Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 27, 2012

Fixated by “Nuclear Terror” or Just Paranoia?

Filed under: International HLS,Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Alan Wolfe on March 27, 2012

President Obama visited Seoul, South Korea, for a three-day nuclear security summit that involved discussions with officials from 53 countries and four international organizations, following up on actions initiated at the 2010 nuclear security summit hosted in Washington DC.

The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation has this fact sheet that describes the event and its agenda.

  • Cooperative measures to combat the threat of nuclear terrorism
  • Protection of nuclear materials and related facilities
  • Prevention of illicit trafficking of nuclear materials

These are all worthy goals, although I might quibble with the idea of “combating the threat of nuclear terrorism” since many other people have pointed out the foolishness of trying to conduct a “war on terror.” It doesn’t really work any better for liberal internationalists who want to fight their own “war on terror” than it does for the neoconservatives who created the slogan. But I digress.

What I dislike about these summits is the inevitable rhetoric that flows out of the politicians and is dutifully repeated by journalists who understand how to sensationalize a story with just a few quotes.

Stephen Collinson of Agence France-Presse (AFP) has this article online with the racy headline, “US still fixated by nuclear terror.”

“What we have seen is increasing evidence of intentions… it is not just Al-Qaeda, it is other organisations as well,” said Sharon Squassoni, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“It is pretty shocking how much material is out there. 1440 tonnes of highly enriched uranium, 500 tonnes of separated plutonium (which is) weapons ready.”…

You have dozens of nations coming together behind the shared goal of securing nuclear materials around the world, so that they can never fall into the hands of terrorists,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor.

Failure, he said, would result in “frankly, … the gravest national security threat that the American people could face.”

Now it is an election year, and there is bound to be the usual ridiculous rhetoric coming from the offices of those who are intent on becoming a political leader. That’s to be expected. But the fixation isn’t on the actual capability of terrorists to cause a nuclear incident; rather, the fixation is on the possibility that it could someday happen.

This is the difference between fact-based risk management on existing hazards and paranoid overreaction to perceived threats.

If one were to read the most recent unclassified report to Congress on the acquisition of technology relating to weapons of mass destruction and advanced conventional munitions, it does have a section on CBRN terrorism (note, not WMD terrorism).  The intelligence community has a very toned down statement that says “several terrorist groups … probably remain interested in [CBRN] capabilities, but not necessarily in all four of those capabilities. … mostly focusing on low-level chemicals and toxins.”

They’re talking about terrorists getting industrial chemicals and making ricin toxin, not nuclear weapons. And yes, Ms. Squassoni, it is primarily al Qaeda that the U.S. government worries about, no one else.

The trend of worldwide terrorism continues to remain in the realm of conventional attacks. In 2010, there were more than 11,500 terrorist attacks, affecting about 50,000 victims including almost 13,200 deaths. None of them were caused by CBRN hazards. Of the 11,000 terrorist attacks in 2009, none were caused by CBRN hazards. Of the 11,800 terrorist attacks in 2008, none were caused by CBRN hazards.

And yet, somehow, the United Kingdom’s government now believes that there is a significant likelihood that “some day,” terrorists will acquire CBRN weapons.

“Al Qaeda has a long-held desire to obtain and use CBRN devices. Without continued global efforts to reduce vulnerabilities in the security of material and information, there is a significant likelihood that terrorists will at some point acquire CBRN capability,” the document, approved by Britain’s National Security Council, said.

“Nuclear terrorism is now a real and global threat,” British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who will lead Britain’s delegation in Seoul, said in a statement.

No, Mr. Clegg, it is not a “real and global threat.”

Yes, nuclear terrorism could happen, and certainly there are logical steps that responsible governments need to take in order to reduce that possibility. But it’s disingenuous to say that nuclear terrorism is the “gravest national security threat” or a “real and global threat” when there are zero indications that terrorist groups are succeeding in obtaining any fissile material or in building an improvised nuclear device.

