By Lt. Gen. Robert Gard, Senior Military Fellow
Published in the Knoxville News Sentinel on May 10, 2008
At a Senate hearing recently, Undersecretary of Energy for Intelligence and Analysis Charles Allen testified, “Al-Qaida wants a nuclear weapon to use.”
It is well-known that al-Qaida considers it a religious duty to acquire a nuclear weapon, and its spokes-person has claimed the right to kill 4 million Americans. During the 2004 presidential election, both candidates agreed that the greatest threat to U.S. security is nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists.
Yet this threat is being dealt with as a routine matter.
It seems unlikely that terrorists could obtain a usable nuclear weapon from any of the nine countries that currently possess them, although there is some concern that a possible source could be the Pakistani stockpile, should that unstable country implode.
It is more likely that terrorists could obtain the key ingredient for making a nuclear bomb, plutonium (Pu) or highly enriched uranium (HEU).
While producing a weapon with Pu is a relatively complex task, there is consensus in the scientific community that it would not be difficult for a terrorist group to produce an explosive device similar to the one used on Hiroshima, with as little as 50 pounds of HEU.
The International Panel on Fissile Materials estimated in its 2007 report that there are 1,400-2,000 tons of HEU, enough for some 56,000-80,000 nuclear weapons, spread around the world.
Much of the HEU is in Russia and the states of the former Soviet Union, known to have weak security regulations and widespread corruption.
In April 2006, Russian police arrested the foreman of a nuclear plant for attempting to sell about 50 pounds of HEU, enough for a weapon.
Of at least equal if not greater concern is what Princeton professor Frank von Hippel calls significant quantities of HEU in some 140 locations around the world in research and medical isotope production reactors and in associated fuel development and fabrication facilities, many with only minimum security.
Dr. Matthew Bunn of Harvard University has warned that these materials are in hundreds of buildings in dozens of countries; some sites have reliable safety measures, but many are secured only by a chain-link fence.
Some 20 developing countries, including Belarus, Ghana and Uganda, have more than a weapon’s worth of HEU.
Should a terrorist obtain HEU, detection of it would be extremely difficult, as this material can be easily shielded and transported.
It would be a relatively simple matter to smuggle the material into the United States, where it could be fashioned into a crude but deadly nuclear weapon in a garage with tools purchased in a hardware store.
The only feasible way to deny terrorists access to fissile materials to make nuclear weapons is to remove, consolidate and store unneeded HEU and Pu and provide tight security for the remainder of the sites.
Cooperative programs with Russia have been under way at a leisurely pace for 16 years and are only a little more than half complete. It was not until 2004 that the U.S. energy secretary announced the Global Threat Reduction Initiative to recover and secure HEU, but many facilities are not included.
Former Sen. Sam Nunn, currently co-chair of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, stated less than a year ago, “At the current pace, it will be several decades before this material is adequately secured or eliminated globally.”
It is incredible that our government is failing to accord the highest priority to taking the actions necessary to prevent terrorists from carrying out their threat to detonate a nuclear weapon on the territory of the United States, which would forever change our way of life.
And where is the clamor from the body politic?