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America's 'Gravest Danger'

Author: Eben Kaplan
March 31, 2006

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In launching his preemption doctrine, President Bush announced, "The gravest danger our nation faces lies at the crossroads of radicalism and technology." At the center of U.S. concerns is the prospect of terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons. CFR Fellow Charles Ferguson explains in a new Special Report that while there are broad efforts to keep nuclear materials out of the hands of terrorists, gaps in the international response remain.

The United States has a multilayered strategy for preventing nuclear terrorism which includes a National Military Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction. Other U.S. efforts include attempts to monitor, disrupt, and dismantle terrorist cells, detect nuclear materials entering the United States, and prevent terrorists from gaining access to nuclear materials. President Bush's newly revised National Security Strategy, says the best way to block aspiring nuclear terrorists is to "deny them access to the essential ingredient of fissile material." This is why so much focus has been put on halting the nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea. It is also among the aims of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the UN convention on the prevention of nuclear terrorism (PDF). A report from the Nuclear Threat Initiative describes efforts to secure the bomb, and a CFR Backgound Q&A examines terrorists' nuclear capabilities.

Reducing stockpiles of highly enriched uranium (Arms Control Today) is another way to ensure nuclear materials stay out of terrorists' hands. This is one of the primary goals of the U.S.-led Global Threat Reduction Initiative, but the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reports that Bush's new Energy Policy Act hampers this by loosening restrictions on highly enriched uranium exports.

Attempts to secure U.S. borders have also yielded mixed results. At a March 28 hearing before the Senate Committees on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, the Government Accountability Office announced that its undercover agents had smuggled enough material for two dirty bombs across the U.S. border. While not nuclear devices, dirty bombs can cause significant damage by dispersing high levels of radiation. CFR Fellow Michael Levi writes in the New Republic that panic over the staged smuggling is "overstated." But at the same Senate hearing where the incident was announced, CFR Senior Fellow Stephen Flynn testified "we are living on borrowed time" until terrorists exploit the vulnerability of America's borders.

One relatively new approach to preventing nuclear terrorism involves nuclear forensics. The Pentagon has created a team of experts who, in the event of a nuclear blast, can analyze the fallout and quickly determine the origin of the nuclear materials used (NYT). On the surface, this after-the-fact approach does little to prevent an attack. But as Levi writes, this capability could result in a restoration of deterrence allowing the United States and its allies to identify and retaliate against any would-be trafficking states. Thomas Shelling, a 2005 Nobel laureate who helped pioneer the deterrence doctrine, discussed contemporary applications of deterrence at a recent CFR meeting.

Driving home the urgent need for prevention is the devastation that an act of nuclear terrorism would cause. The Federation of American Scientists illustrates this with a blast calculator and a fallout calculator, while Levi helps MSNBC examine the effects of a dirty bomb. RAND offers a pocket guide to surviving an attack (PDF), and the much ridiculed ready.gov has tips for surviving a nuclear blast.

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