Nuclear policy experts can seem like Cassandra, constantly prophesizing apocalyptic futures. In case you haven’t noticed, we don’t live in a Mad Max world devastated by nuclear war. Terrorists have not blown up New York with a makeshift nuclear bomb. We haven’t bankrupted ourselves, despite the trillions of dollars spent on Cold War weapons.
Cassandra’s curse, however, was not that she was wrong, but that no one believed her. I don’t know a single nuclear expert who thinks that the threat of nuclear terrorism is shrinking. I don’t know a single one who thinks that the actions taken by world leaders at this week’s Nuclear Security Summit are enough. We are fearful. And you should be, too.
Chills went down a lot of experts’ spines last month when we saw the news that the Brussels bombers, the ISIS terrorists who blew up the airport and attacked the metro, were secretly videotaping a Belgian nuclear official. This official worked at a facility that had radiological material that terrorists could use for a “dirty bomb.” We do not know if they were filming him or his family, if there was a kidnap plot in motion, or what their exact plans were. But this is not some Hollywood fantasy. This is real. A nuclear terrorist event may be closer than you think.
What are the risks? First, that terrorists could steal a complete nuclear weapon, like SPECTRE in the James Bond thriller, “Thunderball.” This is hard, but not impossible. The key risk is that the outside terrorists get insider help: For example, a radical jihadist working at a Pakistan weapon storage site. Or the Belgian base just outside Brussels where we still stash a half-dozen nuclear weapons left over from Cold War deployments. Or the Incirlik air base in Turkey where we keep an estimated 50 weapons just 200 miles from the Syrian border.
Second, terrorists could steal the “stuff” of a bomb, highly enriched uranium or plutonium. They cannot make this themselves — that requires huge, high-tech facilities that only nations can construct. But if they could get 50 or 100 pounds of uranium — about the size of a bag of sugar — they could construct a crude Hiroshima-style bomb. ISIS, with its money, territory and global networks, poses the greatest threat to do this that we have ever seen. Such a bomb brought by truck or ship or FedEx to an urban target could kill hundreds of thousands, destroy a city and put the world’s economy and politics into shock.
Third, there is the possibility of a dirty bomb. Frankly, many of us are surprised this has not happened already. I spoke to Jon Stewart on his show 15 years ago about the danger. This is not a nuclear explosion unleashed by splitting atoms, but simply a conventional explosive, like dynamite, laced with radioactive material, like cesium or strontium. A 10-pound satchel of dynamite mixed with less than 2 ounces of cesium (about the size of a pencil eraser) could spew a radioactive cloud over tens of square blocks. No one would die, unless they were right next to the explosion. But the material would stick to the buildings. Inhaling just a speck would greatly increase your risk of getting cancer. You could go into the buildings, but no one would. There would be mass panic and evacuations, and the bomb would render a port, financial district, or government complex unusable and uninhabitable for years until scrubbed clean. Economic losses could be in the trillions.
Fourth, terrorists could just attack a nuclear power reactor, fuel storage or other site to trigger a massive radioactive release that could contaminate hundreds or thousands of square miles, like Chernobyl or Fukushima. While nuclear reactors are hardened against outside attack, including by the intentional crash of a medium-sized jet plane, larger planes could destroy them. Or a series of suicide truck bombers. But it might not even take a physical explosion. This week, it was reported the United States and the United Kingdom are to simulate a cyberattack on a nuclear power plant.
Can we prevent these attacks? Yes, by eliminating, reducing and securing all supplies of nuclear materials so that terrorists would find it too difficult to get them. And by reducing and better protecting nuclear reactors and spent nuclear fuel.
Are we doing enough? No. “The capabilities of some terrorist groups, particularly the Islamic State, have grown dramatically,” says Harvard scholar and former Bush Administration official William Tobey, “In a net calculation, the risk of nuclear terrorism is higher than it was two years ago.”
The United States spends about $35 billion on nuclear weapons every year. This year, we will spend $1.8 billion on all our efforts to stop the spread these weapons and stop nuclear terrorism. You don’t have to be a nuclear expert to know something is out of whack here.
It is time we put our money where our threats are.