Monday, May 01, 2006

Towards Real Security from Nuclear Terrorism

Our present response to the threat of nuclear terrorism is a complete farce. And an incredibly dangerous one.

The recent brouhaha over the Dubai Ports World deal, along with all of the political posturing ignore a basic fact of physics. For the benefit of our esteemed political leadership, I will try to make this very, very simple: a nuclear bomb makes a really, really big explosion when it goes off.

What this means is that by the time any port worker--whether he’s from Dubai, or someplace Wholesome and American like Amarillo, Texas—can even see the ship a nuclear weapon is on, it is already too late. Too late for him to allow it in as part of a Nefarious Islamic Plot. Too late for him to Heroically Defend America by inspecting the container it’s in. Because, a nuclear bomb makes a really, really big explosion when it goes off.

A nuclear weapon does not need to reach the shore to destroy a major American port and cause incalculable damage to our economy and society. It need only reach the port itself, and go off before even the most vigilant Customs inspectors have a chance to find it and cut the red wire just as the timer reaches zero.

In the article linked above, Robert Pfriender offers a solution far too sensible for the political Establishment to take seriously. He proposes that offshore inspection facilities be built entirely with private funds, where every container coming to the United States will be physically opened and its contents inspected. The company (his) would earn its revenue from a small inspection fee per container. These inspection ports would be located far enough offshore that a nuclear explosion there would not seriously affect the American coast.

That this could be done at no cost to the government virtually insures Congress will not approve the plan. Pfriender would have done better to design it as a massively expensive pork-barrel project involving as many strategically chosen Congressional districts as possible. This is, after all, how we get a ‘reusable’ spacecraft that has to be virtually taken apart and rebuilt after each launch, which turns out to be far more expensive than expendable space vehicles, and a multi-million dollar high-tech fighter-jet with goodies like vectored thrust and the latest Stealth technology (the F-22) with no enemy to fight, unless the flying saucers come.

However, even Pfreinder’s proposal would not truly seal the door against nuclear terrorism. If every single shipping container coming into the United States were inspected by conscientious agents who could not be bribed or threatened, a nuclear weapon could still be smuggled into—or just close enough to—the United States on a private yacht, fishing trawler, or private airplane. Any terrorist network well-heeled enough to gain access to a nuclear warhead and the knowledge necessary to detonate it would be able to afford such a vehicle to transport it in.

Or, they could smuggle it across one of our borders, along with the millions of illegal immigrants and thousands of tons of drugs that make it across. In short: if terrorists get their hands on a nuclear weapon and the know-how to use it, they will find a way to get it into the US. It is neither possible nor desirable to create a Fortress America in which every vehicle attempting to enter the United States is boarded and searched.

What then can be done? A real program of nuclear security can be created, if it is based on a simple, practical principle: track the nuclear materials, not people and goods. In addition to avoiding the expensive, potentially totalitarian, and ultimately futile “solution” of comprehensively tracking people and goods, this approach goes to the root, focusing on the far easier task of monitoring a relatively small quantity of nuclear materials.

A Comprehensive Nuclear Security Program

A nuclear weapon detonated by terrorists in any major port would not only cause horrendous loss of life, it would cause incalculable damage to the world economy, and perhaps even to civilization itself as governments and peoples panic. The adoption of a comprehensive nuclear security program is no longer a matter of ‘national security.’ It is a matter of survival for the human race. Adoption of such a program will cost us some of our cherished illusions. Failure to adopt it could literally cost us the world.

Nuclear Warfare is in No One’s Interest

First, it must be emphasized that no one wins a nuclear war. No one. Islamic radicals might imagine that they could gain if a mushroom cloud sprouted over a major U.S. city. To disabuse themselves of this allusion, they should look at the massive carnage that has thus far resulted from the American reaction to 9-11, an event of almost infinitesimal magnitude compared to a nuclear attack.

The United States has 10,000 nuclear warheads at its disposal, and a significant portion of its politically-powerful elite who believe in an inevitable “Clash of Civilizations” between Islam and the West. Who would want to wager on the continuing existence of Mecca and Medina, or Tehran—or any major Muslim city from Algiers to Islamabad, in the wake of a nuclear attack on America?

Nor is it in the interest of the United States. We have no chance of controlling nuclear proliferation while we “modernize” our own nuclear arsenal to include new nuclear weapons designed not for deterrence but for preemptive use against non-nuclear adversaries. As long as it is our stated policy to consider the “nuclear option” as a way to deal with deeply-buried bunkers, we can only expect hostile nations to seek—and consider using—nuclear weapons of their own.

Nuclear warfare is no safer for the U.S. or the world now than it was during the Cold War. To achieve nuclear security, we must be willing to accept this fact, and impress its importance in our communications with other nations and non-state actors.

Complete, Global Accountability for Nuclear Weapons and Materials

If the United States is to have any chance of being secure from the threat of nuclear terrorism, we must seek a complete, transparent international accounting of every single nuclear weapon on Planet Earth. Yes, that means ours too, and those of friendly nations like Israel. Every nation must be able to have an equal degree of trust in the system. Every nation must be able to, in the words of Ronald Reagan, “trust, but verify.”

The credibility of the system must be such that any nation that refuses to participate, or attempts to hide any aspect of its nuclear capability will find itself completely isolated, and at the top of the “suspect list” should a nuclear terror incident take place. The system must be created in such a way that even “rogue” states like North Korea find it in their interests to join and participate.

