AN AMERICAN HIROSHIMA: Preventing Nuclear Terrorism

Monday, September 20, 2004

Many experts believe that it is almost inevitable that terrorists will soon have the ability to detonate a nuclear weapon in the heart of a major American city. How can we stop them? What are the specific threats that we face and how should we respond to them? Do we face a greater danger from nuclear weapons that may have been stolen from the former Soviet Union or from the clandestine efforts of rogue nuclear scientists? And if the threat has increased since 9/11, why hasn't the United States done more to contain it? Peter Robinson speaks with Graham Allison and Scott Sagan.

Recorded on Monday, September 20, 2004

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge: preventing an American Hiroshima.

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: preventing nuclear terrorism. The prospect of a nuclear weapon detonated in the heart of a major American city is too horrible to contemplate. Unfortunately, many experts argue, it is not only horrible but likely. What can we do to make sure such a catastrophe never takes place? Can we make sure?

Joining us today, two guests. Scott Sagan is co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford and the co-author of the book The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate Renewed. Graham Allison is a professor of government at Harvard and the author of Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe.

Title: An American Hiroshima

Peter Robinson: Investor Warren Buffet who knows enough about calculating odds to have become one of the richest men in the world, "The danger of a nuclear terrorist attack is the ultimate depressing thing. It will happen. It's inevitable. I don't see any way that it won't happen." Is a nuclear attack by terrorists in the United States inevitable? Graham?

Graham Allison: Yes if we just keep doing what we're doing, but no if we act to prevent it.

Peter Robinson: Scott?

Scott Sagan: No, but it is a catastrophe waiting to happen and there's a lot that we need to do to make sure it does not happen soon.

Peter Robinson: All right. Nuclear weapons are big and cumbersome and expensive and during the Cold War, when we had an arsenal of many thousands and the Soviet Union had an arsenal of many thousands, we had a lot to worry about. But the Soviet Union doesn't even exist anymore so although we have new worries, terrorists flying airplanes into buildings, nuclear weapons are something on which we ought to be able to relax. Why is that view mistaken?

Graham Allison: I think you express the view very well because for large numbers of Americans, the idea that nuclear weapons were what the Cold War were about. But the Cold War's over. My dad used to tell me this. He said "Cold War's over. We won. Move on." You know, I said "Pop, that's right except for two things." One, the weapons didn't go away. These weapons have long, long shelf life and the material from which you could make additional nuclear weapons didn't go away. It actually has half lives of thousands of years. So we are left with the leftovers, the remains of the Cold War. And there continue to be nuclear weapons in Russia and in other states like Pakistan or indeed maybe even North Korea which could come loose. Secondly and even more threatening, there are thousands of potential nuclear weapons of highly enriched uranium and plutonium, which if they came into the hands of a terrorist group like Al Qaeda, they could make a homemade nuclear bomb that would fit in the back of a van and would blow up a city.

Peter Robinson: So it is no longer the case that these things are expensive and difficult to make? Are there--as pieces of nuclear weapons that terrorists would have to steal? Could they make everything from scratch? What…

Scott Sagan: It would be hard to make everything from scratch. What they could do is steal the materials or the weapons themselves. So if they stole a weapon or were given a weapon from the Pakistani arsenal or given one from the former Soviet Union's arsenal, they'd have a ready made weapon.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Scott Sagan: Alternatively they could steal materials. It takes thirty-five to forty pounds of highly enriched uranium to make a bomb.

Peter Robinson: Now the highly enriched uranium, that is still tough to make?

Scott Sagan: It's tough to make.

Peter Robinson: Tough and expensive to make?

Scott Sagan: But it exists in lots of places.

Peter Robinson: All right.

Scott Sagan: Question is how well do we guard the materials that we have in the United States. Serious problem.

Peter Robinson: Okay.

Scott Sagan: How well do we guard the materials that we've sold to other countries to help spread nuclear technology because we thought it was such a great idea to have nuclear energy; we sold nuclear materials to many countries.

Peter Robinson: Highly--highly enriched...

