[Paleopsych] ABC News: John Allen Paulos: How to Prevent Nuclear Terror

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ABC News: John Allen Paulos: How to Prevent Nuclear Terror

Author Spells Out Steps Required to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism

    Oct. 3, 2004 -- Nuclear terrorism is a horrifying possibility, but it
    needn't be a paralyzing one. That's the message of a new book, Nuclear
    Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, by Graham Allison. He
    begins by sketching a realistic scenario in which as many as a million
    lives could be lost following explosion of a nuclear device in a large
    American city. Such a toll would be hundreds of times as great as that
    of Sept. 11.

    Understandably enough, most of us would rather talk about Kitty
    Kelley's book or possibly counterfeit memos than such a prospect.
    Unpleasant though it is, we should pay close attention to the feasible
    steps that Allison argues can greatly reduce the probability of such a
    nuclear terrorist attack.

    Compared to the cost in human life, financial resources and
    international goodwill of the Iraq war, Allison argues that these
    steps are almost cheap. Formerly dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of
    Government and assistant secretary of defense for policy and plans in
    the first Clinton administration, the professor backs up his dire
    warnings with considerable expertise.

    His outline of what must be done to avoid a calamity is comprised of
    three No's and seven Yeses. The heart of the book, however, is the
    Noes, which are: No loose nukes, No new nukes, No new nuclear states.

The Three Noes

    The first and most important No requires that the United States help
    secure Russia's huge and poorly guarded stockpiles of fissile material
    (enriched uranium and plutonium) and nuclear weapons. Of particular
    concern is its supply of so-called suitcase nuclear bombs, an
    unhealthy fraction of which are unaccounted for.

    Securing the stockpiles is being done in a limited way under the
    auspices of the Nunn-Lugar Act, which was passed by Congress for this
    purpose. Allison argues, however, that it will take 13 years to secure
    all of Russia's fissile material at the rate we're going and that we
    should spend the money to help them do the job in four years. (This
    position, it should be noted, has been endorsed by the Kerry campaign,
    for which Allison serves as a consultant.)

    Obtaining fissile material is the primary difficulty facing those
    trying to make a weapon. No material, no bomb. But with enough
    enriched uranium or plutonium, some knowledge of physics, and a little
    Internet surfing, a crude weapon can easily be made in less than a
    year. And the unfortunate fact is that in Russia there is enough
    fissile material vulnerable to theft to make 30,000 additional nuclear
    weapons. Furthermore, though it contains 90 percent of all existing
    fissile material outside the United States, Russia is not the only
    worry. Allison writes that 32 other countries have some, and about 25
    of the 130 nuclear research reactors in 40 countries contain
    sufficient fissile material to produce at least one nuclear bomb.

    The second No requires that we ensure that more fissile material is
    not produced by countries such as Iran whose generators' avowed
    rationale is the peaceful production of electricity. Easier said than
    done, but he recommends strengthening the Nuclear Nonproliferation
    Treaty's terms regarding these reactors. The deal that would be needed
    for this to work might include a program whereby countries with
    nuclear capabilities would sell enriched uranium to those countries
    that want or need electricity from nuclear reactors.

    Allison's third No requires that the so-called nuclear club (which
    ideally should have no members) should be limited to the present eight
    members (the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China, Pakistan,
    India and Israel) or else the membership will mushroom (sorry) out of
    control. Both Iran and North Korea, which probably already has a
    couple of bombs, must be persuaded in one way or another to give up
    their nuclear aspirations, and this "persuasion" should not be a
    simplistic choice between ineffective pleading and counterproductive

    Pressure must continue to be carefully applied to Pakistan, whose
    black marketers have recklessly sold "nuclear starter kits" and
    personal consulting services to anyone willing to pay for them.

Misplaced Priorities

    In fact, all three of these No's require "muscular diplomacy." Given
    the way the United States is viewed around the world today, however,
    this is going to be even more difficult than it otherwise would be.
    This fact is at the root of Allison's contention that the Bush
    administration has misplaced priorities and squandered opportunities
    to improve national security. (Instead of fixing the gaping hole in
    our roof in preparation for the upcoming hurricane, we're spending
    time and money sewing a rip in our umbrella.)

    Implementing the three No's will be expensive. Allison's estimate of
    the cost of securing all the fissile material in the world, for
    example, is $30 billion to $40 billion (although getting rid of the
    more extreme vulnerabilities would cost considerably less).

    Work must be done and money expended in this country as well -- very
    much less than the $200 billion authorized (though not all spent yet)
    in Iraq -- but still a substantial amount for a deficit-burdened
    budget. More containers coming into this country must be inspected and
    more radiation sniffers and detectors purchased. As Allison notes,
    30,000 trucks, 6,500 rail cars and 140 ships bring in 50,000 cargo
    containers every day. Only one in 20 of them is screened, and even
    these screenings will not always detect nuclear weapons or enriched
    uranium or plutonium.

    The seven Yeses that Allison discusses are important, but rather
    standard proposals. In particular he stresses putting together global
    alliances with specific aims.

    The virtue of this is underlined by a telling comparison. Unlike the
    Iraq war with its ever-changing rationales (talk about flip-flopping!)
    and largely unilateral prosecution, the Gulf War had a clearly
    delineated goal and more than 90 percent of its cost was paid by our
    allies. His other Yeses include getting better intelligence,
    conducting a more humble foreign policy and pursuing a more focused
    policy against Islamic terrorists that does not produce more of them
    than it neutralizes.

    Allison credits the Bush administration for quickly recognizing the
    nexus between terrorism and nuclear weapons, but decries its "absence
    of urgency" in dealing with nuclear nonproliferation. "We've either
    been plodding along at a snail's pace or gone backward, way backward."

    Some of the book's premises, facts and conclusions may be questioned,
    but Nuclear Terrorism has a subtitle that everyone should take
    seriously: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe.

    Professor of mathematics at Temple University, [2]John Allen Paulos is
    the author of best-selling books, including Innumeracy and A
    Mathematician Plays the Stock Market. His Who's Counting? column on
    ABCNEWS.com appears the first weekend of every month.

References (they both work!)

    1. http://www.math.temple.edu/paulos
    2. http://www.math.temple.edu/~paulos/

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