In proposing such a system, the United States will have to take significant actions to establish its own credibility and seriousness:

· Repudiate the concept of “bunker buster” nukes.

· End the use of Depleted Uranium (DU) weaponry.

· Establish, as a Federal statute, a no-first strike policy.

· Provide a complete, comprehensive accounting of its own nuclear arsenal and other WMD to the nations of the world.

· End the policy of preemptive war based on claims of telepathy and precognition, i.e. in “response” to another nation’s alleged “intent” to build or use WMD.

· Initiate a unilateral program of nuclear disarmament aimed at cutting our nuclear arsenal in half, in advance of further disarmament negotiations with other nations.

· Require Israel to disclose the nature and extent of its nuclear arsenal as a condition of continued U.S. aid and support.

From this moral high ground, the U.S. will be in a position to seek the international cooperation necessary to make global nuclear security possible. At present and for the foreseeable future, the only entity on Earth capable of creating nuclear weapons is a State. The only way a terrorist will be able to acquire a nuclear weapon, is from a State. Therefore, every State must be required to provide a full accounting of its nuclear arsenal, including regular and surprise on-site inspections and remote camera monitoring of every nuclear weapon.

Furthermore, the extraction, refining, and enrichment of nuclear materials must likewise be subject to comprehensive, internationally transparent monitoring.

Global Nuclear Disarmament

Since it is easier to monitor and guard, say, 200 nuclear weapons than 10,000, it is in the interest of every nation to foster and participate in a global nuclear disarmament initiative. This initiative will be designed to limit the arsenals of the major nuclear powers to a small number still sufficient for mutual deterrence (say, one or two hundred warheads each) and the smaller nuclear powers such as North Korea, Pakistan, and Israel to a lesser number such as ten warheads each.

Gaining universal agreement for such a program will not be easy. This is why it is of the utmost importance for the United States to acquire the moral high ground and credibility needed to pressure holdout nations with widespread international backing.

Swords to Plowshares

As a further incentive to nuclear disarmament, the United States should foster large-scale development of peaceful uses for nuclear energy. As the world nears (if it has not already reached) Peak Oil, new sources of energy will be needed to meet rising global energy demand. Industrial-scale facilities for “impoverishing” weapons-grade nuclear material (transforming it into fuel-grade material unsuitable for weapons) should be constructed and put into use.

Creation of new, modern breeder-reactor nuclear power plants in the developed world, as well as in the energy-hungry, rapidly-expanding economies of India and China should be promoted. Nuclear-powered desalination plants to turn seawater into fresh water for irrigation should also be created to help increase food production in arid regions, such as Africa.

Nuclear Rocketry

Nuclear-thermal rockets generate a specific impulse twice that of chemical rockets. With this extra power, nuclear rockets can be made much more robust than chemical rockets and still offer huge advantages in power and performance. With nuclear-thermal rockets, trips to Mars and the asteroids would take weeks instead of years.

Such expanded space-exploration capability would offer not only access to the vast resources of the solar system and the ability to undertake large-scale projects such as solar power satellites and “space mirrors” designed to reduce global warming by reflecting sunlight away from Earth, it would give us the ability to divert a "dinosaur killer" asteroid away from our planet.

Furthermore, exceptionally-robust nuclear-thermal rockets could be used to propel dangerous-but-unusable nuclear waste on ballistic trajectories toward the Sun. While some may blanch at the idea of putting nuclear materials aboard a rocket, the risk of launch would be temporary. Once away from the Earth and headed for the Sun, nuclear waste would never threaten us again, ever.

If a sufficiently robust and safe nuclear-thermal rocket cannot be designed, nuclear energy could still be used to power a laser or microwave-powered ground-based launch system that would launch vehicles with no on-board nuclear power systems.

As a source of energy after Peak Oil and a key to practical human access to the Solar System, nuclear materials become a valuable resource wasted in nuclear warheads. Therefore, powerful economic and social incentives are created to reduce nuclear arsenals to the minimum necessary. For non-nuclear powers, nuclear weapons would be seen for what they really are: a wasteful and potentially dangerous folly.

Some estimates suggest that the world’s supply weapons-grade plutonium could be depleted in 50 years were it employed as a major energy source in response to Peak Oil. Adding a robust, widespread program of space exploration and settlement using nuclear-thermal rockets could accelerate this process. Which would be a Good Thing. Weapons-grade nuclear materials are a resource that should be depleted, as soon as possible.

In place of nuclear terror, the world could have a new Renaissance and Age of Exploration, and rising standards of living fueled by nuclear energy until renewable energy sources are ready to fill Earth’s energy needs. Rush Limbaugh has famously said that the only way to get rid of nuclear weapons is to use them [1]. Then let’s use them—for energy and rocket thrust, not our extermination. A future of hope for all humanity that by its very promise, could also help to “drain the swamp” of hopelessness and nihilism in which terrorist ideology breeds.


1. This is one of Limbaugh’s “Undeniable Truths of Life,” a claim on his part that (conventional) nuclear disarmament proposals are impractical. However, conventional disarmament proposals which call for destruction of nuclear weapons followed by costly and risky disposal of radioactive material, offer economic disincentives rather than the economic incentives proposed here.


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