We read constantly in the news about the anxiety that nuclear weapons might fall into the hands of terrorists. In a post 9/11 world this is a legitimate concern. Terrorists who harbor no fear of death or punishment and whose goal is to inflict the maximum casualties are not deterred by the consequences of their unleashing such a diabolical assault.
There are possibly hundreds of articles postulating what might occur should terrorists obtain nuclear weapons; how they would obtain them; and the best methods by which to prevent this. Almost every week we hear from political leaders urging the need to thwart any chance of terrorists getting a nuclear weapon or even the materials with which to make a so-called “dirty bomb.”
But the heightened, if reasonable, concern about nuclear armed terrorists lulls us into a dangerous delusion: that nuclear weapons are OK in the hands of the “good guys,” just not in the hands of the “bad guys.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
The chances of a terrorist group acquiring or producing an actual nuclear weapon, while far from impossible, are not necessarily high. The level of skill required and the access to the necessary materials and technology make it a challenging assignment. Nevertheless, we cannot and should not rule it out. More likely is that terrorists could construct a traditional bomb that would, when detonated, disperse fissile materials. While not as deadly as the effect of a nuclear weapon, the consequences would still be widespread and catastrophic.
However, what should be of more immediate concern is that there are still at least 26,000 nuclear weapons in the world today. Most of these are in the possession of the United States and Russia. The Cold War may be over but this should not give us cause for comfort. At least 2,000 of the U.S. and Russian weapons remain on what is known as “hair-trigger alert.” This means a nuclear missile could be launched within minutes, would take only 15 minutes to reach its target and cannot be recalled. In such an event, the leader of the target country would have to make an almost instant decision about whether or not to retaliate.
The prospect of a deliberate launch may seem remote in today’s global political climate. But what of an accidental one? Launch systems are aging and degrading, especially in Russia. A computer failure or even human error might accidentally cause the annihilation of millions of people. Yet nothing is done to take these weapons off alert. Why are we willing to rely on luck when faced with such an unthinkable outcome? Why do we persist in our focus only on terrorists while ignoring this potential holocaust that would emanate from our own back yards?
One error might even compound another. In the now infamous January 25, 1995 incident, the Norwegians launched a satellite that registered on Russian radar as a missile, believed to be from a U.S. submarine. This left then Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, with less than five minutes to decide whether to launch a retaliatory strike. Since we are here to re-tell this story, we know that he did not.
The non-use of nuclear weapons relies on human rationality, on the rationality of individuals and of governments. This is a flimsy basis on which to place the survival of the planet. There were certainly concerns about Yeltsin’s sobriety in 1995. Today, India and Pakistan both possess 50-100 nuclear weapons. Are we to depend on the continued rationality of their leaders not to use these against each other?
If we are to prevent both the acquisition of nuclear weapons by terrorists and their use – accidental or deliberate – by governments – then there are a number of steps that should be taken immediately.
First, the nuclear weapons states must fulfill the terms of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) they signed and begin to dismantle and eliminate their nuclear weapons arsenals.
Second, nuclear materials around the globe must be effectively secured, then also eliminated.
Third, the “unofficial” nuclear weapons countries – India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea – should become official and sign the NPT. (North Korea, formerly a signatory, withdrew from the NPT as soon as it made the transition from a civilian to military nuclear program, exposing a key weakness in the treaty.)
Fourth, we must cease the disingenuous policy of offering nuclear power programs to countries that disavow nuclear weapons development. This simply places the technology, materials and know-how back into the hands of governments that could easily divert their use to nuclear weapons. Indeed, any expansion of nuclear power, including to non-signatories of the NPT, further increases the chances of more countries developing nuclear weapons. Civilian nuclear expansion also increases the likelihood that terrorists could acquire fissile materials with which to make an actual, or crude, nuclear weapon.
Finally, we must end the hypocrisy that we can possess nuclear weapons while others – whether governments, rogues states or just plain rogues – must not. We ourselves are the greatest rogues for perpetuating their existence and the illusion of “prestige” they are supposed to bestow on anyone who possesses them. We must understand that nuclear weapons are unsafe in any hands and lead by example in renouncing them both verifiably and permanently.