The Nuclear Security Summit is the largest gathering of heads of state in Washington since world leaders assembled to create the United Nations more than 60 years ago. While that summit focused on setting up an international system to prevent another catastrophic conflict, this week’s gathering is similarly intended to prevent another even more catastrophic terror attack.
Yet most don’t really seem to get what all the hubbub is about. Much of this is because of over the last decade rarely been put on the American public’s or the international communities’ radar. Despite saying during the 2004 Presidential debate that nuclear terror was the gravest threat, the Bush administration placed little emphasis on these issues and failed to lead an adequate global effort to confront them. As Gareth Evans, former Australian Foreign Minister and co-chair of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation, noted at an NGO conference today on nuclear security, there has been a “decade of international sleepwalking on these issues.”
But this is about combating the most serious national security threat in the post-Cold War: the growing danger of a terrorist blowing up a major global city. Some dismiss the danger, but the fact is that nuclear materials around the world are often poorly guarded and secured. There have been multiple cases of theft and we know that well-funded terror groups like Al Qaeda are after nuclear materials. Once nuclear materials are acquired, these can be easily shipped to the US or Europe in shipping containers –spotty and limited screening makes detection unlikely. And once in the target country a crude device can be constructed to build a nuclear bomb that doesn’t require all that much expertise.
This is why many experts talk about a nuclear terror attack in terms of “when” not “if”. Former Ambassador Robert Gallucci speaking at the NGO summit noted that while its not easy, “It is possible, plausible, and over time probable” that a well funded terrorist could build a useable nuclear device.
But nuclear terrorism has also been called the “ultimate preventable catastrophe,” since a terror group is going to have to either buy or steal existing nuclear materials or a weapon. The way to prevent this then is to make sure all this stuff is locked down.