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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Avoiding Nuclear Terror

The second of two articles on nuclear safety.

A year ago in Oklahoma City, Americans were awakened to a reality long known to other nations: terrorism. Today, as the leaders of the most powerful countries gather in Moscow for the "G-7 plus 1" summit on nuclear safety, they must do their utmost to protect the world from an incommensurably greater threat: nuclear terrorism.

The threat of "loose nukes" -- the loss, theft or sale of weapons-usable nuclear materials or nuclear weapons themselves -- from the former Soviet arsenal is no hypothetical threat; it is a brute fact. Since the disappearance of the Soviet Union, the number of reported and suspected cases of diversion of weapons-usable nuclear material has been increasing steadily. Ominously, we have been able to document six cases in which weapons-grade material has been stolen and nearly 1,000 instances involving the theft of lower-grade material.

What does this mean? Terrorism is to nuclear terrorism what a federal building is to a state capital. Suppose that instead of a van carrying several thousand pounds of explosives, terrorists in Oklahoma City had instead used 30 pounds of highly enriched uranium. Assuming a simple, crude, well-known design, an explosion fashioned from this material would create a nuclear blast equivalent to 10,000 to 20,000 tons of TNT. Under normal conditions, this would devastate a three-square mile urban area. Oklahoma City would have disappeared.

Suppose now that a rogue actor -- a state like Iran, Iraq or Libya, or a terrorist group like Hamas or Japan's Aum Shinrikyo -- obtained as little as a grapefruit-size lump of highly enriched uranium, or less than half that weight in plutonium. It would be a matter of but a few months before a nuclear device could be produced. The design information is publicly available, the additional equipment can be readily purchased in the commercial market and the technical competence required is found in graduates of any respectable engineering program.

The frightening availability of nuclear weapons and weapons-usable material is the result of the tumultuous revolution currently undergone by Russia. This revolution is shredding the fabric of a command-and-control society, on a territory that houses a superpower nuclear arsenal and a superpower nuclear enterprise. The figures boggle the mind: The Russian nuclear weapons archipelago includes hundreds of sites over one seventh of the Earth's land mass, sites at which 1,000 tons of highly enriched uranium, 100 tons of plutonium and some 30,000 nuclear warheads are at risk.

A risk of such magnitude warrants forceful and urgent action. But as one might ask in the classic Russian refrain: What is to be done?

First, the governments represented at the summit -- and the U.S. government in particular -- must recognize this as the No. 1 threat to the security of their countries. Second, they must mobilize a top-priority strategy that commands attention, money, energy and imagination commensurate with the scale of the danger.

The United States' principal lever in the relationship is to buy and take to the United States 500 tons of Russian nuclear weapons-usable highly enriched uranium. A contract for this sale was negotiated by the Bush Administration, but its implementation has been bogged down in bureaucratic delays on both sides.

As for Russia's main task, it is to concentrate and control the loose nukes. The nuclear weapons and weapons-usable material that remain in Russia must be concentrated in the smallest number of locations.

And those few sites need to be controlled in the same way that a serious enterprise attempts to protect any item of great value from theft under the extraordinary conditions in Russia and other states of the former Soviet Union today.

Russian banks, for instance, store their gold in vaults that are surrounded by a foot of steel, monitored by an electronic alarm system and video monitors, private guards and police. With all that, gold is still stolen. In contrast, the security systems at nuclear storage facilities across Russia are abysmal. Eighty percent have no electronic monitoring system, and one recent case of nuclear theft was detected only because the thief neglected to close the door as he left.

Immediate steps to secure the highly enriched uranium and plutonium should include transferring excess nuclear materials into secure Defense Ministry weapons storage bunkers. Advance technical protection electronics must be installed at all nuclear facilities and a comprehensive joint inventory of total fissile materials stockpiles must be undertaken in both Russia and the United States.

To motivate the Russian side to take the required actions, the United States, Europe and Japan will have to pay the piper, for all are equally faced with the threat. In the Cold War, U.S. Defense Secretary Weinberger observed that American offensive strategic nuclear weapons programs had one common feature: Each cost $30 billion and took 15 years to deploy. He was thinking about the MX missile, the B-2 bomber and the Trident submarine. At $1 million per weapon, the United States could secure 30,000 weapons for $30 billion. This would constitute the biggest bang for the buck in the history of U.S. defense programs. Possible? Yes. Likely? No, not given our current level of consciousness or our governments' lack of readiness to move beyond business as usual. But when this year, or next year, or the year after, we find ourselves victims of a nuclear terrorist incident, how will we account for our behavior if we fail to act now? What will this 1996 Moscow summit mean to us on the morning after?

Graham Allison, Jr. is director of the Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.