5 Myths About All Those Nukes Out There

By Michael Krepon
Sunday, March 1, 2009

Last week's news that North Korea plans to test a ballistic missile that could reach Alaska gave doomsayers more grounds for gloom. But amid the fear about nuclear attacks by terrorists or leaders such as Kim Jong Il, let's not forget that the United States has managed to protect itself from such a catastrophe not only since 9/11, but since the birth of the bomb in 1945. That record could end tomorrow, and we have a lot of work to do to stay safe. But fear-mongering -- such as Dick Cheney's warning last month about the "high probability" of terrorists attempting a nuclear or biological attack -- can lead to costly mistakes. We don't need to scare ourselves silly to guard against the worst.

1.The threat of a nuclear attack is high and growing.

We've actually survived much more harrowing times. In 1962 there was the Cuban missile crisis, the worst two weeks of the Cold War. And how about the decade-long free fall that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union? During its final days, the U.S.S.R. possessed 30,000 nuclear warheads and enough highly enriched uranium and plutonium for about 64,000 more. Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev were jockeying for control over nuclear launch codes, and many experts worried that the military chain of command would splinter. Then, after the Soviet Union fell apart, thousands of weapons suddenly belonged to fragile states such as Ukraine and Kazakhstan. American officials wisely brokered the return of the nuclear weapons to Russia, where they were locked down. Stranded Soviet missiles and bombers were also returned for dismantling.

2. Sooner or later, a mushroom cloud will burst over an American city.

Fortunately, the darkest nuclear nightmares are also the least likely to occur. During the Cold War, many Americans lived in fear of a bolt-out-of-the-blue Soviet missile attack; today our anxieties center on nuclear terrorism. Yet since 9/11, not a single person has died in an act of nuclear terrorism, while 57,000 have been killed and 99,000 injured in a total of 36,000 terrorist attacks involving explosives, firearms and grenades.

Terrorists have had a hard time getting their hands on nuclear weapons. Although governments and enterprising freelancers have sold missiles and centrifuges, there is no reliable evidence that they have auctioned off nuclear weapons to wild men they can't control. More good news: It would be very hard for a terrorist group to build a nuclear weapon on its own without being discovered in the process. Terrorists could acquire enough nuclear material to make a dirty bomb, which would use conventional explosives to spew radioactive material, but they could actually do much more damage with automatic weapons.

3. Rogue middlemen such as A.Q. Khan are the villains of nuclear proliferation.

Recently freed after five years under house arrest, this Pakistani scientist deserves a special place in the proliferation hall of shame for selling nuclear secrets to North Korea, Iran and Libya. But governments, intentionally or otherwise, have done far greater damage. China helped Pakistan build an atomic bomb. India's nuclear program received an early boost from President Dwight D. Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" program and from the Canadian government, which provided a research reactor. In the 1970s, Israel and South Africa helped each other develop their nuclear capabilities. North Korea's bomb program began with a Soviet reactor. And those are just a few examples.

4. Now that Iran and North Korea have nuclear weapons programs, many of their neighbors will pursue the bomb as well.

Such worst-case proliferation scenarios haven't happened in the past and are unlikely to roll out in the future. During the Cold War, the two superpowers curbed the spread of nuclear weapons technology by extending defensive "umbrellas" over their allies. Over time, the rules of nuclear commerce were tightened, and the Non-Proliferation Treaty became almost universally accepted. Most of the countries threatened today by Iran and North Korea are friends of the United States, which can use diplomacy, containment, deterrence and, as a last resort, conventional military capabilities against Iranian nuclear facilities.

There is one nuclear cascade underway -- but not in the regions surrounding Iran and North Korea. Stockpiles are growing fastest in China, India and Pakistan. All three countries are flight-testing new ballistic and cruise missiles. Pakistan is building not one, but two additional plutonium production reactors to compete with India.

5. The threat of ballistic missile attacks on the United States is growing.

Wrong again. While the threat of short- and medium-range missile attacks on our allies and forward-deployed troops is growing, the danger of transoceanic missile attacks on U.S. soil has decreased markedly. Last year, with U.S. assistance, Russia dismantled 82 ocean-spanning missiles, bringing the total number of missiles sent to scrap heaps since 1992 to 1,377. China is now estimated to have fewer than 30 ocean-spanning missiles (though this number will rise). Overall, the long-range missile threat to the United States has decreased by two-thirds over the past two decades, thanks to treaties negotiated by Yeltsin and George H.W. Bush.

Still, there are far too many missiles in U.S. and Russian arsenals on hair-trigger alert. There's also the problem of North Korea's upcoming launch. If it succeeds -- unlike the last test in 2006, which ended two minutes into flight-- then the doomsayers will have something more to worry about.


Michael Krepon is a co-founder of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a visiting lecturer at the University of Virginia and author of "Better Safe than Sorry: The Ironies of Living with the Bomb."

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