Graham Allison: I think your instinct is right that making highly enriched uranium or plutonium for it--is too hard for a terrorist group. This is a huge undertaking…

Peter Robinson: We do at least have the advantage that there's one thing they can't do for themselves.

Graham Allison: Make it, yes.

Peter Robinson: And that remains true.

Graham Allison: Because that's a multi billion dollar investment over a number of years. Iran has been working no this project for eighteen years and is just coming to the finishing point. So they can't make it. The question is can they get it other ways? And the way they're most likely to get it--I agree with Scott--is they would steal it or even more likely some crook in Russia or Pakistan steals it and sells it.

Peter Robinson: Let's move onto what Graham Allison calls the Doctrine of the Three No's.

Title: No It All

Peter Robinson: In your book Graham, you write that there are three No's on which we must act in order to ensure that a nuclear catastrophe does not take place in this country. The first No, Graham, is no loose nukes. Explain what you mean by that.

Graham Allison: No nuclear weapons or nuclear materials from which a weapon could be made, highly enriched uranium or plutonium, which means locking down all weapons and all materials to what I call a new gold standard. The U.S. loses no gold from Fort Knox, not any. Russia loses no treasures from the Kremlin armory. So the proposition is the U.S. and Russia would define a standard and would--and the two presidents would commit to each other that they would secure all the weapons and all the material in their own country on the fastest technically feasible timetable, not the kind of methodical tab--plat--you know, process that we've been going along with. And that they would do so in a way that was sufficiently transparent to the other, that the other would have some reason for believing it. I even have a little scheme in the book in which we would have Russians explaining to us how they would steal an American nuclear weapon because they don't need one of our weapons and we would be explaining to them how we would steal a Russian weapon in order to shore up the system.

Peter Robinson: …to challenge each other. Is that feasible then to lock down nuclear material all over the world?

Scott Sagan: I think it's much harder. It's more easily said than done. Let me put it that way.

Graham Allison: Absolutely

Scott Sagan: In the United States today, we frankly don't know how secure some of our own facilities are because of the way that we've gone around in a very lackadaisical manner in the past.

Peter Robinson: Energy facilities or weapons facilities?

Scott Sagan: Weapons facilities in terms of how well they're guarded. I'll give you an example. Last year at the DOE plant…

Peter Robinson: Department of…

Scott Sagan: Department of Energy--of Energy plant at Oakridge in Tennessee. They have the procedures there as we have in every place trying to meet Graham's gold standard. We have guards. They are tested by having mostly former Seals run by a private consulting company, brings them in, contractors.

Peter Robinson: …the guys who try to break in.

Scott Sagan: Yeah, and it's a test. It's an exercise and you try to pass the exercise and that shows that you're secure.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Scott Sagan: Well unfortunately the Department of Energy discovered that the guards and the would-be-terrorist, the simulators…

Peter Robinson: Right, right.

Scott Sagan: …were collaborating. They're sharing information to make sure that the people on the inside pass the test. They were friends. They happen to work for the same company, Wackenhut.

Peter Robinson: A test vital to our national security was a sham.

Scott Sagan: Was a sham. And so they've ordered a whole new set of these tests. We're not meeting our own gold standard. We've had inadequate safety and security in our own…

Peter Robinson: That's the situation in this country. You report in your book--you recount a convers--an interview that General Lebed of the Soviet Union now dead--died in a helicopter accident as I recall--came to this country and in the course of his interviews he said oh by the way, something like eighty of our smallest nuclear weapons, one kiloton suitcase weapons are missing and we don't know where they are. Was he telling the truth? Do we still have reason to believe that the Soviets don't even know where all their nuclear weapons are?

Graham Allison: I believe as of now that we have no basis for confidence that these 84 weapons are accounted for. In the response to the initial Lebed acknowledgement, which wasn't a--he didn't make an announcement. He sort of…

Peter Robinson: It was in the middle of his interview.

