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."
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.
Pundits often have speculated about what happened to suitcase-sized nuclear bombs made during the closing years of the Cold War. The late Russian General Alexander Lebed claimed on 60 Minutes and elsewhere that many were missing, but author Richard Miniter (see "Threat assessment," Dec. 17, 2005) dismisses his statements as tall tales from a heavy drinker with the reputation for saying what would garner him headlines. All of the portable atomic weapons were supposed to have been dismantled in accordance with a 1991 treaty and under the supervision of American officials from the Department of Energy, but some say they were not.
Various individuals, some nefarious, have bought on Pakistan's black market "nuclear starter kits" with warhead blueprints and enough uranium to make a small bomb. Once a group has 30 pounds of HEU plus design information and equipment readily available, a competent engineer can make a nuclear device within a few months. Articles describing the physics of nuclear weapons and providing schematics are on the internet. Theodore Taylor, a nuclear physicist who designed both large and small bombs, noted that with fissile material building a bomb is "very easy. Double underline. Very easy."
Means: Every day 30,000 trucks, 6,500 rail cars, and 140 ships deliver more than 50,000 cargo containers into the United States, but only 5 percent of the containers are ever screened-and even that screening might not detect nuclear weapons or material. With an estimated 20,000 pounds of cocaine and marijuana smuggled into the United States each day, it wouldn't be hard to smuggle in a softball-sized 30 pounds of HEU. Even 100 pounds of it plus all the other parts of a bomb would fit easily into the back of an SUV or some other similarly nondescript delivery vehicle.
ABC News in 2003 placed a lead-lined pipe containing depleted uranium inside a Samsonite suitcase that was inside a teak trunk, and then shipped the trunk through an ordinary freight forwarding company from Indonesia to Los Angeles. The trunk made it to Los Angeles without any trouble. Customs officials are upgrading port security, but progress has been slow. The easiest way to bring a nuclear weapon into the United States is probably in a cargo container by sea. The U.S.-Mexico border could also be the pathway for bringing in a bomb, but Mr. Miniter argues that terrorists who did not bring in a bomb by ship would be best served by coming from Canada.
Motive: One of Osama bin Laden's press mouthpieces, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, has announced that al-Qaeda aspires "to kill 4 million Americans, including 1 million children," in response to casualties purportedly inflicted on Muslims by the United States and Israel. It could be, though, that Israel would be the first target of a Muslim terrorist nuclear bomb, although al-Qaeda might have concern about winds wafting a radiation plume into predominantly Muslim territory. Russia, given its long battle with Chechnya, might also be the primary target.
The 9/11 Commission Report detailed the problems in response time of large governmental bureaucracies and concluded, "Once the danger has fully materialized, evident to all, mobilizing action is easier-but it then may be too late." If those with material, means, and motive brought a bomb into the United States, what would be the result-and is there any way to stop an explosion from happening?
We can start by realizing that a 10-kiloton bomb exploded at the Smithsonian (the Hiroshima bomb was a 12-kiloton) would destroy everything from the White House to the Capitol building, with uncontrollable fires raging all the way to the Pentagon. In other cities as well every body and building up to one-third of a mile from the epicenter would vanish, and everything up to one and one-half miles away would be destroyed by fires and radiation.
A report in 2003 by the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration estimated that a Washington, D.C., nuclear explosion could kill 300,000 persons. A report in 2004 by the Homeland Security Council (HSC) used different assumptions and came up with a number of "only" 100,000. The HSC report noted that it would take years to clean up 3,000 to 5,000 square miles around a nuclear explosion, with many irradiated neighborhoods simply abandoned: A nuclear attack "would forever change the American psyche, its politics and worldview."
It would be difficult to detect a lead-shielded nuclear device, since radiation detectors now in use in some major cities would probably let a lead-shielded nuclear device get by. Nuclear Energy Support Teams (NESTs), sometimes called volunteer fire departments for the atomic age, can be rapidly deployed to assess risks, find nuclear weapons, and disarm them, but only in movies are they likely to be successful. The goal has to be to learn about terrorist plans through intelligence work, including wiretaps and other surveillance methods, and stop bomb plots before they are close to fruition.
