This is part of IEEE Spectrum's special report: What's Wrong—What's Next: 2003 Technology Forecast & Review.
We may no longer feel like we're living on the knife edge of 9/11. But perhaps we should. In terms of radiological, nuclear, and biological attacks, we're still as vulnerable as ever, as IEEE Spectrum's senior associate editor Jean Kumagai learned in a recent interview with Richard L. Garwin. A longtime advisor to the U.S. government on matters of national security, Garwin is also a respected public critic of technology and technology policy, including, most recently, efforts to contain biological and nuclear terrorism. An IEEE Senior Member, Garwin is the Philip D. Reed Senior Fellow for Science and Technology at the Council on Foreign Relations (New York City) and an IBM Fellow Emeritus at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center (Yorktown Heights, N.Y.).
Is the public safer now than we were before 9/11 in terms of nuclear terrorism?
No, we are not safer now. In fact, the Hart-Rudman Commission's Report of January 2001 on U.S. national security has been supplemented by a more recent report with a provocative and accurate title, America—Still Unprepared, Still in Danger. Despite the politically attractive formation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the more general awareness of the threat, very little has been done, on the ground, to prevent such attacks.
What is the No. 1 threat we face today in terms of nuclear security? And what will it take to minimize this threat?
Actually, there are three threats of comparable importance but different character. The first is the traditional threat of an all-out Russian nuclear strike on the United States, resulting in the total devastation of the United States (and Russia) and the deaths of hundreds of millions of innocent bystanders in the rest of the world. The difference from the bad old days is that it would happen this time by accident, inadvertence, or unauthorized launch. It would happen because Russia takes into account not U.S. intentions but U.S. capabilities, as does the U.S. military with other potential threats. And because only one or two Russian nuclear-armed submarines are at sea at any one time (and Russia doubts the survivability of these submarines), Russia is poised to launch a nuclear strike on the United States with its vulnerable silo-based ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles], as well as from its submarines dockside in Russia.
In addition, Russian early-warning satellites and other means of detecting attacks have degraded substantially over the last decade, and it is possible (although not likely) that such a deterrent capability would result in an inadvertent launch.
But because the United States has a secure second strike capability against Russia, we can quite readily eliminate the threat of inadvertent launch. We can do this by explicitly putting almost all our strategic nuclear strike capability on deferred launch—known as "de-alerting." We can also place silo-cover monitors on our ICBM silos, reporting to Russia once per minute to show that the covers have not been moved. Such cooperative threat reduction would extend the decade-long activities initiated by Senators Richard Lugar and Samuel Nunn to reduce excess Russian nuclear weapon materials.
The second threat is that of nuclear terrorism. This would involve a nuclear weapon stolen, probably from Russia (or, for that matter, Pakistan), and provided to a terrorist organization. The greatest danger is the smuggling of such a nuclear weapon (or an improvised nuclear weapon) in a cargo container or light aircraft, which could land quite readily without interception in the United States. Transporting such a nuclear warhead in a car or van to a densely populated area such as Manhattan and detonating it on a workday could ensure 100 000 to 300 000 deaths from blast, fire, and local fallout. The same sort of damage could be produced by detonating a nuclear weapon in the harbor at New York, Boston, Philadelphia, or a number of other locations.
To be sure, deploying stolen nuclear weapons requires time and talent to bypass their "use control" mechanisms. But there is also the possibility of improvised nuclear explosives based on highly enriched uranium (HEU), again probably obtained from Russia. Some 60 kg of HEU would be required, but the weapon could be fabricated in a basement or office, and would predictably yield 10-20 kilotons of explosive yield (compared with 0.002 kilotons for a large conventional truck bomb). This, too, would kill 100 000 to 300 000 people.
The solution to this second threat is to take far more seriously the consolidation and blending down of HEU in Russia and elsewhere. The existing 20-year U.S. program for buying 500 tons of excess Russian HEU should be augmented with a program to blend down within the next year not only those 500 tons but the remaining 700 tons of excess weapon HEU, to 19.9 percent uranium 235. This blending down would virtually eliminate the material's possible use in a weapon and could be done far more rapidly than the current plan of blending all the way to 4.4 percent U-235, the mix needed for use in nuclear reactor fuel.
The initial blend to 19.9 percent would in no way restrict the eventual use of the material in breeder reactors or conventional light-water reactors, and should appeal to Russia, provided the money goes to those who are doing the work and not to the central government. However, the program would require an initial provision of capital from the G-7 nations, to be paid back by eventual sales and further blending down of the 19.9 percent to the ultimate 4.4 percent.
The third nuclear security threat lies in conventional attack on the 103 operating nuclear power reactors in the United States (or their spent fuel storage pools). As stated in the U.S. National Academies' 2002 report Making the Nation Safer, a meltdown could occur through either sabotage or attack by a light aircraft loaded with explosives. Such a meltdown would condemn about 10 000 people to death by cancer, and it would have disastrous consequences for the nuclear power sector and the overall economy, because 20 percent of U.S. electrical power comes from nuclear reactors. Greater attention to protecting these reactors (including, perhaps, close-in air defenses) could help reduce that threat.