It’s just not that great a threat, when one considers the very real threat of nuclear weapon states that have actively developed and deployed weapon systems that could be used against United States or United Kingdom security interests.

I’m all in favor of securing nuclear material and cooperating with other nations on the issue of terrorism in general. It’s a responsible thing to do. But I suggest that it can be done without overly hyping the threat to be a virtual sword of Damocles hanging over our heads.

It just isn’t that significant a threat as compared to public health threats or the dangers of conventional warfare and terrorism.

And if President Obama is serious about securing nuclear materials, I would love to see him start at home – by opening up the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository and securing the spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste that currently exists at more than a hundred nuclear power plants within the United States.

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10 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 27, 2012 @ 12:51 am

So not to worry about a highly disorganized strangely funded effort by US to deal with wmd/cbrn issues and threats?

Has any country ever admitted to loss of surety and safeguards over nuclear warheads in open sources?

Given wmd/cbrn stockpiles what is targeting doctrine for those who might employ HE or other destructive force against these stockpiles?

The planes that hit the WTC in 2001 both flew over the Indian Point Nuclear Power plant! What if they had hit the open storage of spent fuel at that plant?

I don’t have the answers but perhaps someone should have them!

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 27, 2012 @ 12:53 am

Are level IV and V biolabs suscepitable targets to HE or other devices? University reactors and labs generally?

Comment by Dan O'Connor

March 27, 2012 @ 11:43 am

Fear sells. If religion is the opiate for the masses, then fear is the reason for religion!

It may be a bit absurd, but this penchant for hyping fear is in line with Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. There is something to his assertion that gaining consent of the people is manufactured via by propaganda and manipulating news media.
If messaging is important than control the message, so to speak. It is perhaps a stretch, but Mr. Wolf clearly points out “…But I suggest that it can be done without overly hyping the threat to be a virtual sword of Damocles hanging over our heads. It just isn’t that significant a threat as compared to public health threats or the dangers of conventional warfare and terrorism.”

Is it a threat? Yes. Is it a likely threat? No. Any application of power laws or long tail theory would indicate that while the yield of damage would be significant, the likelihood is very, very small.

It is a horribly sourced quote, but nonetheless accurate;

The people don’t want war, but they can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and for exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.” – Hermann Goering.

In his book, The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things, the author sociologist Barry Glassner speculates that Americans are burdened with overblown and unsubstantiated fears. His argument is that people and organizations manipulate our perceptions and profit from our anxieties: politicians who win elections by heightening concerns about crime and drug use even as both are declining; advocacy groups that raise money by exaggerating the prevalence of particular diseases; TV news-magazines that monger a new scare every week to garner ratings.

Another sociologist, David Altheide has argued that fear doesn’t just happen but is socially constructed and then either manipulated or exploited by those who seek benefit.

So is this a conspirators dream, ignorance, or trying to hold on to days gone by?

Perhaps it’s a little bit of all of it. Yes, planners have to entertain dire consequences for catastrophic interruptions. But the likelihood of these calamities occurring should mitigate many fears and the prevention so onerously cost prohibitive that a reasonable risk assessment would put them in the not likely category.

Risk and fear are different but over time have become interchangeable. Articulating the risk to Bill’s point is a necessity. It has to be done. But determining risk and being afraid of it are two entirely different things. Our resilience and capacity to withstand attacks, illness, economic strive, or any hardships are in jeopardy as our fear increases and resilience diminishes.

“I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself. A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough without ever having felt sorry for itself”. DH Lawrence.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

March 27, 2012 @ 11:37 pm

Let’s start with the agreed upon possibility that nuclear terrorism is possible, if unlikely.

Terrorists cannot produce their own fissile material. No enrichment. No reprocessing. They have to get ready-made stuff.

That stuff exists overwhelming in the nuclear programs of weapon states. Those states are not likely to ignore security, though in some cases systems break down (post-Soviet Union) or they face serious insider threats (Pakistan).