Terrorists kept from getting their hands on or exploding a nuclear weapon have a fallback position: a "dirty bomb," one made of ordinary explosives wrapped together with a morsel of radioactive material. An explosion in a crowded area could kill several thousand and make at least several square miles of prime real estate unusable. A cobalt radiation bomb exploded in Manhattan could require the evacuation of the entire island, with people unable to come back safely for months.
The economic consequences of even a dirty bomb would be large, and the psychological consequences enormous. The anthrax scare late in 2001, like the Katrina disaster in 2005, led to panic and outrage about problems small in relation to those that would result from any kind of nuclear explosion. Terrorists undoubtedly relish the thoughts of wreaking such havoc, so it's remarkable that we haven't already had some kind of nuclear disaster. Interviewers for two years have asked Harvard's Allison why we have not had one, and his regular answers have been: "It's a great puzzle. . . . I think that we should be very thankful that it hasn't happened already. . . . We're living on borrowed time."
The Bush administration may have won us some time. It toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, both made up of people willing and ready to give terrorists sanctuary and the opportunity to plan disaster in peace. The Bush administration, by showing it was not tame, also made it less likely that evil dictators would give nuclear weapons to terrorists, because those leaders could expect nuclear retaliation if a nuclear attack on the United States was traced back to them.
As long as the United States has firm leadership, such an expectation could keep Iranian leaders from giving bombs to terrorists-although fanaticism often knows no bounds. But what Winston Churchill said about Soviet leaders 60 years ago may now be relevant in the Middle East: "I am convinced that there is nothing they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for weakness, especially military weakness."
Churchill wisely contended that "we cannot afford, if we can help it, to work on narrow margins, offering temptations to a trial of strength. If the Western Democracies stand together . . . no one is likely to molest them. If however they become divided or falter in their duty, and if these all-important years are allowed to slip away, then indeed catastrophe may overwhelm us all."
Ironically, 60 years later, Russia may now be acting as nuclear peacemaker: It has offered to enrich Iran's uranium to utility grade in exchange for Iran's pledge to foreswear weapons-grade enrichment. But Iran on Feb. 16 underscored its military ambitions by canceling a meeting with Russian negotiators and nuclear scientists.
U.S. military planners may be thinking in Churchillian terms. For years they have war-gamed many possible actions, and last week international media publicized one of the numerous Pentagon contingency plans: This one had B-2 bombers attacking six Iranian nuclear facilities, probably with Israeli cooperation. (Israel in 1981 destroyed an Iraqi reactor.) Iran's defense ministry seized the propaganda opportunity to declare itself on "war footing" and said it now moves its mobile missile launchers every 24 hours to avoid detection.
How seriously to take all this? It seems that we always have wars and rumors of wars, but Iran is a threat now as Germany was in the 1930s. Meanwhile, the lack of an Islamic terrorist attack on U.S. soil for over four years is difficult to explain via natural causes. Even if nuclear materials were surprisingly unavailable, terrorists could have killed many Americans and induced panic through biological attacks involving anthrax, botulism, smallpox, or plague-but they have not.
With so much going wrong, the lack of terrorist attacks is an indication that something is right in the world. Some might credit the Bush administration's decision to go on offense rather than sit back on defense. Some will thank God. Others will do both, and pray.
MINING: Saghand. Uranium ore mining begins later this year with expected annual yield of 50-60 tons
MILLING: Ardkan. Uranium ore to yellowcake (uranium ore concentrate)
MILLING: Gehine. Mining and milling to produce yellowcake
CONVERSION: Isfahan. Yellowcake becomes hexafluoride (UF6) or hex, ready for enrichment
ENRICHMENT: Natanz. Iran's largest nuclear facility, housing thousands of centrifuges capable of processing weapons-grade uranium
PRODUCTION: Arak. Heavy-water reactor suited for weapons-grade plutonium production
PRODUCTION: Bushehr. Russian-built light water reactor due for start-up this year for reactor-grade plutonium
PRODUCTION: Khuzestan. New reactor planned