Friday, September 24, 2010

Lose Nukes

Loose Nukes - Were terrorists to detonate a 10-kiloton nuclear device near New York City's Empire State Building, everything within a third-mile radius would be utterly destroyed; anyone within 3/4 of a mile would almost certainly be exposed to fatal radiation levels; damage to buildings would be extensive; a large swath of Manhattan from river-to-river would be ravaged. Obviously, if terrorists had access to the kind of explosive power, that devastated Hiroshima (13 kilotons) or Nagasaki (21 kilotons) much of metropolitan New York would be obliterated.

Representatives of over 40 countries, including Israel, have been meeting yesterday and today in Washington under the auspices of the Obama administration at the first-ever Nuclear Security Summit. The administration's goal is to gain public (and private) commitments on a "work plan" to be implemented within four years committing countries to keep nuclear material out of the hands of terrorist groups, "combat nuclear smuggling and deter, detect, and disrupt attempts at nuclear terrorism."
The US government says terrorist groups have persistently sought the components of nuclear weapons. Experts agree that the hardest part about making a bomb is securing the nuclear material.
In 2007, for instance, unknown attackers sought unsuccessfully to penetrate a South African facility where enough enriched uranium was stored to build 12 atomic weapons, according to The New York Times. Approximately, 35 pounds of uranium-235 (about the size of a grapefruit) or nine pounds of plutonium-239 is enough to make a working nuclear bomb, according to political scientist Graham Allison. An estimated 4.6 million pounds of nuclear material is dispersed in 40 countries.

Unfortunately, Egypt and Turkey are set to exploit the nuclear terrorism meeting to criticize Israel's reputed nuclear weapons capability. Faced with the prospect that his attendance would be used to sidetrack the conference, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu opted to stay home and send Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, whose responsibilities include intelligence and atomic affairs, to head the Israeli delegation. In the words of US National Security Adviser James Jones: “The Israelis did not want to be a catalyst for changing the theme of the summit."
In any event, Israel will not be mentioned in the final communiqué being crafted by the administration. Moreover, the parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) will meet next month at UN Headquarters in New York where Arab states can be expected to claim that it is politically untenable for them to confront the real and present danger of a nuclear-armed Iran without debating Israel's policy of nuclear ambiguity.

Of course, the menace of nuclear terrorism is linked solidly to Islamist extremism. A.Q. Khan, Pakistan's top nuclear scientist -- and an array of his associates -- provided nuclear knowhow to North Korea, Libya and Iran. For its part, Teheran maintains a murky relationship with al-Qaeda and open ties with Hizbullah and Hamas. These organizations have shown no compunctions about engaging in anti-civilian warfare. Worse, it is doubtful whether the Cold War strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction would deter atomic suicide bombers who have no national allegiances. That may explain why the US president calls a nuclear weapon in the hands of a terrorist organization the biggest threat to the Western world.

-- April 2010

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