As we continue to discuss the possibility of WMD terrorism, there always seems to be those nuclear weapons analysts who just cannot fathom how our civilization has not seen a nuclear terrorist incident yet.
We’ve had nuclear weapons around for more than 60 years now, we’ve had too many stories about missing or unaccounted for nuclear material, and yet no “boom.”
In 1982 I published an article that began, “Sometime in the 1980’s an organization that is not a national government may acquire a few nuclear weapons. If not in the 1980’s, then in the 1990’s.”
I hedged about the 80’s but sounded pretty firm about the 90’s. It’s now the 2010’s, twenty-nine years later, and there has been no nuclear terrorism nor any acquisition of such weapons by any terrorist organization that we know of; and I think we’d know by now. I don’t know of anyone—and I knew many colleagues knowledgeable on the subject—who thought my expectations outlandish. Something needs to be explained!
Yes, it’s only a question of when, not if – and yet, and yet… the “when” has never arrived.
I am of the firm belief that it isn’t a question of when, but rather if a terrorist group could ever obtain enough fissile material, construct a bomb, and successfully hold a government hostage to its demands. There are more than a few federal agencies in the U.S. government looking for signs of any sub-state group with ambitions of grandeur – that is to say, those groups who have successfully avoided being the target of Predator drones and CIA-paid turncoats.
The media and those journalist bloggers who report issues related to nuclear terrorism are not particularly helpful in understanding this phenomenon. They’d rather sensationalize stories like this GAO report that says the U.S. government is unable to fully account for U.S. nuclear material overseas that has been given to partner nations for peaceful civilian use. If there were no specific reports stipulated in the partner agreement, and there has been no voluntary release of any information, well, then, the nuclear material might be anywhere! For all we know, there are thousands of kilograms of plutonium in some evil group’s lair, as we speak!
Or these “unaccounted” amounts of nuclear material might be sitting in reactors in Germany, France, Japan, India, Norway, perfectly safe and secure. You just don’t know, which is what has Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear weapons analyst at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, so concerned.
“It’s amazing how completely cavalier the Department of Energy has been at tracking this. They’ve got nobody who worries about this on a day-to-day basis. … The old way of doing business was: You bought it. We have some rights, but it’s fundamentally not our problem. Now, things are different.”
I’m thinking that they do in fact worry about this quite often. It’s not as if our government casually handed off nuclear material for other countries without any discussion, without any care as to what our partner nations did with it. Every country worries about nuclear terrorism. Every country with a nuclear reactor worries about a Fukushima incident. These are not casual issues. The only thing that is different today is the level of paranoia within the United States that something wicked this way comes, in the form of a terrorist-delivered nuclear weapon. So of course the solution has to be more control, more visibility over every shard of nuclear material out there. No one can be trusted to secure this material without our inspections and approval. If the U.S. government controls every aspect and can see everywhere on the globe with real-time intelligence, then we will be safe.
Except that no one can really afford that kind of omnipresence.
The Republicans in the Congress want to slash the Department of Energy’s nonproliferation funds, not increase it. They’d rather fund the intelligence agencies and US Special Operations Command with billions of dollars every year in an effort to monitor and interdict illegal movements of nuclear material. And that is one course of action, using military “hard power” instead of diplomatic “soft power.” You do what you can with the funds and authorities available. But in the end, as Dr. Schelling notes, there’s still no earth-shattering “kaboom” from a nuclear terrorist incident.
The media and journalist bloggers want to get your attention, they want gains in readership every month. They’re not interested, these days, in understanding exactly why Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) asked the GAO for this report. Was he really worried about nuclear terrorism, or was he just trying to regain Department of Energy (DoE) funds that were slashed in earlier federal budgets? The GAO is not saying that fissile material is loose on the black market. All it is saying is that the Department of Energy could do a better job monitoring other nations’ holdings of U.S. nuclear materials. That’s all.
And, in fact, DoE, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the State Department all disagree with the report’s recommendations, stating (in short) that the situation is well in hand. That’s not uncommon. The tone of the Jeffrey Lewis blog post, in particular, wants you to believe that there could be “enough material to make dozens of nuclear weapons” out there. That kind of sensationalistic reporting isn’t uncommon, either. But we professionals who actually want to do something about homeland security have to see past this sloppy writing and understand what’s really going on, if we are to make the best use of limited resources against the most compelling threats out there.