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.