- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 13, 2001

He was the only person making his way into the city; he met hundreds and hundreds who were fleeing, and every one of them seemed to be hurt in some way. The eyebrows of some were burned off and skin hung from their faces and hands. Others, because of pain, held their arms up as if carrying something in both hands. Some were vomiting as they walked. Many were naked or in shreds of clothing. On some undressed bodies, the burns had made patterns … Almost all had their heads bowed, looked straight ahead, were silent, and showed no expression.
John Hersey, "Hiroshima."
Does that passage horrify you? Me, too. But not everyone feels the same way. Osama bin Laden might read it as a lovely vision of New York or Washington after he has acquired and detonated an atomic bomb.
This scenario is not just a theoretical possibility. It is something that could actually happen in the next few years if we don't take every measure possible to prevent it.
Airline security is vital; combating bioterrorism is important; winning the war in Afghanistan is critical. But success in those areas will be cold comfort if the day comes when tens of thousands of Americans are consumed in a mushroom cloud. Preventing nuclear terrorism therefore ought to be the single highest priority of our government. Even today, it's not clear that it is.
Last week, President Bush said that al Qaeda is trying to obtain chemical, biological and nuclear arms. That merely echoes bin Laden, who says he has a "religious duty" to do so and has hinted he may have nuclear weapons already. If his goal is to slaughter and terrorize Americans, as he has said, he couldn't find a better way.
Americans have yet to fully grasp the depth and urgency of the peril we face. Maybe that's because, during the Cold War, we grew accustomed to the fact that we could all die in a nuclear war. But that danger was remote, because we had an answer: nuclear deterrence. Deterrence, unfortunately, looks useless against our new foes who would not leave a return address on the bomb, and who might be willing to commit suicide for their gruesome cause.
To even contemplate the risk of this sort of attack is to invite panic or despair. We can be sure there are hundreds of terrorists around the world scheming to get a doomsday device, and we know there are far too many ways they might get it.
One source is Russia, which has thousands of warheads, including some that may not be as secure as we would like. Russia also has some 500 tons of enriched uranium lying around that could be used to make bombs. A few years ago, one Russian official said dozens of small "suitcase bombs" could not be accounted for.
Russia also has thousands of pounds of fissile material, which may or may not be under ironclad control. If they could smuggle out 50 or 100 pounds of the stuff, terrorists might be able to build a bomb. Once terrorists have such a weapon, it would be almost impossible to keep them from sneaking it into the United States and setting it off.
Given all these realities, the situation may look hopeless. It isn't quite. The good news is that if bin Laden had the bomb, he would have used it already. Those suitcase nukes may never have escaped control. Even if terrorists were able to get one, it's very unlikely they would have the codes and other expertise to detonate it.
Nor is it a simple task to convert fissile material into a weapon. MIT nuclear physicist Theodore Postol says the project would require so much in the way of machinery, materials, technical support and funding that no terrorist group would be likely to manage it at least not without the active help of some government, such as Iraq. But any government that collaborated in a plan to detonate an atomic bomb on American soil would be sealing its own doom, and Saddam Hussein has shown no interest in martyrdom.
So the immediate risk is low. But a slight chance of an Earth-shattering catastrophe is too much to accept.
During World War II, we moved heaven and Earth in the Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb before Adolf Hitler could because we knew our survival hung in the balance. Today, we have to embrace a similar commitment to averting nuclear terrorism.
The questions we need to ask ourselves and our leaders, every day, are these: Are we doing everything humanly possible to prevent a nuclear holocaust on our soil? And if we are not, and if we fail, how will we ever live with ourselves?


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