Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

Nuclear Inferno

Posted in Nuclear Proliferation by Dan on November 3, 2009

The main source of nuclear material for terrorist organizations is right in our line of sight: rogue states

Undoubtedly, the most horrific act of terrorism would involve a nuclear strike on an American city. Washington officials have been formulating defense policy on this belief since President Clinton’s administration in the 1990’s.  For years, U.S. planners have been doing everything in their power to come up with a viable long-term nuclear-defense strategy.  Crisis management and conflict resolution are two of the most effective tools in this area, both of which can be used to minimize the physical and psychological casualties associated with a nuclear attack.

Unfortunately, conflict resolution and crisis management may not be enough.  With the terrorist threat only increasing in significance, the widespread fear of a nuclear terrorist incident will only strengthen as more Americans worry about their personal safety.

Likewise, with all of the talk about “rogue states-” that unique club of countries that are both dangerous to international security and destabilizing to their respected regions- it is easy to get carried away about the state-nuclear terror connection. After all, one of the primary arguments for the U.S., Israeli and European Governments concerning Iran’s enrichment cycle is directly related to this analogy; with a nuclear-weapons capability, nations like Iran or Syria may find it useful to pass on their own nuclear technology to like-minded proxies (such as Hezbollah). In fact, for all of the bickering in the United States Congress about foreign-policy issues, the state-proxy nuclear relationship seems to be the only topic that cuts across partisan divides.

Therefore, concentrating solely on rogue states as the major source of nuclear technology for terrorist groups is an obvious exercise. But it is more than that…it is the only purveyor that the international community can pinpoint with complete confidence and accuracy.

Sure, terrorists can buy enriched uranium on the black-market, paying top-dollar to acquire some of the purist weapons-grade material science has to offer. But where would this weapons-grade material come from? Did it come from some kind of mysterious creature? How about from the soil? Of course not! It came from a legitimate nation that, for some reason or another, either decided to sell this information or get rid of it altogether.

This is why Iran and Pakistan worry me so much. One is on its way into the nuclear-club (if the United States does not do something concrete about the problem) and the other already boasts a 100-warhead arsenal.  If Pakistan was not the global home to all sorts of terrorists- and if the country’s civilian government was not already in a sorry-state of fragility and discontent- this may not be a problem. But, as we all know from recent Taliban attacks across the country, that statement is nothing but a delusional fantasy.

Likewise, I am not so convinced that states will exercise self-restraint with its nuclear resources at every possible turn. Generally, when a national economy starts going down the toilet, a state will try pretty much try anything to prevent an incoming tidal wave that will wipe out its political survival. Take North Korea, one of the poorest and most isolated countries on the face of the earth; the same country that has been selling nuclear secrets to other states for the past ten years.

Sure, Pakistan may not be as suicidal as North Korea. At least not when billions upon billions of American taxpayer dollars keep flowing in.  But, minus the growing U.S. financial safety-net, we have to wonder how responsible Pakistan would be with its own nuclear secrets.  Remember, in addition to an inefficient and depressed economy, Pakistan still has an axe to grind with India over Kashmiri territory.

-Daniel R. DePetris


7 Responses

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  1. BOREDWELL said, on November 3, 2009 at 12:28 am

    If Iran, after years of prioritizing a well-funded HEU project, is only now seeking to have it enriched abroad, how would raw uranium benefit even the most sophisticated band of terrorists? The transfer of such materiel would involve years of scrupulous planning on top of the years it would take to recruit an amenable thief or scientist charged with accessing such a valuable treasure trove. Even if it were bought on the black market, the HEU would have had to have been obtained from a state resource. Surely such a heist would leak out and the ensuing scrutiny would be immediate and intense. Even for purposes of this conjecture, given the transaction had been successful, where would the buyers store it? The logistics are mind-boggling! Even if the terrorists have the will the way remains perilous. They would, it seems to me, elect to obtain a more readily available fuel source for their bomb making. I’d monitor the internet and retailers of ingredients that could be made into chemical weapons. Wasn’t it the purchase of an unseemly number of bottles of hydrogen peroxide that resulted in the recent arrests of would-be bomb makers in Colorado and NY? Big Brother is obviously watching out.

