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Take nuclear threat seriously and act accordingly Could terrorists get -- or already have -- atomic weapons? The potential is all too chillingly evident and must be countered, Lester Paldy says.
Lester Paldy - Special to Newsday
"Do you think well-financed terrorists could build a nuclear weapon?" We posed the question to the soft-spoken, white-haired man sitting next to us at a meeting in Moscow in 1991, days before the demise of the Soviet Union.
He thought for a few moments and said, "It would be very difficult, but if terrorists managed to obtain the necessary uranium or plutonium, the right team of physicists, metallurgists, chemists, engineers, explosives experts and machinists might be able to do it."
Carson Mark was a genuine expert. He had headed the Theoretical Division at Los Alamos National Laboratory for many years and was a U.S. authority on the design of nuclear weapons. We were in Moscow to discuss ways to help the Soviets safeguard and dispose of surplus plutonium and uranium, to keep these bomb materials from falling into the wrong hands.
Now, the hands reaching for these weapons are those of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. No one doubts that bin Laden would use nuclear weapons if he could obtain them.
Documents discovered last week in Afghanistan show an interest in nuclear weapons among al Qaeda members, although news reports suggested that at least some of the notes were extremely superficial, at the level of an undergraduate copying from a textbook.
An al Qaeda member testified in a federal trial earlier this year that bin Laden had attempted to purchase uranium in Sudan in 1994. A Pakistani reporter recently quoted bin Laden as saying, "We have the weapons as deterrent." Pakistan detained for questioning several scientists formerly associated with its nuclear weapons program and alleged to have connections with the Taliban and bin Laden.
After the Persian Gulf War, we learned that Iraq had a stockpile of uranium that would have been more than enough to make a nuclear weapon. We have no reason to believe that the Iraqis did not conceal even more. The alleged leader of the Sept. 11 hijackers was reported to have met with an Iraqi intelligence officer.
The Russians have tons of plutonium and uranium metal taken from dismantled nuclear weapons stored in their deteriorating and underprotected nuclear weapons facilities. Demoralized Russian workers have access to weapons material and the threat of insider theft or bribery is all too real.
But it is not only nuclear weapons complexes that might provide material for a bomb. Any nation with a nuclear power industry or research reactors is a potential source of plutonium or uranium. A weapon built with reactor-grade materials would be large and difficult to deliver, but any major U.S. harbor receives thousands of shipping containers every day that could conceal such a device.
What about the team needed to design and build a weapon? Carson Mark believed that a small group of skilled scientists and engineers with enough time might, by trial and error, master the dangerous technologies needed to design and build a crude, relatively low-yield bomb. With any luck (from our point of view), they might kill themselves in the process. But the detonation in a city of a nuclear weapon with only one-tenth of the power of the bombs used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki would kill tens of thousands of people.
Would specialists with such highly developed skills be motivated to work for terrorists? The contact between Pakistani nuclear scientists and bin Laden or the Taliban suggests possibly yes.
Another route for the terrorists would be to try to obtain an operable nuclear weapon through theft or bribery. Weapons from most nuclear powers with extensive security experience are probably safe but there are still reasons for concern. In 1998, a former Russian security official testified in Congress that 43 "suitcase-sized" nuclear weapons were missing from the Russian arsenal. His testimony has never been confirmed but is still worrisome. Pakistani officials assure us that their small nuclear stockpile is well protected. But there are reports of fundamentalist sympathizers in Pakistan's scientific and intelligence communities.
What can we do to reduce the threat? First, we should help Russia strengthen its protection of nuclear materials and enable its weapons scientists to convert to civilian work. We can help Pakistan develop technology needed to guard against the theft or unauthorized use of its nuclear weapons.
Second, the U.S. administration should recommit itself to multinational efforts to control and limit the spread of nuclear weapons. It should seize the opportunity provided by last week's tentative agreement between President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and move quickly to reduce U.S. and Russian stockpiles of nuclear warheads. The administration should also resubmit the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty for Senate ratification.
These actions will make it more difficult for terrorists to obtain materials and expertise. International cooperation is the key. None of this will be easy or cheap but the potential human and economic costs of inaction are far too terrible to ignore.
Lester Paldy, professor of technology and society at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served on U.S. arms control delegations.
-- Anonymous, November 23, 2001