Graham Allison: The Russian government first said there was no such weapons. They never existed. Then they said simultaneously that all such weapons were accounted for. Then they said all such weapons had been destroyed. Now subsequently there've been three or four more pieces of information in which there's no question there's a hundred percent likelihood that they had such weapons. And indeed they acknowledged that they didn't have serial--individual serial numbers on them. So you didn't have unique identifiers. So that makes it much less confident that they got them all and collected them appropriately. So we know we haven't found any anywhere else. That's the good news. But we don't know what we don't know.

Peter Robinson: On to Graham's second no.

Title: Enriched Man, Poor Man

Peter Robinson: I'm waiting for you fellows to start cheering me up by the way. This is sounding pretty grim so far.

Scott Sagan: We are not going to be cheering you up today, I'm afraid Peter.

Peter Robinson: No new nascent nukes. Graham explain that one for us, the second of your no's.

Graham Allison: This is--I--this is a new term nascent nukes by which I mean national production of highly enriched uranium and plutonium. So if we could lock up all the weapons and material that currently exists…

Peter Robinson: That already exists.

Graham Allison: And then we could stop production of any new material, then we're, you know, getting a handle on the problem. Now this requires dealing right now with the and it's complex, but the Non-Proliferation Treaty gives states who signed up to be non-nuclear weapon states the right, the entitlement as the Iranians keep saying, to have a factory for making enriched uranium or for even reprocessing plutonium. If they get across that line which they're just about to do--they're within months of completing their factories--the Iranians…

Peter Robinson: The Iranians?

Graham Allison: If they succeed in getting across that line, there's no further transparent police-able point between that and making nuclear weapons. And so what I'm proposing is that we strengthen and, in effect, reinterpret the Non-Proliferation Treaty and we do it in the Iranian case as a test case. I think if Iran were gotten to freeze where they are now and back down, one would be able to then shore up this new standard.

Peter Robinson: So as we tape this program, the thirty-five member International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.'s watchdog, has just called on Iran to freeze all uranium enrichment and related programs and to open its facilities to inspections, that's the good news. In the same statement, however, the IAEA reaffirmed Iran's right to develop nuclear energy and with it the highly enriched uranium. So what we have here is the U.N.'s atomic watchdog agency--still isn't serious--is that right?

Scott Sagan: No, I think it's very serious. What they're trying to do is cut and sever the linkage between building nuclear energy capabilities and building nuclear weapons. As Graham correctly said, in the past, the bargain was if you agree not to get nuclear weapons, we the nuclear states will let you get nuclear energy. Indeed, we'll encourage it. We'll sell you. We'll help you.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Scott Sagan: And what we discovered was that there was a loophole. People could cheat. So the North Koreans and it really appears the Iranians who are members of the treaty, used the nuclear energy clause to get capabilities that will give them nuclear weapons.

Peter Robinson: And went right ahead and cheated.

Scott Sagan: What Graham has proposed and what Mohammed ElBaradei, the head of the IAEA has proposed is: let's still maintain a right for states to get nuclear power. Many states want it. And we're not going to unilaterally be able to impose a new set of rules. But let's make it so that the power that they will get will not be able to be transferred into nuclear weapons. So let's have only low enriched uranium. Any facilities that they get that have new materials, the materials will be either internationally owned or owned by the United States or owned by Russia and will go back if the treaty--if that state ever resigns from the treaty. But we have to offer something in return. I think that's where there's a gap right now.

Peter Robinson: We, the United States or…

Scott Sagan: The United States, correct.

Peter Robinson: …the United Nations? We, the United States.

Scott Sagan: We the United States. Regardless of what administration is in power, the non-nuclear states who are being asked to have restrictions now on new nuclear power capabilities are saying well what's in it for us?

Peter Robinson: If they behave, what do we give them as a reward?

Scott Sagan: What do we give them in reward? And I believe…

Peter Robinson: And the answer is?

Scott Sagan: I believe part of it is our own nuclear policy with respect to nuclear weapons needs to change. We, as part of the non-proliferation treaty agreed under Article 6 that we would work in good faith towards the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. Now no one thought that we were going to do that overnight. No one wanted to set the explicit timeframe for it.