  2. HAIRYSTEVE20 said, on November 3, 2009 at 12:28 am

    “A “gun type” warhead would require only two shaped blocks of HEU, slammed together by a focused conventional explosive, to generate a small but real fission reaction. ”

    Utter rubbish. This is simply factually incorrect. Do people involved in making American policy on non proliferation take account of the views of scientifically illiterate people like this? I hope not but I’m afraid that politicians and pundits will listen to the shrillest and most hysterical voices rather than rational scientific advice.

    Making nuclear weapons is not straightforward, if it was that easy the NRA would be lobbying for them to be on sale at your local 7-11. By all means work as hard as you can to stop Iran getting nuclear weapons but let’s work on the basis of reality. Terrorists are not going to manufacture a working nuclear device in a shed. It is impossible. Policy should be based on evidence from sober, sensible, qualified scientists not journalists with an axe to grind.

    • BIG OH said, on November 3, 2009 at 12:29 am

      hey hairstylesteve, i was intrigued by your response to this article. you may well be right about the inaccuracy of this article, but your criticisms seems more bald assertion than fair refutation. how exactly is the part about building a gun type warhead with HEU and a simple explosive ‘factually incorrect?’ the only thing that follows your bold contrarian declaration is a series of vague attacks on American legislators, pundits, and journalists.

      please clarify this for me (and any other readers of this article), as I am not a science student.


  3. ALANGER86 said, on November 3, 2009 at 12:30 am

    I suggest you read Lewis and Zimmerman’s “The Bomb in the Backyard” in FP’s Nov/Dec 2006 issue.

    Making a crude nuclear device costs a lot of money, but the information is out there. If someone wants it badly enough, it is most certainly straightforward.

  4. MAIGARI said, on November 3, 2009 at 12:31 am

    From what is avilable to the reading public a nucvlear weapon is literally very difficult to manufacture. The talk of a terrorist organisation getting their hands on one is sheer fantasy! Moreover it is not as if a nuclear weapon is like a grenade that can be delivered even by hAnd. It requires specialised delivery system to hit a target. Even the Iranians who are suspected of making underground efforts to go nuke are way way behind on that score.
    Yes as a soveriegn nation the Iranian republic is free to go for civil nuclear programme. All this hype about an arms race is simply to appease the Israeli lobby. The french started a nuclear programme with Iran and abandoned them along the way.
    The US and the West should please allow the world to have some quiet, afterall, they alongside Israel have more nukes ten times over when compared to other nations that have the nuke.
    Coventionally, the US and her allies control over seventy percent of the conventional waeponry, so what threast is Iran to them really?

  5. DES14EVA said, on November 3, 2009 at 12:31 am

    The amount of unsecure weapons that get transported from Russia is crazy the country needs to take action in stopping curropt officials from selling highly advanced military equipement to rogue states though I have not heard this equipment so far being sold to terroists or the Taliban but who nows!
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  6. JOHN K WHEELER said, on November 3, 2009 at 12:33 am

    Since the dawn of the atomic age, there is not a single example of any nation acquiring nuclear weapons by diverting uranium or plutonium from power reactor fuel.

    The challenges before us are great: prevent man-made climate change, wean ourselves off fossil fuels, become energy independent, supply reliable and plentiful energy to impoverished regions of the world, and grow American jobs at home. The United States needs to support nuclear fuel recycling as a means to expand our energy supply and reduce the need for long term by-product storage. I recently posted an article and podcast explaining nuclear fuel recycling that your readers may find informative (here: http://thisweekinnuclear.com/?p=856 )

    John Wheeler
    Producer of “This Week in Nuclear” podcast

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