have a new favorite dinner-party game. I call it, Mention Nuclear Terrorism.
The rules are simple: while sitting around a table with a group of people,
say “nuclear terrorism.” No complete sentence is required; you can even whisper
the words under your breath. Like the library scene in Attack of the Killer
Tomatoes, the phrase will trigger a flurry of exits. Once the room is cleared,
you’re free to devour whatever is left on everyone’s plates. Trust me, I've
gained 15 pounds in the last two months. It works every time.
hard to blame people for avoiding the subject. There's not much you can do
about it, and a mushroom fireball above Midtown Manhattan isn't an image you
want in your head as you try to fall asleep. But maintaining some kind of
sustained discussion would have its upsides. Enough buzz could trigger an
exodus to less densely populated parts of the country, engendering a welcome
slide in rents. And we'd likely see the return of terror-sex.
the biggest benefit would simply be taking our future at least partly into
our own hands, instead of pretending that smart and patriotic people along
the Potomac have things under control. We last saw a burst of this attitude
in February 2003, when hundreds of thousands marched through the city against
the Iraq war, a criminal adventure that took precious resources away from
the search for al Qaeda, and which even the Bush administration admitted heightened
the risk of domestic terrorism.
then, the threat of nuclear terrorism has been allowed to grow with little
attention paid by the public and local pols, most of whom, mayor Bloomberg
in particular, don't seem to understand what's at stake.
Yorkers weren't always so averse to confronting nuclear threats. Fifty years
ago, mass protests forced the scrapping of mandatory citywide air-raid drills,
once people figured out they were more about scaring the shit out of them
than surviving WWIII. More famously, in 1982 up to one million people gathered
in Central Park to protest the arms race and Reagan brinkmanship. It stands
as the largest gathering in city history.
today? If disarmament activists managed to get more than a few dozen people
together on the Great Lawn, Parks Commish Adrian Benepe would throw down his
trowel and personally lead the riot squad charge, double-fisting night-sticks
and screaming about how much time and money has gone into restoring the grass.
that's assuming you could get more than a few dozen people to mobilize around
nuclear issues. Considering the millions of yawns that greeted the opening
and closing of last month's failed U.N. conference on the Non-Proliferation
Treaty, Benepe needn't worry about his precious tulips. Though we still sit
atop the short list of cities most likely to suffer the realization of al
Qaeda's avowed goal of an American Hiroshima, New Yorkers can seem as uninterested
as the rest of the country when it comes to the nuclear terror clock and the
policies that determine the placement of its minute hand.
Nebraska can afford to forget that the world is awash in poorly guarded stocks
of highly enriched uranium (HEU). New York City cannot.
was widely reported in the weeks and months after 9/11, it takes only around
20 kilos of HEU to make a bomb big enough to flatten most of downtown. The
technical hurdles to building a functional nuclear device tend to get overstated
in media reports, where journalists like to stress the higher likelihood of
a dirty bomb attack, but it's pretty easy.
"gun-style" A-bomb basically requires slamming one grapefruit-size
slab of HEU into another at high speed, propelled by a conventional charge.
The entire mechanism can be fit into a medium-size suitcase and assembled
in a studio apartment. The tallest hurdle for the nuclear terrorist—the only
hurdle, really—is not constructing the bomb, but acquiring the raw material.
for motive, al Qaeda has promised to carry out a nuclear attack and has been
searching for weapons-grade material since the early 90s. Bin Laden has always
claimed that 9/11 would be followed by a much bigger bang, one that will bring
the U.S. to its knees. (Does that make NYC or D.C. the balls?) No one in intelligence
agencies anywhere actually believes that the quiet on the American front reflects
the effectiveness of Bush's war on terror; it simply confirms the patience
of al Qaeda and the group's commitment to making sure the sequel to 9/11 is
worth the wait.
and after the 2004 elections, Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al Zawahiri
issued "final chance" warnings to Americans that some watchers have
interpreted as an Islamic gesture made in order to justify the future use
of weapons of mass destruction. (Al Qaeda was criticized by some radical clerics
for not issuing such a warning before 9/11.) As for which kind of weapons
might be used, two al Qaeda-linked militants captured by German intelligence
in January were recorded discussing locations at which uranium could be acquired.
