Nuclear Terrorism and US Nuclear Policy

by David Krieger

As bad as September 11th may have been, it could have been far worse. Had terrorists attacked with nuclear weapons, the death toll could have risen into the millions. It is likely that even one crude nuclear weapon would have left Manhattan utterly destroyed, and with it the financial and communications center of the country. Were terrorists to obtain one or more nuclear weapons and use them on New York, Washington or other cities, the United States could cease to exist as a functioning country. The stakes are very high, and yet the US is creating new nuclear policies that increase the likelihood that terrorists will ultimately obtain nuclear weapons.

A bipartisan commission, headed by Howard Baker and Lloyd Cutler, concluded that the United States should be spending some $3 billion per year over the next ten years to help Russia control its nuclear weapons and weapon-grade nuclear materials. Rather than spend less than one percent of the current defense budget on dramatically curtailing the potential spread of nuclear weapons and materials to terrorists or unfriendly regimes, the Bush administration is trying to save money in this area. It is spending only one-third of the proposed amount to help Russia safeguard its nuclear weapons and materials and find alternative work for nuclear physicists a woefully inadequate amount if we are truly attempting to quell nuclear proliferation.

The administration’s frugality with regard to protecting potential “loose nukes” in Russia should be compared with its generosity for defense spending in general and for missile defenses in particular. The president has recently asked for another $48 billion for defense for fiscal 2003, following an increase of $33.5 billion this year. The annual budget for ballistic missile defense exceeds $8.5 billion. Since the likelihood of a terrorist using a missile to launch a nuclear attack against the United States or any other country is virtually zero, it would appear that the administration’s budget priorities are way out of line in terms of offering real security and protecting the US and other countries from the threat of nuclear terrorism.

The administration’s approach to nuclear disarmament with the Russians is to place warheads taken off active deployment onto the shelf so that they can later be reactivated should our current president or a future president decide to do so. While the Russians have made it clear that they would prefer to destroy the weapons and make nuclear disarmament irreversible, they will certainly follow the US lead in also shelving their deactivated weapons. This will, of course, create even greater security concerns in Russia and make it more likely that these weapons will find their way into terrorist hands.

So what is to be done? The United States must change its nuclear policies and make good on its promise to the other 186 parties to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to accomplish the total elimination of nuclear weapons in the world. This goal can only be achieved with US leadership, and it is a goal that is absolutely in the interests of the people of the United States. When the parties to the NPT meet again this April, the US is sure to come under heavy criticism for its notice of withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, its failure to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, its new strategy to make nuclear disarmament reversible, and its recent announcement that it is rescinding its security assurances to non-nuclear weapons states.

In the end, the country that faces the greatest threat from nuclear terrorism is the United States, and it is a threat that cannot be counteracted by missile defenses or threats of retaliation. Terrorists, who cannot be easily located and who may be suicidal anyway, will simply not be deterred by nuclear threat.

If the Bush administration truly wants to reduce the possibility of nuclear terrorism against US cities and abroad, it must reverse its current policy of systematically dismantling the arms control agreements established over the past four decades. It must instead become a leader in the global effort to urgently and dramatically reduce the level of nuclear weapons throughout the world and bring the remaining small arsenals of nuclear weapons and nuclear materials under effective international controls.

David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (). He can be contacted at

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