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Still others are more pessimistic than I. Former secretary of defense William Perry, for one, has suggested that my work underestimates the risk. Richard Garwin, a designer of the hydrogen bomb (whom the Nobel laureate physicist Enrico Fermi called “the only true genius I had ever met”), told Congress in March 2007 that he estimated a “20 percent per year probability” of a nuclear explosion in an American or European city. And Warren Buffett, the world’s most successful investor and a legendary oddsmaker in pricing insurance policies for unlikely but catastrophic events, concludes that nuclear terrorism is “inevitable.” He has said, “I don’t see any way that it won’t happen.”

But there is some good news: nuclear terrorism is nonetheless preventable. There are feasible, affordable measures that, if taken, would reduce the likelihood of a successful nuclear terrorist attack to nearly zero.

The centerpiece of a strategy to prevent nuclear terrorism must be to deny terrorists access to nuclear weapons or materials. To this end, my 2004 book, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, proposes a strategy for shaping a new international security order according to a doctrine of “Three No’s”:

■ No loose nukes: all nuclear weapons and weapons-usable material must be secured, on the fastest possible timetable, as tightly as the gold in Fort Knox.

■ No new nascent nukes: no nation must develop new capabilities to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium.

■ No new nuclear-weapons states: we must draw a line under the current eight and a half nuclear powers and say unambiguously, “Stop. No more.”

In the last 17 years, efforts have been made to address the threat. The danger of “loose nukes” came into focus in 1991, during the Soviet Union’s collapse. After the failed coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991, I composed a private memo to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell, titled “Sounding the Alarm.” “Soviet disunion could create additional nuclear states, provoke struggles for control of Soviet nuclear weapons, and lead to a loss of control of strategic or nonstrategic nuclear weapons,” I wrote.

In the weeks that followed, President George H. W. Bush and Gorbachev agreed to what was later called the “unilateral declarations.” The United States removed all tactical nuclear weapons from its operational forces and challenged the Soviet Union to do likewise.

Gorbachev’s response was encouraging. With the aid of U.S. funding, secured through the CoÖperative Threat Reduction Program sponsored by Lugar and his Senate colleague Sam Nunn, thousands of the Soviet Union’s 21,700 tactical nuclear weapons stationed in 14 of the Soviet Union’s 15 constituent republics were returned to Russia. Moreover, 3,200 strategic nuclear weapons stationed in Belarus, ­Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, most atop missiles that targeted American cities, were eliminated. Today, there are no nuclear weapons in any of the former Soviet states except Russia.

By now, U.S.-sponsored security upgrades have been completed for 80 percent of Russia’s nuclear material and warhead sites. As of June 2008, 7,292 strategic nuclear warheads had been deactivated (79 percent of the Nunn-Lugar target for 2012), and 708 intercontinental ballistic missiles had been destroyed (65 percent of the 2012 target), along with 30 nuclear submarines capable of launching ballistic missiles (86 percent of the 2012 target). Several of the 2012 targets have already been met, and 25 classified sites on 12 Russian bases have been secured two years ahead of schedule.

During the 2004 presidential campaign, in the first televised debate between President George Bush and Senator John Kerry, the moderator asked each candidate, “What is the single most serious threat to the national security of the United States?” In rare agreement, Kerry and Bush both cited nuclear terrorism. As the president said, “I agree with my opponent that the biggest threat facing the country is weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a terrorist network.” During the 2005 Bratislava summit, President Bush and Russian president Vladimir Putin for the first time accepted responsibility for addressing the threat and for ensuring that their governments secure loose nuclear material in their countries as quickly as possible. They assigned responsibility for securing nuclear materials to individuals (U.S. energy secretary Samuel W. Bodman and his Russian counterpart, the head of the Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency) and held them accountable by requiring regular progress reports.

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Credit: Bettmann/Corbis

Tagged: Communications, nulcear, terrorism, detection

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