While it's nice to know this particular cell was still looking, they weren't
the first to seek such a purchase, and they won't be the last.
their first debate last fall, George Bush and John Kerry both claimed to understand
the severity of all this. But the second Bush administration, after repeatedly
conjuring up mushroom clouds to justify its policies and terrify rural Ohioan
voters, has failed to deliver on its rhetoric. In the four years since 9/11,
roughly the same amount of weapons grade material has been secured at Russia's
porous supply depots as was secured in the four years before 9/11.
Looking ahead, only one-quarter of one percent of the 2006 Pentagon budget
is slated for programs to secure the rest of it—a fraction of that slated
for the ongoing missile defense fiasco and other juicy but useless defense-sector
gravy trains. The Dept. of Homeland Security, meanwhile, is paying $250,000
a pop for radiation detection systems that can't tell the difference between
uranium and low-level radiation emitted by everyday products like cat litter.
you put Los Alamos Laboratories at Long Beach, you could detect [nuclear materials
entering port]," says Tom Cochran, head of the nuclear division at the
Natural Resources Defense Council. "Because of the fact that you can't
really detect uranium readily or reliably, you ought to have a very high priority
on rounding it up and eliminating it, particularly [its] commercial uses."
nuke-watchers agree. The good news is that they believe securing the world's
existing supply of HEU is doable, since it's scattered around the world at
hundreds of locations, not thousands. With a war-footing level of attention,
resources and cooperation between the nuclear powers—specifically the U.S.
and Russia—experts believe the world's stockpiles can be accounted for and
secured in the next few years, in time to greatly reduce, if not eliminate,
the risk of weapons-grade material falling into terrorist hands. The price
tag put on the entire project by Harvard Univerisity's Graham Allison is $10
billion, matched by an equal amount of political capital and energy on the
part of every G8 government.
outside the Bush administration, however, believe securing the world's production
and traffic in nuclear materials is possible without fundamental changes in
America's foreign policy and the way it organizes its defenses. To paraphrase
U.N. Atomic Energy chief Mohamed ElBaradei, it's hard to lecture on the dangers
of smoking while French inhaling a menthol.
have been several important missed opportunities caused by Bush policies,"
says Mathew Bunn of Harvard University's Belfer Center, which closely monitors
the twin threats of proliferation and loose material.
U.S. is walking away from its commitments that are crucial to strengthen.
If we want other countries to accept constraints, we're going to have to accept
recently co-authored the new installment of an annual report called "Securing
the Bomb." Now in its fourth year, the report was commissioned by the
Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), an organization co-chaired by former senator
Sam Nunn and funded by Ted Turner. At the moment, Nunn, who has devoted his
life to the issue since 1989, is struggling to maintain a guarded optimism.
are in a race between cooperation and catastrophe," the former senator
told a Tokyo audience last week. "And right now the threat is outpacing
adequate response, argues Nunn, would involve the nuclear powers' setting
an ambitious timetable for securing all nuclear material storage facilities,
as well as new stringent and transparent international standards for doing
do; devaluing nuclear weapons in their own military postures; strengthening
the Test-Ban Treaty with renewed U.S. support; creating a new international
regime for the production and distribution of nuclear fuel for peaceful purposes;
and crafting a creative new strategy of "cooked carrots and sharp sticks"
to knock North Korea and Iran off the nuclear path. All of this, he says,
must be done with urgency.
is an imposing list, and it gets wonky fast. It also doesn't lend itself easily
to public participation. But Nunn strongly believes the public has a crucial
role. Last month his organization released a straight-to-video nuclear-terror
docudrama called Last Best Chance, starring Fred Thompson as President.
It won't have an impact anywhere near that of 1983's The Day After,
which jolted the nation and bolstered the Freeze movement when broadcast primetime
on ABC, but it's a noble attempt to encourage public demand for swifter action.
In the last few weeks alone, more than 30,000 people have ordered free DVD
copies from lastbestchance.com.
any national resurgence of interest in nuclear issues, New Yorkers should
be out in front. Last month Bloomberg signed on to a mayoral climate change
initiative started by Seattle mayor Greg Nickels. Why shouldn't New York's
mayor lead the charge in setting up a similar coalition built around the threat
of nuclear terrorism? Why aren't the city's politicians expressing outraged
opposition to policies that fail to adequately confront the danger?
politics may be local, but the definition of local has changed. What happens
at a storage facility in Siberia is as important to New York as what gets
built on the Hudson Railyards. Because there's no point in developing waterfronts,
building Freedom Towers or winning the Olympics if a handheld nuclear bomb
can come through the Holland Tunnel one drizzly afternoon and take it all