Osama bin Laden thinks that acquiring nuclear weapons is a religious duty. He has been trying to get them since 1993. Were he to acquire a nuclear weapon and detonate it in, say, Times Square on a weekday, somewhere around a million people would die, and a huge chunk of Manhattan would be completely destroyed. It is hard to imagine a worse development in the War on Terror than bin Laden getting a nuclear weapon.
The good news is that George W. Bush recognizes the gravity of this threat. In December 2001, for instance, he called the possibility that terrorists might gain weapons of mass destruction "the great threat to civilization." The bad news is that he has not acted on this recognition. He did, of course, invade Iraq, where it turned out that there were no weapons of mass destruction. But even before the invasion, when many people (myself included) believed that Iraq did have WMD, most people did not believe that Iraq had the most dangerous weapons of all: nuclear weapons. There were, however, many other ways in which we knew that terrorists might be able to obtain nuclear weapons and/or fissile material. It would seem obvious, after 9/11, that dealing with these ought to be among our top priorities. Oddly enough, however, they were not. And the result is that we are considerably less safe now than we might have been.
While there is a broad consensus that we need to try to block every step on the path terrorists would need to follow in order to acquire nuclear weapons, transport them to this country, and detonate them, the most difficult step on this path seems to be the acquisition of fissile materials -- highly enriched uranium or plutonium. I will therefore focus on how we have tried to stop terrorists from getting these materials in several of the most important areas.
* Russian "loose nukes": Russia is, according to most people who write about these issues, the most likely source from which terrorists might acquire fissile material. In 2001, The Department of Energy's Russia Task Force estimated (pdf) that there was enough weapons-grade fissile material in Russia to make 80,000 nuclear weapons. Much of this material is not at all secure. (Howard Baker: "I'm talking about finished weapons that are barely protected. I'm talking about doors that have an ordinary padlock on them and sometimes not even that." NT, p. 74) When it is guarded, the guards are often Russian soldiers, who have sometimes stolen and sold their equipment when they don't get paid. (Did you know that one Russian admiral was convicted of selling 64 ships, including two aircraft carriers?) And this, of course, in Russia, with its widespread lawlessness and corruption.
Now, I have said before that there are somethings that 9/11 did not change. (The fundamental principles of morality, the laws of arithmetic...) But surely one of the things it should have changed was our willingness to tolerate large quantities of weapons-grade fissile materials sitting around in Russia secured, at times, with ordinary padlocks. Surely, one would think, after 9/11 this state of affairs should have seemed intolerable, and our government would have moved heaven and earth to change it.
Unfortunately, no. The funding levels for programs -- Nunn-Lugar and its kin -- designed to secure Russian stores of fissile material are basically unchanged since the Clinton administration. (NT p. 132; I have also gone slogging through budgets, but I don't recommend it.) As of the end of FY2003, 22% of Russia's vulnerable nuclear material had received a comprehensive security upgrade, and a total of 43% had received either that or a quicker 'rapid upgrade' (SB p. 45). The amount of nuclear material secured during the two years after 9/11 was actually lower than the amount secured during the two years before 9/11 (SB p. 5). At present rates, securing Russia's vulnerable nuclear material would take 13 more years (SB p. 4). The Department of Defense is helping to upgrade security at some sites containing warheads; they estimate that those upgrades should be completed between 2009 and 2011. However, this covers only some weapons sites, not all. (SB, p. 55) We are helping to convert highly enriched uranium (HEU), which can be used for weapons, to lightly enriched uranium, which cannot; this program is converting about 2% of the Russian stockpile of HEU per year. It is scheduled to end in 2013, at which point 40% of the stockpile will have been converted (SB p. 79). Work has begun on disposing of Russian stores of plutonium; however, no plutonium has yet been disposed of under this program, none is scheduled to be disposed of until around 2010, and the disposition of this plutonium is not scheduled to be completed until 2029. Moreover, even this schedule assumes that several outstanding issues are promptly resolved, and the plutonium covered by this program represents less than one quarter of Russia's weapons-grade plutonium. (SB pp. 79-81)
The idea that Russia's stores of fissile material will not be fully secured for another thirteen years is just not acceptable. And the problem is not just a lack of funding; it's a lack of Presidential attention. The various programs aimed at securing and disposing of Russia's fissile material are scattered in different departments (chiefly Defense, Energy, and State.) Thus, there is no one person who is responsible for these programs; as a result, accountability is diffused and turf battles hinder progress. The people who run these programs do not have the authority needed to cut through red tape. As a result, threat reduction programs are needlessly delayed by obstacles that should not be insurmountable. For instance, the program for disposing of Russian plutonium has been delayed by a year because of disputes over which country should have to pay for liability insurance. As a taxpayer, I would rather Russia pay for this, other things being equal; but as a citizen, I would happily pay for liability insurance if it were the price of disposing of weapons-grade plutonium, thereby preventing it from becoming part of a bomb that al Qaeda might detonate in my country. This is only one example of the sorts of bureaucratic problems this program has had, problems that would be surmountable given high-level attention and Presidential leadership. That such leadership has not been forthcoming in the years after 9/11 is, to me, incomprehensible.
* North Korea: During George W. Bush's presidency, North Korea has: admitted the existence of a uranium enrichment program, withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-Prolifertaion Treaty, expelled international weapons monitors, begun reprocessing fuel rods into plutonium, restarted its plutonium production reactor, and shown signs of preparing for a nuclear test. US intelligence estimates that it has eight nuclear weapons, up from one or two four years ago. And it can keep producing more: "Within a few years, its uranium-enrichment program will enable it to produce three nuclear weapons a year. By the end of the decade, its plutonium program will be capable of producing 25 to 50 weapons annually." (link) These weapons could be used by North Korea or sold to other countries or to terrorists; in addition, when the North Korean regime finally collapses, their security could be an extremely serious problem.