Peter Robinson: But it's now been forty-some years since we signed that treaty?

Scott Sagan: More importantly in 1995 when we got the states who are non-nuclear members to say we'll keep this treaty forever, we said well as a sign that we're really going to mean it when we say we'll work in good faith, we'll sign and ratify the comprehensive test ban. How can we say you can never develop nuclear weapons or even nuclear energy capabilities that could be used for nuclear weapons in the long-term if we keep testing nuclear weapons? They said fine, under that deal, we'll sign it.

Peter Robinson: And then it got rejected.

Scott Sagan: They signed on and we rejected. And if we test nuclear weapons over the next four years, I think all hell will break loose on an international…

Peter Robinson: You in agreement there? It was a mistake for us to reject the testing?

Graham Allison: Absolutely. In fact, I think the--absolutely, that was a mistake. But I think that--and I agree with Scott that trying to think about--the U.S. doesn't need nuclear weapons except for other states that have nuclear weapons. So if there were no nuclear weapons, the U.S. would be better off.

Peter Robinson: Next, the third no in Graham's doctrine for preventing nuclear terrorism.

Title: To Have and Have Not

Peter Robinson: No new nuclear weapon states. Let me--this time let me quote Scott. The goal should be radic--this is your book--the goal should be radically smaller and safer arsenals in all existing nuclear states--we've talked about that--and the maintenance of non-nuclear status for other nations. The nuclear states today are United States, Russia, China, Pakistan, India--fill me in.

: Israel.

Peter Robinson: Israel…

: France…

Peter Robinson: France and Great Britain.

Graham Allison: …and Britain. Eight.

Peter Robinson: Eight. Eight officially recognized and stated.

Scott Sagan: And North Korea, right there on the border either with a handful of weapons or about to get them.

Peter Robinson: Okay. So fellas, how do you tell North Korea "no"?

Graham Allison: I would say first we try to determine how bad would it be if North Korea actually has a nuclear test, declares itself a nuclear weapon state--completes this production line that'll allow it to produce another dozen weapons a year. And I think there's every reason to believe that this North Korea will sell nuclear weapons to Al Qaeda and everybody else because they've shown themselves willing to sell whatever they make and they have only three cash crops: missiles, illegal drugs and counterfeit hundred dollar bills.

Peter Robinson: The development of nuclear weapons by North Korea becomes a casus belli. It is a cause for war.

Scott Sagan: Unfortunately they've already crossed that line. That was actually the right strategy of having carrots and sticks in the Clinton Administration. They said if you take the materials out of the reactor, that will not be acceptable and that is a red line.

Peter Robinson: The Clinton Administration said to the North Koreans?

Scott Sagan: Correct.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Scott Sagan: In '95.

Peter Robinson: And they crossed the red line?

Scott Sagan: No, they didn't.

Peter Robinson: Oh they didn't?

Scott Sagan: They froze. That was the part of the agreed framework. I have students…

Peter Robinson: We believe they actually did live up to it?

Scott Sagan: Yes.

Peter Robinson: All right.

Scott Sagan: Now what they did was cheat--they had a separated program and we caught them because they got aid from Pakistan, having a separate program that was going to take years, unfortunately, during the Bush Administration. Was very aggressive verbally and then when the North Koreans began to start crossing the line, the Bush Administration was so concerned about Iraq and was so focused on what was going on in Iraq that they let the North Koreans cross the line. Unfortunately, it's too late for us to say your development of nuclear weapons is going to be a cause of war because they…

Peter Robinson: They have them.

Scott Sagan: …will say, sorry we have them. Now we don't know a hundred percent because they haven't tested one. What we do know because a group of Stanford professors and a group of government officials along with them, went to see the plant at Yongbyon and were shown the reactive pools with all the materials taken out. Indeed Sig Hecker, the former Director of the Los Alamos laboratory on that trip, was handed a piece of what he believes was plutonium, showing that the North Koreans had gone that far as to develop this. Now Sig can't guarantee one hundred percent that what he had in his hand was plutonium but it felt like plutonium, it had the right heat signature. Everything…

Graham Allison: He knows what plutonium is…

Scott Sagan: He knows what plutonium is. Everything that he said to Congress and to individuals suggests that's what this was.

