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Thwarting Terrorists: More to Be Done

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By Matthew Bunn
Wednesday, September 26, 2007; 12:00 AM

Today, Harvard's Project on Managing the Atom and the Nuclear Threat Initiative publish their annual report on security of nuclear weapons and materials around the world. The good news in " Securing the Bomb 2007" is that much progress has been made toward upgrading security for nuclear stockpiles. The bad news is that the essential ingredients of nuclear weapons exist in hundreds of buildings in more than 40 countries, and terrorists are actively trying to get a nuclear bomb or the materials to make one.

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As early as 1993, al-Qaeda attempted to buy highly enriched uranium in Sudan. Seized documents from Afghanistan detail al-Qaeda's efforts to gain nuclear materials there from 1996 to 2001; Osama bin Laden has called getting the bomb a "religious duty." In Russia, Chechen terrorist teams carried out reconnaissance at two secret nuclear weapon storage sites in 2001.

If terrorists could get enough highly enriched uranium or plutonium, it is frighteningly plausible that they could make a crude nuclear bomb, capable of incinerating the heart of any major city. Some of the multitude of buildings worldwide that hold the ingredients of nuclear weapons have excellent security -- but some have little more than a night watchman and a chain-link fence.

While this is a global threat, Russia, Pakistan and research reactors using fuel made from highly enriched uranium pose the most urgent dangers of nuclear theft. Russia has the world's largest stockpiles of nuclear weapons and the materials to make them, scattered in numerous buildings and bunkers. Security measures have improved dramatically since the early 1990s, but serious weaknesses remain, and threats are posed by outside attackers as well as pervasive insider theft.

Pakistan has a relatively small nuclear stockpile, believed to be heavily guarded -- but the country faces threats from al-Qaeda, other jihadist groups and nuclear insiders with a demonstrated willingness to sell sensitive technology.

Roughly 140 research reactors fueled by highly enriched uranium exist in dozens of countries -- some of them on university campuses -- and many have only modest security measures in place.

Nunn-Lugar cooperative threat reduction programs and related efforts are making real progress in reducing these dangers. In Russia, the most egregious security weaknesses of the 1990s have been fixed. U.S.-funded security upgrades have been completed for more than half of the Russian buildings with potential bomb material and more than half of Russia's warhead sites. The key remaining issues there are whether security improvements will be sustained after U.S. assistance phases out; whether the people at the heart of any security system will take security seriously; and whether the new levels of security are enough, given the threats Russian nuclear stockpiles face from both outsiders and insiders.

Nuclear security cooperation with Pakistan is underway, though the details are secret. Security at one nuclear site in China has been upgraded with U.S. help, and U.S.-China nuclear security discussions and training activities are continuing, but these talks have not yet led to major nuclear security upgrades. Also, despite the signing of a new U.S.-India nuclear cooperation agreement, nuclear security cooperation between the two countries has not yet begun.

The Energy Department's Global Threat Reduction Initiative has been helping HEU-fueled research reactors around the world upgrade security, has accelerated the pace of converting these reactors to low-enriched fuel that cannot be used for a nuclear bomb, and is removing the highly enriched uranium from vulnerable sites wherever possible -- the surest way to prevent bomb material from being stolen.

Yet there is still a dangerous gap between the urgency of the threat and the scope and pace of the U.S. and international response. No binding global nuclear security standards are in place. Many nuclear facilities around the world do not have security measures that could protect against demonstrated terrorist and criminal capabilities. Only about a quarter of the world's HEU-fueled research reactors have had all their highly enriched uranium removed, leaving a major gap to be closed.

We urgently need a high-priority global campaign to make sure every nuclear weapon and every significant cache of potential bomb material is locked down. This should be a key issue raised at every level with every country with stockpiles to secure or resources to help. We need to forge effective global nuclear security standards. We need stronger efforts to get countries to sustain upgraded security for the long haul, and to help those individuals who work with nuclear materials to understand that corners can never be cut on security. And we need to expand efforts to completely remove nuclear weapons and potential nuclear bomb material from as many facilities worldwide as possible. To get all this done, President Bush should appoint a senior White House official to take full-time responsibility for policing these efforts, overcoming the obstacles to progress, and keeping the issue a priority at the White House.

As President Bush has said, the nations of the world must do "everything in our power" to keep nuclear weapons and materials out of terrorist hands. We aren't there yet.

Matthew Bunn, a former adviser in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy during the Clinton administration, is a senior research associate in the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He is the author of "Securing the Bomb 2007", on which this article is based.


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