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But the missteps, missed opportunities, and wrong turns of the past two decades are weightier than the successes. The nuclear superpowers failed to take advantage of the end of the Cold War to dramatically reduce and restructure nuclear arsenals–or, at least, to honor their commitments under the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) rigorously enough to persuade other states to honor theirs. India and Pakistan tested nuclear bombs and began deploying active nuclear arsenals. North Korea withdrew from the NPT, used technologies acquired under the treaty to produce plutonium for an estimated eight nuclear bombs, and tested a nuclear weapon. In 2005, an NPT review conference collapsed amid general intransigence. Most recently, Iran has defied three U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding that it suspend its nuclear enrichment activity.

Of everything on this list, the most worrying is nuclear proliferation in North Korea. That country is among the most dangerous potential sources of a nuclear bomb that Osama bin Laden, or someone like him, could use to destroy the heart of New York or Washington, DC. In 2004, Pyongyang had two bombs’ worth of plutonium. It has since developed an arsenal of around 10 bombs.

As the 2004 U.N. High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change concluded, “We are approaching a point at which the erosion of the non-proliferation regime could become irreversible and result in a cascade of proliferation.”

After the United States invaded Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11, the Taliban government was toppled and al-Qaeda’s headquarters and leadership, including Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, were evicted from the country. But note the supreme irony: having entered office with a bearded madman in medieval Afghanistan plotting and training foot soldiers for a massive terrorist attack on the United States, President Bush will probably hand the reins to his successor as this same bearded madman plots even deadlier attacks on our country–but now he will be plotting them from training camps in Pakistan, a nuclear state.

No one who has examined the evidence has any doubt that al‑Qaeda is deadly serious about exploding a nuclear bomb. As former CIA director George Tenet reveals in his memoir, “The most senior leaders of al Qaeda are still singularly focused on acquiring WMD. … The main threat is the nuclear one. I am convinced that this is where Osama bin Laden and his operatives desperately want to go.”

Consider the consequences if just one nuclear bomb exploded in just one U.S. city. The immediate reaction would be to block all entry points to prevent another bomb from reaching its target, disrupting the global flow of raw materials and manufactured goods. Vital markets for international products would disappear, and financial markets would crash. Researchers at Rand, a think tank funded by the U.S. government, have estimated that a nuclear explosion at the Port of Long Beach, CA, would cause immediate indirect costs of more than $1 trillion worldwide and that shutting down U.S. ports would cut world trade by 7.5 percent.

The total, long-term economic effects would be much worse, however, and would reverberate well beyond the developed world. As former U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan has warned, a nuclear terrorist attack would not only “cause widespread death and destruction” but “thrust tens of millions of people into dire poverty.” This would, he observed, create “a second death toll throughout the developing world.”

Preventing such a calamity will require policy leadership, institutional innovation, international coöperation, and hard work. The prospects for success can be enhanced by capitalizing on a competitive advantage of the United States: tech­nology. Al-Qaeda and other global terrorists are technologically challenged, and technologically advanced countries must exploit this asymmetry. If we do, our ability to secure, trace, and dismantle weapons of mass destruction will exceed terrorist organizations’ abilities to procure them.

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Credit: Bettmann/Corbis

Tagged: Communications, nulcear, terrorism, detection

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