In 2004, both Bush and Kerry called it the gravest threat facing the United States. This year on the campaign trail, President-elect Obama and Sen. McCain voiced their serious concerns on the issue of nuclear terrorism.
Our research Center recently produced a policy brief: “Understanding and Preventing Nuclear Terrorism.”
Here’s a few key excerpts:
Since the creation of the atomic bomb, government officials, scientists, and concerned citizens have been aware that weapons of mass destruction could fall into the hands of dangerous terrorist groups or rogue regimes. The rise of Al Qaeda and the events of September 11, however, brought the threat of nuclear terrorism into a whole new light for the United States. Suddenly, the detonation of a crude nuclear device in a major American metropolitan area no longer seemed like something out of a science fiction movie. Indeed, as President-Elect Barack Obama said during the 2008 presidential campaign, nuclear terrorism is “the gravest danger we face.”
It is not the odds but the consequences of such an attack that propel nuclear terrorism to the top of the U.S. national security agenda. A March 2003 report by Harvard University’s Project on Managing the Atom found that if a ten-kiloton nuclear weapon, approximately the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, were detonated at Manhattan’s Grand Central Station in New York, it would instantly kill over 500,000 people, injure hundreds of thousands, and cause over $1 trillion in direct damages.
If the United States and countries around the world are serious about preventing a nuclear attack by a terrorist group, efforts to contain the threat at its source need serious attention. According to the Partnership for a Secure America, the biggest problem is the lack of coordination on counter-nuclear terrorism efforts across federal agencies. Congress tried to remedy this shortcoming in 2007 with H.R. 1, the 9/11 Commission Act, which created a White House Coordinator for the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism. Unfortunately, the Bush administration chose to ignore the law and never filled the position. Failures in coordination are similarly reflected at the international level, where bilateral and multilateral engagement to prevent nuclear terrorism is equally fragmented.