A bunch of the stuff is sprinkled around the globe in research reactors and other small deposits. It takes some money to replace HEU with other materials in reactors or deal with environmental consequences for cleaning up a nuclear site. If states and officials don’t believe there is a threat, why bother doing the work/spending the money?

Hence the “heated” or “fear mongering” rhetoric. You have to motivate those who would rather believe the flawed analysis of this post–its possible…but not really likely..why bother spending time on it when a terrorist is more likely to attempt to blow up our trains?

Because that is a tactical response to a strategic issue. A resort to least-bad planning for those without the forethought to believe the worst can happen. Huge earthquakes were impossible off the coast of northeastern Japan…until it happened. Yikes. But put your fingers in your ears and keep repeating to yourself nuclear terrorism is possible but won’t happen…

The worst part about this analysis is that it takes the form of serious risk management. Yet the reason serious national security officials consider this a real threat is because as unlikely as it is, it is still possible. And the consequences of a successfully non-state nuclear attack are almost unimaginable.

Yes, we once thought about dealing with the consequences of nuclear war. Regardless how realistic those plans were, consider our reaction to 9/11. While we will absolutely recover after a nuclear terrorist attack, what would change about our society when it is realized that non-state actors can inflict such a blow?

In terms of the British Prime Minister–what’s more likely: a nuclear terrorist attack or a state nuclear attack on the Olympics? Who is going to launch those missiles? Russia? France?

And to the last point about nuclear waste: important in it’s own right, but totally off topic for this discussion. The Obama Administration (and the Bush Administration before it) are seeking to get nations to lock down the stuff of nuclear weapons. Fissile material. The stuff that can cause a nuclear explosion. This has nothing to do with spent fuel or nuclear waste. Those ten or twenty pounds of HEU in Africa are much more frightening than the cask stored spent fuel from your neighborhood nuclear power reactor. Different issues requiring different discussions.

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 28, 2012 @ 12:30 am

Pretty much agree with last comment by Arnold.
The problem is that so little is known publicly or generally about official efforts as to effectiveness. I would argue that for example the simple fact of explosive tags was generally very effective in post event tracking. Other methods might well be effective pre-event but many industries lobby to prevent having to fully reflect the security costs of their industry and try and maximize the public investment in those costs and minimize their own costs. Best example is the Airline or Nuclear Power Industry. Neither can survive in the long term without almost complete subsidization.

Comment by Alan Wolfe

March 28, 2012 @ 7:07 am

Arnold, I will accept that you and I will never agree on the optimal federal approach to nuclear terrorism. You want to cast stones and call my analysis “flawed” and “tactical,” there I have some major disagreements. Here’s the real strategic point of view. The federal budget is only so large. The number of scarey hazards is pretty big. Other pundits will suggest that a terrorist EMP attack on the United States, or the North Korean/Iranian ballistic missile threat to the United States, represent significant threats that mandate a national missile defense program (I am not one of them). So instead of running around telling other countries how to guard their loose HEU/Pu, why aren’t we pouring all our efforts into missile interceptors?

Obviously this isn’t an “either or” case. But while the US govt is talking about “complex catastrophies,” isn’t it logical to assume that the USG can’t protect the public from every threat? that there are some threats that are more probable and more immediate than others? that there are certain facts, such as that terrorists have NOT in fact been developing a capability to use fissile fuel to construct improvised nuclear explosives over the past 40+ years that we’ve had nuclear energy in the world?

I am well familiar with the strategy of overblowing one’s threat analysis in order to get a little attention from budget-keepers and decision-makers who are more focused on the status quo than these many “Black Swan” events that so pre-occupy the thoughts of Cassandras out there. No one is “plugging their ears” to the threat of nuclear terrorism. But these fine words that the national leadership spout are recognized as empty rhetoric when serious people have to put money against the threat, and serious policy makers have a responsibility to show concrete analysis as to the value-added of these threats.

