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The Continuing Threat of Nuclear Terrorism

October 29, 2012

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Micah Zenko and I have an op-ed on nuclear terrorism today in USA Today. The opening paragraph captures the theme pretty well:

“President George W. Bush called it his ’ultimate nightmare.’ Sen. John Kerry, running for president in 2004, said that it was ’the greatest threat that we face.’ They were both talking about the terrifying possibility that a terrorist group could acquire a nuclear weapon and attack the United States. Yet this year, over the course of three presidential debates, the issue barely surfaced. That is dangerous: Nuclear terrorism remains one of the very few vital risks to America, and the next president, whoever he is, will need to work vigilantly to prevent it.”

We trace the history of shock and trance on the issue (not the only area where that occurs) back through the 1970s, warn against crying wolf but emphasize that the threat is still vital, and offer some thoughts on what to do. Since the piece is short, those ideas are presented only briefly, so I thought I might expand on them a bit more here.

The first is to continue the removal of weapons-useable nuclear materials from as many states as possible in order to consolidate them in more secure locations. This is an old idea but one that hasn’t fully run its course yet. You can find some early thinking on it here. Another related idea – continuing to convert civilian reactors that use highly enriched uranium so that they operate using lower grade materials – didn’t make it into the piece, but remains important. Here’s a paper (PDF) about that scheme.

The second strain of policy we emphasize is the need to deal with insider threats to facilities. We’ve done a decent job improving the “guns, guards, and gates” at nuclear facilities around the world; we still need to step up our game, though, when it comes to preventing thefts by facility employees. This is a particularly challenging problem for countries like Pakistan where extremist movements are strong.

Our third emphasis is the need to extend the basic agreement underlying Nunn-Lugar cooperation with Russia. This challenge, which has emerged as a concern in recent weeks, deserves its own op-ed. For now, take a look at this, this, and this for more information.

The starting point for any of this, though, is a serious recognition of the continuing threat. Take a look at the full op-ed here for more on that.

More on:

Heads of State and Government

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