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Nuke nightmare

Recent news from Iran renews old fears and shows that the threat of nuclear attack just won't go away

Issue: "Nuke nightmare," Feb. 25, 2006

On Sept. 12, 2001, Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan wrote that New Yorkers still alive should be thankful to be so, thankful that "for some reason, and we don't even know what it was, the terrorists didn't use a small nuclear weapon floated into New York on a barge in the East River."

She suspected that "the next time the bad guys hit" it will be nuclear, but "for now we have been spared. And now, chastened and shaken, we are given another chance, maybe the last chance, to commit ourselves seriously and at some cost to protecting our country."

These past four and one-half years are not the first time we should be thankful to have been spared one or many nuclear bombs incinerating thousands or perhaps millions of our fellow Americans. Sixty years ago, in Fulton, Mo., on March 5, 1946, Winston Churchill spoke of how "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the [European] Continent."

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His speech signaled the beginning of an American and British understanding that the Cold War had begun. When the Soviet Union speedily developed nuclear missiles, that war threatened to become fiery-and the threat remained for the next four decades, until Ronald Reagan hung tough and the Soviet empire disintegrated.

Now a new threat looms. At their facility near Natanz, Iranian scientists earlier this month successfully restarted four centrifuges necessary to produce weapons-grade uranium. Iranian officials blocked international inspectors' access to the site and disabled security cameras set up by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) 13 years ago when Iran admitted to violating the nuclear nonproliferation treaty.

This new buzz comes at the end of two years of French, German, and British negotiations with Iran and protracted investigative work by the IAEA. That agency on Feb. 4 reported Iran to the UN Security Council as out of compliance-once again-with nuclear nonproliferation norms. With 27 IAEA countries approving the resolution and only three (Cuba, Syria, and Venezuela) voting against it, the report is likely to precipitate further sanctions against Tehran.

Iran's leaders could light their crumbling cities with nuclear power, but few now doubt that they are intent on building a nuclear arsenal. Full-scale production of nuclear weapons is years away, but Iran right now has its own uranium ore and all the infrastructure needed for weapons-grade plutonium production. The radical Islamic regime will be able to export nuclear packages to any of the many terror organizations with which it maintains ties.

And that may be the largest threat now-not missiles in the sky but a bomb smuggled into the United States on a container ship or carried with drugs across the border. Just about the only similar answer that George Bush and John Kerry gave in their first debate two years ago came when they were asked to define the "single most serious threat to American national security." Both answered, "Nuclear terrorism." In 2005 President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Homeland Security secretaries Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff all said or implied the same.

As with earthquakes, some experts have assigned percentages of likelihood. Harvard professor Graham Allison, the author of Nuclear Terrorism, says a nuclear attack on U.S. soil within the next 10 years is probable. Former Secretary of Defense William Perry put the odds for an attack by 2010 at 50-50. Other analysts, according to a survey by Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), put the likelihood over the next 10 years at 30 percent.

All those estimates came before the recent news from Iran and were largely based on the expectation that the nuclear materials would come from somewhere else. For example, Director of Intelligence Porter Goss told the Senate Intelligence Committee that enough nuclear material to make a bomb was missing from Russia, and he had no idea where it was. He and others are not professional fear-mongers, but they have been concerned for three reasons: material, means, and motive.

Material: Nine countries-the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain, France, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea-have nuclear weapons, with Iran knocking on the door. Forty countries have among them about 130 nuclear research reactors, about one-fifth of which have enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) for one or more nuclear bombs. Leaders of North Korea and Iran sympathize with terrorist groups. Pakistani politics are brittle.

The number of nuclear weapons overall is probably around 30,000, with enough HEU and plutonium stockpiled for 240,000 more. Some of Russia's 10,000 nuclear warheads, along with its fissile material for 30,000 more, could be stolen or sold for rubles, and it's now easy to get material across its porous borders. Over the past 15 years the Russians have reported hundreds of thefts of nuclear material, generally unrefined and therefore not immediately weapon-usable.

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