When hundreds of thousands of Americans are dying every year from far more imminent threats than terrorism, one has to ask, what service are you giving the United States public by over-dramaticing nuclear terrorism? Bottom line, terrorism is NOT an existential threat to the United States. It just isn’t, and any review of the statistics will show that. 9/11 was not an existential threat to the democracy, although that horrific event shook the foundation of our liberties somewhat.

If you’re worried about nuclear terrorism, go after the threat source. That’s where all the money is actually going. If you stop the people, you stop the nuke (if one ever comes into being). Just ask Jack Bauer.

Comment by Alan Wolfe

March 28, 2012 @ 12:14 pm

And so, relative to the Seoul nuclear security summit, it seems that the rest of the world is not so frantic over the perceived threat of nuclear terrorism.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

March 28, 2012 @ 2:54 pm

Alan,

Regarding your original post: your key point, as I read it, is a concern regarding the quality of understanding (and action) that emerges from hyping an issue.

By hyping I hear the use of hyperbole: a purposefully exaggerated claim or description.

I share the concern and not just in regard to the potential use of nuclear weapons by non-state actors.

But I am also concerned that unless an issue is framed in a persuasive context it gets almost no attention. And “persuasive” increasingly seems to mean subjective, emotional, even personalized.

It’s almost as if you’re damned if you do (use hyperbole) or don’t (use hyperbole). Thoughts?

I have never read you as suggesting no attention be given to low frequency, high consequence threats, but you are concerned that too many issues are getting waaay too much attention proportional to available resources and the full risk environment. Is that correct?

So the issue is one of finding a reasonable balance through the exercise of reason… which brings us back to the problems with hyperbole. Am I tracking?

Comment by Alan Wolfe

March 30, 2012 @ 7:23 am

I see your point, that in order to get the appropriate senior level attention, one is “forced” to use hyperbole to get their attention and say, hey, we really need a decision on this issue, even if it isn’t as dangerously perilous as we’ve stated.

I get that, but I don’t think that it’s useful. I’ve seen that tactic backfire because what happens is, you get some prominent leader to say, “okay everyone rally here, we need to talk about this extremely hot topic because it’s National Security related.” And then when all the Very Important People show up, the ground work has not been prepared, the table top scenarios are not strategic, there are no real decisions or budgetary implications, and all of the VIPs get very pissed off that they wasted their time. And then you’ve set back the movement instead of advancing the issue.

Obviously I was not at this nuclear security summit, but how much would you like to bet that they got all these national leaders together, and threw a half-baked agenda of topics with few feasible actions to actually agree upon, and so they end up with this memo that says, wow, we’re really going to try to do better on this but lacking any specifics. That’s what you get when hyperbole backfires on you.

Then while all of this attention was shifted on this one priority, all of the other more relevant transnational threats – conventional terrorism, human smuggling, drug smuggling, climate change, illegal small arms sales, etc etc – are set back because they were all taken off the agenda to make room for your top issue. Seen this time and time again. It’s not good policy process. Keep it simple – do honest, fact-base policy work and have executable, strategic decisions ready for the leadership.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

March 31, 2012 @ 2:32 am

Even if the outcome of the Summit, for various political and economic reasons, wasn’t earth shattering, I can assure you that it wasn’t due to a lack of prep work.

Each country had a designated “Sherpa” to guide the pre-Summit discussions along. Gary Samore was the USA Sherpa, for example.

I’d feel bad actually taking your bet, because you are just plain wrong. What caused the lack of specifics or huge leaps forward on the agenda in question wasn’t hyperbole but facts on the ground–who is going to pay for what by when?

That’s what happens in international affairs. Messy. Unwieldy. Not in the wheelhouse of what homeland security officials and commentators like to imagine the world as existing.

And in terms of other threats, besides climate (which is a whole conversation onto itself), which of your listed threats even comes close to the impact of a nuclear terrorist event? And exactly how were they taken off what particular agenda because a nuclear summit was held? If it wasn’t, would a similar group of world leaders gather for any of the reasons you listed? (Hint: the answer is no….)

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