West should close gaps against nuclear terrorism

Unstable regimes with nuclear technology could aid terrorists in future attacks.

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Two events last week underline the reason for continuing concern about Iran's nuclear intentions.

One was the Iranian claim that it had successfully test-fired a missile not detectable by radar, which can use multiple warheads to hit several targets simultaneously. The Fajr-3 (which means "victory" in Farsi) is claimed by Iranian sources to have a range capable of reaching Israel and therefore American bases in the Middle East.

The second event, disclosed at a US congressional hearing, was that in a test by government investigators, they were able to smuggle into the country enough radioactive material to make two "dirty" bombs. In the test last December, the investigators managed to sneak small amounts of such material across US border crossing points in Washington State and Texas. Radiation alarms went off, but security inspectors were fooled by phony documents and allowed the material through. If the investigators could do it, terrorists might be able to.

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The Iranian position is that it will pursue a nuclear energy program for peaceful purposes, but that it is not making nuclear weapons. Western nations do not believe that, especially as Iran has a long record of duplicity about its nuclear intentions.

The possibility that Iran, under an erratic regime, could build and possess a nuclear bomb is itself cause for concern. However, the possibility that such a weapon could fall into the hands of terrorists who have been supported by Iran is of much greater concern.

If rogue nations like Iran and North Korea should even think of using such a weapon themselves against the United States, its military forces, or allies such as Israel, they would have to confront the certainty of devastating US retaliation. The retaliation would likely be as awesome if it were clear that they had given the bomb to terrorists.

We know that terrorists like Al Qaeda have expressed interest in acquiring a nuclear bomb. To do so, their options are to steal it, to buy it, or to build it, perhaps with the know-how and cooperation of a nation like Iran, friendly to their ambitions.

In a new study of the threat of catastrophic nuclear terrorism and steps to prevent it, Charles Ferguson says that some 27,000 nuclear weapons presently exist in the arsenals of eight nations - Britain, China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, and the US. All but about 1,000 of these are in Russia and the US.

Mr. Ferguson, a scientist expert on nuclear safety issues and a former nuclear engineering officer on a ballistic-missile submarine, carried out the study for the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), where he is presently a fellow.

His report says the existing nuclear weapons are generally securely guarded, hard to steal, and would be difficult to activate without access to sophisticated codes for arming and firing them. But there are concerns about the security of nuclear weapons in Pakistan, whose former leading nuclear weapons expert, Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, sold nuclear weapons programs to Iran, Libya, and North Korea. And a coup in Pakistan might install officials sympathetic to terrorist causes. Also of concern are Russian tactical nuclear weapons, especially some that are relatively portable, that may not possess internal security mechanisms, and are not in secure central storage. Clearly, the development of nuclear weapons in Iran, with its longtime sponsorship of terrorism, would raise a host of similar questions.

If nuclear weapons are hard to steal or buy, the other alternative for terrorists is to build one. This requires the acquisition of highly enriched uranium or plutonium. Ferguson's report says at least one terrorist group has tried to enrich uranium, but the process is extremely challenging and it failed. Enriching uranium or making plutonium is currently beyond the capability of terrorists without state sponsorship.

That militant Islamic terrorists remain interested in making at least a radium dirty bomb, for which they do not need uranium, is evident from instructions carried recently on one of their websites. It gave instructions to distill radium from certain industrial products and to construct a detonation device to disperse the radioactive material. Whether this is feasible, or whether they have developed the capability to target US facilities with it, remains unclear.

The CFR report charges that major gaps remain in existing US and international programs to secure nuclear weapons. It suggests various measures to plug those gaps.

They should be heeded as Western nations continue their tortuous negotiations to limit danger from a new emerging nuclear power like Iran.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.

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