Surveying the devastation the day after Hurricane Katrina struck Gulf Coast towns and cities, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour (R) likened the storm force to a nuclear attack. “I can only imagine this is what Hiroshima looked like 60 years ago,” he told reporters. Not quite, Governor.
The blast, fire, and radiation effects of the 15-kiloton bomb dropped on Hiroshima killed some 140,000 people by the end of 1945 and injured still more. A similar weapon used today against a major city would wreak similar or even more extensive death and damage.
The nation must and will help the greater New Orleans region recover from the worst U.S. natural disaster in decades, but there is no evacuation or post-disaster triage plan sufficient to deal with a terrorist attack with even a “small” nuclear weapon, let alone a conflict between states involving nuclear weapons. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich put it mildly when he asked, “[I]f we can’t respond faster to an event we saw coming across the Gulf [of Mexico] for days, then why do we think we’re prepared to respond to a nuclear or biological attack?”
The only cure is prevention. Success primarily depends on depriving terrorists access to nuclear bomb material, which they cannot produce on their own. But it only takes about 25 kilograms of highly enriched uranium (HEU) or 8 kilograms of plutonium to fashion a nuclear bomb. Worldwide, there are about 1,900 metric tons of HEU and more than 1,800 tons of plutonium in civilian and military stockpiles in dozens of countries. In the absence of U.S. support for a global, verifiable ban on fissile material production for military purposes and a phaseout of production for civilian purposes, the stocks will only grow.
Significant quantities of nuclear weapons-usable material remain all too vulnerable as a result of inadequate security and accounting at hundreds of nuclear facilities, particularly in the former Soviet republics. The International Atomic Energy Agency has documented at least 18 cases of theft or smuggling of weapons-usable fissile material since 1993. In July, Georgia disclosed it had thwarted four more attempts to steal HEU over the last two years. Russia also possesses at least 3,000 relatively more portable and less secure tactical nuclear weapons.
Just as essential levee protection and Louisiana coastal wetlands restoration projects were ignored or shortchanged, the president and most members of Congress have also failed to act on many of the recommendations of expert panels on nuclear terrorism. The 2001 bipartisan Baker-Cutler task force report on Department of Energy nonproliferation programs with Russia praised the program’s “impressive results” but warned that diffuse management and budget shortfalls leave an “unacceptable risk of failure” with potentially “catastrophic consequences.”
The panel recommended ramping up funding for nuclear security in Russia to $3 billion annually for 10 years. Nevertheless, critical nuclear threat reduction programs were cut in the fiscal year 2002 budget submission. Congress later restored the funding, and the administration has sought and received substantial contributions from European allies. In the administration’s latest budget request, Energy and Department of Defense programs to secure nuclear material and weapons were approximately $515 million.
Some projects have been accelerated. U.S. officials report they have “secured” 75 percent of Russia’s estimated 600 metric tons of plutonium and HEU and will complete the rest by 2008. Additionally, nearly 50 of Russia’s known nuclear warhead sites now have state-of-the-art security. Still, there may be as many as 100 sites that do not. Clearly, there is more that must be done and quickly.
Congress itself has complicated and slowed the work by requiring the president to certify Russian compliance with arms control agreements before releasing funds for securing and disposing of Russia’s dangerous nuclear and chemical stockpiles. This year, Congress should finally pass legislation to suspend this self-defeating requirement. To overcome lingering distrust, break through disputes about who is liable for accidents, and reaffirm their mutual commitment to the task, Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin must corral their own bureaucracies and put nuclear threat reduction at the top of the agenda.
One of their highest priorities should be higher funding and early completion of the Energy Department’s Global Threat Reduction Initiative. This includes returning U.S. and Russian-origin HEU and spent fuel from vulnerable sites throughout the world and converting the 105 civil research reactors that use HEU fuel to low-enriched uranium fuel. They should also agree to new tactical nuclear weapons transparency and security arrangements and begin to decommission and dismantle obsolete tactical nuclear weapons based in Europe and elsewhere.
As Bush himself said in 2001 about the threat of nuclear terrorism, “History will judge harshly those who saw this coming danger but failed to act.” Mr. President, now is the time to accelerate action on effective measures aimed at preventing the ultimate disaster before it is too late.