Peter Robinson: Okay, so for the next--this will air after the election--for the next administration, what does one do about North Korea? Don't bother them…

Graham Allison: I think North Korea is potentially the greatest failure, I mean, North Korea ends up as a nuclear weapon state with a nuclear weapons production line, historians will judge this the greatest failure of American foreign policy. Now what to do now? And it may turn out to be too late. It may turn out. I still don't think it is. I would go to them now with a whole big bundle of carrots and a arsenal of sticks. The carrots would include economic assistance that South Korea, Japan, China, now Great Britain are eager to provide. It would give them assurance from the U.S. that we're not going to attack them to change their regime by force. But would it include on the downside in terms of sticks, very severe economic sanctions because this is the economic basket case to start with, plus a credible military threat. And the question is can that be constructed and I believe it can.

Peter Robinson: You believe it can.

Graham Allison: A credible military threat to destroy all the facilities we know about and to try to get them to believe and maybe it is the case that we know where all the facilities are.

Peter Robinson: Given the chilling scenarios that our guests have laid out, why has our government not done more to address this threat?

Title: The Failure of Politics

Peter Robinson: Nicholas Kristoff in the New York Times, "What I find baffling and utter failure of the political process, the risk that a nuclear explosion will devastate an American city is greater now than it was during the Cold War and it's growing." You're a political scientist. You've served in government. Why should it be that more than three years after 9/11, we have done so little to address this threat?

Scott Sagan: Both Graham and I are political scientists and both of us have served in the government.

Graham Allison: I think both of us don't know.

Scott Sagan: Well, I think both of us would agree that government bureaucracies do the same thing over and over and over again unless there's an outside shock that forces them to change their standard operating procedures.

Peter Robinson: There is no…

Scott Sagan: 9/11 was a big shock for many bureaucracies but for the nuclear establishment, it was far less of a shock. And the American public hasn't pushed the nuclear establishment in the United States to change sufficiently.

Peter Robinson: Now Graham writes about a shocking incident--it took place a month after 9/11 in which the White House received intelligence they could not dismiss that somebody had smuggled a nuclear weapon into New York City. And there was a scramble and Cheney was sent to the famous undisclosed location. They didn't even tell the politicians--Rudy Guiliani wasn't informed for fear of creating a panic but indeed they did panic and send inspectors up--turned out to be a false alarm.

Scott Sagan: That's not panicking.

Peter Robinson: That's not panicking?

Scott Sagan: No, that's right.

Peter Robinson: They did the right thing.

Scott Sagan: That's prudent. That's prudent behavior.

Peter Robinson: Okay, but my point there is that the President of the United States sat at the Oval Office and presumably in a pool of sweat until he received word that he could relax on that subject. Isn't that a shock to the system? Rumsfeld knew what was going on. Condoleezza Rice knew what was going on. Cheney was in an undisclosed location. Why haven't these guy--let's--you know, you could name the--the people who run our defense and foreign policy establishment and they were sweating bullets.

Graham Allison: Before I wrote this book actually, I tried to sell the doctrine of three no's to Bush for the Bush doctrine. And I worked with Powell when I worked for Weinberger a long time ago in the Weinberger…

Peter Robinson: And we can stipulate that these are intelligent patriotic individuals.

Graham Allison: Very. And I talked to all the folks at the Defense Department including Rumsfeld about this and to Condi Rice who I know as an academic in previous years. I don't get it. I think--but my--my rec--my best interpretation would be the following. For whatever combination of reasons, after the war on terrorism got started and we finally destroyed the Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan…

Peter Robinson: Right.

Graham Allison: The President decided to go to Iraq.

Peter Robinson: And that blanked out all other activity.

Graham Allison: Iraq is--one of these folks said to me supped up all the oxygen from the administration so no other difficult initiative could even be considered. And I say if we had taken the energy, the focus, the determination…

Peter Robinson: Right.

