coincidence that editorial appears the same weekend that the controversy over the Dutch short film on radical Islam (“Fitna”) erupted.

Allison answers five basic questions about how such a mega-disaster could happen. Terrorists could make a Hiroshima-sized device from enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) in about a year. A stolen assembled weapon could be detonated a few days after the trigger lock was open. However, the cores of these weapons deteriorate over time, and some of them might not work even if acquired.

Graham writes that, despite the six year domestic lull since 9/11, “a nuclear terrorist attack on the United States is more likely than not in the decade ahead.” He suggests that the reader visit this URL and enter a home zip code, to see the effects of blast and radiation. Blast destruction is almost complete for 1/3 from the point of impact of a 10 kiloton Hiroshima sized device, and firestorms would rage for about a mile radius, with lethal radiation. The website requires Internet Explorer 6.0 or higher (Mozilla does not work) and opens in a new window (must allow popups, and usually this means hitting the control key and Enter key at the same time).

Although this is a bombastic statement, Allison proposed “the three No’s” as a way of reducing risk. (1) no unsecured nuclear weapons and materials (2) no new domestic nuclear capabilities (3) no more countries allowed to have nuclear weapons. Although the tone of the last proposal somehow reminds me of DC’s handgun law.

I’ve discussed the Nuclear Threat Initiative and its film “Last Best Chance.” The most important step seems to be securing nuclear materials in Russia, the former republics, and particularly the management of Pakistan, or some way of securing Pakistan’s cache of small nukes. There have been widespread “rumors” of small “suitcase” weapons around the world (especially in Russia) and it is hard to judge their objective credibility. Many or all of them might have become inoperable. The idea that such a weapon could be detonated motivated a sequence in the Fox show “24” in 2006.

In addition, it is obviously necessary to monitor Iran and particularly North Korea, to make sure that nothing vital of theirs winds up in the wrong hands. The Bush administration thought the same thing of the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, but history has not proved him right yet. In the 1990s, North Korea was often viewed as an important a threat as radical Islam.

I also recall seeing the BBC film “The War Game” at graduate school in 1967, directed by Peter Watkins, about the effect of a nuclear blast on an English city. A child was saying “I don’t want to do anything.” Such an incident in a major city could cause political changes that would destroy personal choice and freedom for a lot of people and challenge their ability to live meaningfully making their own choices, as they have been accustomed. It’s hard to see how I could be of much good in such a world. It must not be allowed to happen.

See also this blog March 25 for a similar piece by a different writer in the Post.

Update: April 2

Mimi Hall has an important story on p 4A of USA Today, "Experts to testify of 'growing' nuke threat to U.S.," link here.

Thomas B. Cochran and Matthew G. McKenzie have an article on p 98 of the April 2008 Scientific American, "Detecting nuclear smuggling" which maintains that port radiation monitors cannot sufficiently detect HEU. The authors, in addition to what Allison wants, suggest having all uranium around the world diluted.

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