The Bush administration's policy has been inconsistent, probably because here, as elsewhere, there are unresolved disagreements between different factions in the administration. Highlights include: making the complete dismantling of North Korea's nuclear program a precondition for negotiation; spending the better part of a year refusing to negotiate because we wanted multilateral talks while the North Koreans wanted unilateral talks; and, most recently, engaging in multilateral talks about which one official said the following: "Another U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that a decision has been made at the highest levels that "the criteria for success is that the North Koreans don't walk out." ... "The motto is 'Do no harm,' " the official said. "This is a placeholder to get us through the election.""
I do not mean to suggest that it is easy to figure out what we should do about North Korea, or that negotiations are necessarily the best option. However, it's not clear which other options might be better. The administration seems to have ruled out a military attack, both because it would probably lead to war on the Korean peninsula and because our army is otherwise engaged at the moment. North Korea is already about as isolated as it could possibly be, especially since its neighbors do not particularly want to see it collapse. Since we don't seem prepared to negotiate seriously, our de facto policy amounts to waiting while North Korea builds nuclear weapons. This might not be the course you'd expect from a President who said that "the gravest danger in the war on terror, the gravest danger facing America and the world, is outlaw regimes that seek and possess nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons." On the other hand, he is also the President who, when asked about North Korea's nuclear weapons, responded thus: "Showing none of the alarm about the North's growing arsenal that he once voiced regularly about Iraq, he opened his palms and shrugged when an interviewer noted that new intelligence reports indicate that the North may now have the fuel to produce six or eight nuclear weapons."
* Research reactors: There are "at least 130 research reactors fueled with HEU in more than forty countries" (NT p. 82). Most were provided by the US and the USSR under the 'Atoms for Peace' program; they are found in countries like Iran, Pakistan, Jamaica, and the states from the former Soviet Union; between them, they have about 15,000 kg. of nuclear material. As of the spring of 2004, fissile materials had been removed from six of these plants. The pace here has picked up: three of those reactors were dealt with in the last year. However, at three sites per year, it would take about 31 years to remove fissile material from all of these sites. One reason things are going so slowly might be that we are charging countries $5,000 a kilogram to give us back their uranium. This policy was instituted in 1996, but it would certainly seem to be one of the things that 9/11 ought to have changed.
* Treaties: As I noted last month, the Bush administration, which is currently negotiating a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty, which would ban the production of highly enriched uranium and plutonium by any country, including Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea, has decided to oppose the inclusion of any verification procedures in the treaty. Its stated reason: "Administration officials, who have showed skepticism in the past about the effectiveness of international weapons inspections, said they made the decision after concluding that such a system would cost too much, would require overly intrusive inspections and would not guarantee compliance with the treaty. They declined, however, to explain in detail how they believed U.S. security would be harmed by creating a plan to monitor the treaty."
It is, of course, true that inspections mechanisms will not guarantee compliance with the treaty. Nothing short of a promise from God would do that. But there's a lot of room between procedures that don't guarantee compliance and procedures that are completely useless, let alone harmful. Had the administration tried and failed to negotiate a useful set of enforcement procedures, that would be one thing. But to announce their opposition in advance of any such effort is very hard to understand. As for the claim that such procedures would be "too expensive", I think it all depends on how important one thinks it is to try to prevent countries like North Korea, Pakistan, and Iran from producing any more fissile material than they already have. For my part, I think it's very important, and as a taxpayer, I would want to see exactly how much I was being asked to shell out before just dismissing the idea. I would have thought that the Bush administration, which does not want "the smoking gun to appear in the form of a mushroom cloud", would have agreed. Apparently not. But then, they didn't even bother to guard known nuclear facilities in Iraq after the invasion, so I suppose they must have been talking about some other sort of mushroom cloud.
The bottom line: Last week, Dick Cheney warned us that if we make "the wrong choice" on November 2, not only might we "get hit again," but we might "fall back into the pre-9/11 mind-set". On the absolutely crucial issue of keeping nuclear weapons and fissile material out of the hands of terrorists, however, it is hard to see how the Bush administration's "way of thinking" has changed at all since 9/11. They have not appreciably accelerated the process of securing loose nukes in Russia and elsewhere, and three years after 9/11, this task will not be completed in the foreseeable future. Moreover, nothing about their record suggests that they see the existence of tons of unsecured fissile materials rattling around without anything like adequate security as a particularly urgent problem. Insofar as the Bush administration can be said to have a policy on North Korea, it has left us much less safe than we were before, and there is no prospect of any improvement on the horizon. Nor does the Bush administration seem to regard North Korea's development of nuclear weapons as a particularly pressing problem. We can debate whether Libya's abandonment of its nuclear weapons program is due to years of diplomacy, the example of Iraq, or a combination of the two, but I think it's hard to argue that as far as nuclear proliferation is concerned, the Bush administration has on balance made us safer. The Bush administration's record on nuclear non-proliferation is, to my mind, completely unacceptable, especially after 9/11; and it is one more reason why I cannot imagine voting for Bush.
Note on sources: I have abbreviated the following sources rather than linking to them, since they are a book (NT) and two huge reports in pdf (CNWM, SB.)
NT: Graham Allison: Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe
CNWM: Matthew Bunn, Anthony Weir, John Holdren: Controlling Nuclear Warheads and Materials
SB: Matthew Bunn and Anthony Weir, Securing the Bomb
John Kerry's proposals on these issues can be found here.