Graham Allison: …the money, the military power, the diplomatic leverage--if that had been addressed to the problem of preventing nuclear terrorism; this problem would be essentially solved. And in fact, as was discovered by my colleague, Matt Bunn, that this is confirming what Scott said. In the two years after 9/11, fewer potential nuclear weapons in Russia were secured than in the two years before 9/11. So you just think this can't be the case but for whatever reason, this hasn't seized people's guts.

Scott Sagan: There's another reason I think that we haven't focused on which is the war on terrorism has made Pakistan one of our central allies.

Peter Robinson: Oh, right.

Scott Sagan: Pakistan is an essential ally in the war on terrorism…

Peter Robinson: As regards knocking out the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Scott Sagan: And helping the fight against Al Qaeda.

Peter Robinson: However?

Scott Sagan: However, with respect to nuclear weapons, Pakistan may be one of our biggest enemies, our biggest headaches, our biggest nightmares.

Peter Robinson: Last topic; to what extent can we simply buy our way to safety?

Title: Priceless?

Peter Robinson: Your three no's Graham--don't they all come down to the United States buying off a lot of the world? Isn't that really the meaning of Nunn-Lugar that we pay the Soviets to lock down their or distribute…

Graham Allison: I think money is the…

Peter Robinson: I mean, I'm not suggesting there's anything wrong with the plan…

Scott Sagan: If it was a matter of money, I would say that it would be easy. The money is the smallest part of the problem. The larger part of the problem is a President who says I'm just simply not going to let this happen and I'm going to cause to happen everything that I can, humanly, to prevent it.

Peter Robinson: How many members of congress understand the importance?

Graham Allison: I would say Senator Lugar has been absolutely giant on this topic.

Peter Robinson: John McCain?

Graham Allison: And is probably--and McCain is kind of I would say somewhat committed but I would say there's a half dozen who feel it deeply, and mostly not.

Peter Robinson: From the afterward to Tom Clancy's novel about nuclear blackmail, The Sum of All Fears, I'm quoting Clancy now: "What required billions of dollars in the 1940's is much less expensive today. The fact of the matter is that a sufficiently wealthy individual," we know that Osama bin Laden is worth some hundreds of millions of dollars, "a sufficiently wealthy individual could over a period of from five to ten years, produce a multistage thermonuclear device." I hardly even know how to pose the question but by the end of this decade, what are the chances that things will have gone wrong in this country--which is another way--let me put it more positively. What are the chances that we will have awakened to the problem sufficiently to do about it what must be done?

Graham Allison: Well what I say in the book that what I believe strongly is that if we just keep doing what we're doing, this is going to happen, may even be imminent, certainly more likely than not in the--before the decade is out. So that's--now then the question is what's the likelihood that a President and an administration and a congress and the members of congress and ordinary people say hey, this is crazy. A preventable ultimate catastrophe, the obligation is on us to prevent it. So I'm hoping that people say okay, we're going to get this in focus and we're going to act on it.

Peter Robinson: Scott?

Scott Sagan: Peter, we have two choices. One is that some day over the next decade, there'll be a nuclear explosion in an American city. And everybody will wake up--it'll be like after 9/11. They'll say how could we have let this happen? Why didn't we spend more money on loose nukes in Russia? Why didn't we secure the Pakistani and Indian nuclear arsenals? Why didn't we have better protection of our own facilities wherever that bomb came from? And then we'll all say oh, we'll do our study, we'll have an intelligence reform and we'll do the kinds of things we normally do after a disaster. That's one option. The other option is to look at the different proposals; many great ones are in Graham's good book and to say, let's take those steps now. Let's not wait for a disaster. Now there will be some who say this is all hype. This is all speculation. We don't know. And the answer is we don't know exactly what the probability is but I can guarantee one thing, it probably will go up if we don't take these steps.

Peter Robinson: Graham Allison, Scott Sagan, thank you very much.

Graham Allison: Thank you very much.

Peter Robinson: I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge, thanks for joining us.