03/30/2010 - 12:43

Preventing nuclear terrorism

Fissile Materials Working Group

Fissile Materials Working Group

The Fissile Materials Working Group (FMWG) brings together the experience of leading nonproliferation experts and nongovernmental organizations to...

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The television drama 24 is currently portraying one of the most frightening and dangerous terrorist scenarios possible--an anti-American terrorist group with radioactive fissile materials intent on detonating a "dirty bomb" in New York City to render it uninhabitable for decades to come. Jack Bauer, the show's intrepid hero, is trying to track down the terrorists and capture the fissile materials before the terrorists have a chance to blow them up. Although television dramas often engage in hyperbole, the basic theme of this terrorist scenario is very real.

The dangerous nexus of rogue nations, terrorists, and nuclear weapons and materials is the top global security threat today."

President Barack Obama addressed the need to secure all fissile materials--enriched uranium and plutonium used in research and commercial power reactors, nuclear warheads, and medical radiation treatment--in his historic speech last April 5 in Prague. In outlining the arms control and nonproliferation goals of his new administration, Obama warned that terrorists are "determined to buy, build, or steal" a nuclear weapon and that it was incumbent upon the United States and other countries to "secure all vulnerable nuclear materials around the world in four years."

Washington began to address the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction almost 20 years ago when Congress, under the bipartisan leadership of Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, established the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program. This important arms control effort has been successful in eliminating thousands of nuclear weapons, 900 tons of chemical munitions, hundreds of Cold War strategic missiles, and dozens of nuclear-armed submarines. The CTR Program also has helped improve security of fissile materials, biological pathogens, and chemical agents vulnerable to theft and diversion in the former Soviet Union.

These nonproliferation efforts were expanded further when the Group of Eight (G-8), led by the United States and Canada, established a Global Partnership against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction in 2002. Now comprised of some two dozen countries, this multilateral and burden-sharing program has complemented the CTR Program in securing and destroying nuclear and chemical weapons and materials throughout the former Soviet Union.

But the dangerous problem of vulnerable nuclear materials still remains in many regions of the world. Some of this material is more highly enriched bomb-grade material, while some of it is lower enriched "dirty bomb-grade" material. It's estimated that sufficient nuclear material exists to make more than 120,000 nuclear bombs worldwide. Vice President Joseph Biden reemphasized the threat posed by such vulnerable fissile material in a February speech at the National Defense University, "We cannot wait for an act of nuclear terrorism before coming together to share best practices and raise security standards, and we will seek firm commitments from our partners to do just that."

The dangerous nexus of rogue nations, terrorists, and nuclear weapons and materials is the top global security threat today. In order to meet President Obama's four-year challenge, the United States must continue to expand Defense, State, and Energy Department programs in nonproliferation and weapons demilitarization, which the fiscal year 2011 budget request thankfully does. Washington and Ottawa also must reinvigorate the G-8 Global Partnership this summer when it reconvenes in Canada. And the more than 40 countries attending Obama's Nuclear Security Summit next month in Washington must commit to improving security on all fissile material, reducing nuclear weapons, and strengthening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty at its five-year review conference in May.

With these global commitments to locking down all nuclear materials and weapons of mass destruction, the only place terrorists will get their hands on a nuclear weapon is on television programs such as 24.

Editor's note: Paul Walker, the director of the Security and Sustainability program at Global Green USA, wrote this column.