01/09/2013 - 06:09

A threat that demands action

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...


For years, American politicians on both sides of the aisle have agreed that nuclear terrorism is one of the most serious national security threats the United States faces. In 2013, President Obama must capitalize on this rare consensus point and on his own power as a second-term president. After all, despite ongoing polarization in Washington, bipartisan cooperation has been the norm for nuclear security since the launch of the Nunn-Lugar program more than two decades ago, making the issue a unique outlier in Washington -- and for good reason. Nuclear terrorism is a real possibility that would cause catastrophic damage.

The problem. A fascinating and largely overlooked report issued a year ago by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) assesses the damage that would befall Washington, DC, in the event of a nuclear terrorist attack. The report, presented as a case study in disaster response, assumes that a terrorist detonates a 10-kiloton improvised nuclear device -- that is, a crude nuclear bomb -- in downtown Washington. Unfortunately, the basis for such a study is all too sound.

Fissile material is widespread and has been sold on the black market: There is currently enough fissile material across the globe for more than 100,000 additional nuclear weapons, and there are 20 known cases of unauthorized possession. These days, should a capable terrorist group acquire sufficient quantities of highly enriched uranium, it could produce an improvised nuclear device using a "gun-type" design and still have an impact similar to that of Hiroshima. (Modern-day strategic nuclear weapons are orders of magnitude more powerful than those used during World War II.)

While the odds of a nuclear terrorist attack are low (most experts believe a radiological or dirty bomb attack is more likely), the consequences are extremely high, as confirmed by the FEMA-DHS study. Within a half-mile radius of the detonation, few buildings (including the White House) would remain standing, and most of the 150,000 people within the radius would perish. Extending out another half-mile, most houses and weaker buildings would be destroyed, and approximately half of the 200,000 individuals in this area would be killed, with still more at risk from injuries, radiation exposure, and fires. Beyond that, the shock wave from the blast would blow-in windows and temporary flash-blindness would afflict onlookers, including drivers. There would ultimately be a staggering 100 injured individuals for each hospital bed available in the area. And, after the immediate devastation, there would be long-term effects, like exposure to radioactive fallout and massive agricultural embargoes.

But that's not all. In addition to the target area, the world at large would be in turmoil. In the aftermath of an attack, global trade would grind to a halt. As Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of the United Nations, has stated, a nuclear terrorist attack "would stagger the world economy and thrust tens of millions of people into dire poverty," triggering "a second death toll throughout the developing world." Meanwhile, in the United States itself, the official response just might be draconian: In the aftermath of 9/11, the United States launched two wars, stripped civil liberties, and authorized the use of torture and indefinite detentions -- legacies with which Americans are still struggling. Now imagine the response to an attack made with one of the world's deadliest weapons. In sum, the US capital would be a pile of radioactive rubble, hundreds of thousands would be killed, the US federal government would be in complete disarray, the global economy would sputter, the developing world would struggle, and US freedoms would be lost. All of this from a 10-kiloton improvised nuclear device in the wrong hands.

Solutions. Clearly, this is an issue that deserves the highest level of political attention. Fortunately, the importance of global action has been elevated as a result of Obama's Prague speech in 2009, which set a four-year goal to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials, and the Nuclear Security Summit process, which has twice brought together dozens of heads of state to pledge accelerated action to strengthen global nuclear security. Still, much work remains. As the president enters his second term, he must place nuclear security high on his agenda and take action to achieve the following goals:

Lead by example. First, Obama should work with Congress to implement a key commitment of the Nuclear Security Summit process: passing implementing legislation for the amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and to the International Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism. The former would require parties to secure domestic nuclear material and facilities, whereas the latter would provide a common legal framework for international cooperation to investigate and bring alleged perpetrators to justice. Both would fill key gaps in the regime and enhance US and international security. Without swift US passage, it is unlikely that Nuclear Security Summit participants will be able to meet their 2014 deadline for entry into force.

Protect funding. Second, the administration should do a better job protecting critical security funding, particularly for the Global Threat Reduction Initiative and International Material Protection and Cooperation program, which both received significant cuts in the administration's 2013 budget request. The Global Threat Reduction Initiative secures and removes high-risk nuclear and radiological material around the globe. Since Obama's 2009 Prague speech, the initiative has removed all highly enriched uranium from ten countries and has successfully converted or shut down 20 research reactors that used highly enriched uranium. The International Material Protection and Cooperation secures weapons and material at the source and enhances international efforts to detect and interdict illicit trafficking of nuclear and radiological material. Both are critical to global nuclear security and must be protected.

Continue cooperation with Russia. Third, the administration should work with Russia to reach an agreement that will extend US-Russian cooperation on nuclear security through the Nunn-Lugar program beyond July 2013, when the current agreement will lapse. This vital program has substantially reduced the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction in the former Soviet Union, with more than 7,600 nuclear warheads deactivated and 24 nuclear weapons storage sites secured. This program is also critical to global nuclear security.

Close security gaps. Fourth, the president should consider how to best rectify major gaps in the nuclear security regime. At the least, there must be comprehensive standards of protection for nuclear materials and transparency over state-based nuclear security programs around the world. Taking steps to address these issues at the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands would be a major step forward.

Prioritize. Finally, there have been many indications that the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit may be the final conclave at the heads-of-state level. Obama needs to determine whether the summit is the appropriate mechanism to drive global improvements on nuclear security beyond 2014. Either way, he must work with other world leaders to ensure that preventing nuclear terrorism remains a top priority for the international community.

The high consequences of the threat of nuclear terrorism demand serious action. Let's hope that President Obama can build on the positive steps he took in his first term and ensure that the world never has to face such a devastating attack.

Editor's note: This column was written by Ryan Costello, formerly a program associate with the Connect U.S. Fund and the coordinator of the Fissile Materials Working Group.