Why Obama's bid to prevent loose nuclear weapons is going slowly
President Obama wants to secure loose material for nuclear weapons by 2013. He has made progress, but success depends on countries disclosing sensitive information.
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The NNSA is now running more than 20 programs worldwide that include efforts to better secure nuclear warheads, dispose of radiological sources, reduce the risks of nuclear smuggling and, in the words of the GAO report, “redirect weapons of mass destruction expertise to more peaceful research.” This includes countries like Iraq and Libya, adds the GAO in one of the study’s asides.Skip to next paragraph
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The majority of the current focus is on securing state stockpiles of nuclear materials. Since terrorists don’t have the resources to build their own nuclear reactors and harvest their own plutonium, say experts, it stands to reason that they would target stockpiles nation states already have by stealing or smuggling it.
The frightening ease with which this can potentially be done was illustrated in a court case last month in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, in which two Armenian buyers were convicted of purchasing HEU in a lead-lined cigarette case just before they were arrested by undercover agents. It was a successful sting operation, but the trial highlighted the porous borders of the Caucuses and raised questions about whether the HEU was part of a larger stash – and precisely how much more HEU remains unsecured from the Soviet era.
Equally troubling is Pakistan’s expanding nuclear arsenal, says Graham Allison, author of "Nuclear Terror: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe," and director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile is “the most rapidly expanding of any on earth, even as the country is more and more at risk” – particularly as headquarters for al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban, Allison says.
The bright side, say experts, is that nuclear terrorism is quite difficult to accomplish. “It’s hard to get enough materials to make an improvised nuclear device. And even if they can, there are a number of technical things that can trip them up along the way. Terrorists tend to prefer well-proven techniques” that involve conventional bombs and assault rifles, Ferguson says. “They want to make sure they have a chance of doing it right,” which has so far dissuaded groups from going down the path of nuclear terrorism, he says.
The danger is that if one group succeeds, even on a small scale, “It may open the floodgates,” says Ferguson. “It will prove it can be done and other groups will want to copy it.” This would in turn create the predictable and devastating potential, adds Allison, "for killing hundreds of thousands of people in one fell swoop.”