Campus & Community

New Harvard report: Chilling warnings on nuclear terror

4 min read

A 10-kiloton nuclear bomb exploding at New York’s Grand Central Station is a prospect that is all-too real today and one that would kill 500,000 people and cause an estimated $1 trillion in economic damage, according to a new report from Harvard’s Project on Managing the Atom.

The report, released March 12, describes the threat from terrorist-acquired nuclear weapons and calls the danger “real and urgent.” It says that Chechen terrorists have on four occasions carried out reconnaissance of Russian nuclear weapons storage sites or transport trains. The group has close ties to the al-Qaeda terrorist network, which has been working for more than a decade to obtain nuclear weapons materials and build a working bomb.

Nuclear materials have already been stolen, according to the report. It cites the International Atomic Energy Agency, which documents 18 incidents where stolen uranium or plutonium has been seized by authorities in various countries.

The report also says that just 37 percent of potentially vulnerable Russian nuclear material has been secured by security upgrades and only one-sixth of the nation’s stockpile of highly enriched uranium – one of the materials that could be used to build a nuclear bomb – has been destroyed.

“A great deal of critically important threat reduction work has been done, but current efforts remain far too slow to win the race to keep these deadly materials out of terrorist hands,” said former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which commissioned the report. “Terrorist groups are racing to get weapons of mass destruction. We should be racing to stop them.”

The report, called “Controlling Nuclear Warheads and Materials: A Report Card and Action Plan,” evaluates current programs to secure the world’s nuclear material and weapons stockpiles. It also offers recommendations on how to lessen chances they’ll fall into the hands of terrorists who would be willing to make and use a nuclear weapon.

The Project on Managing the Atom was created in 1996 at the Kennedy School of Government’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. The report was co-authored by Senior Research Associate Matthew Bunn, Research Associate Anthony Wier, and Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy John P. Holdren.

The report praised recent efforts, including U.S.-Russian cooperation over the past decade to secure Russia’s nuclear facilities and stockpiles, and a recent $20 billion, 10-year U.S.-led initiative by G-8 nations called the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Despite those efforts, however, the report concludes that too little is being done, too slowly. The surest way to prevent a nuclear weapon being detonated in a major city is to secure the supplies of materials needed to make those weapons. Once those materials are in terrorist hands, the report said, they are very difficult to track and hard to keep out of the country.

“We do not have the luxury of time. We are in a new kind of arms race. Terrorists are racing to acquire weapons of mass destruction and we must race to stop them,” Nunn and U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, a board member of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, said in the report’s forward. “This report makes clear that we are not yet moving fast enough to block the terrorist pathway to the bomb. In virtually every category, we’re not even halfway to safety.”

The report includes many recommendations to address many facets of the problem, including organizational aspects, security concerns, smuggling interdiction, stabilized employment for nuclear scientists and other personnel, increased monitoring of and reduction of stockpiles, and ending production of materials that can be used in weapons.

The report concludes that President Bush has a historic opportunity to take effective action to increase the security around nuclear materials and to take major steps to make the world safer. It makes the Russian nuclear arsenal a high priority and recommends undertaking rapid security upgrades within the next two years, with longer-term security improvements over the next four years. It also recommends new security partnerships with key nations, such as nuclear-armed Pakistan, whose nuclear materials might be the target of terrorists.

It recommends the active involvement of the White House, concluding that with presidential involvement and backing, the kinds of security programs the report recommends can be very effective, but that they often fail without that high-level support.

“While President Bush has said that ‘we will do everything in our power’ to make sure that terrorists never use nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, there remains an enormous gap between the seriousness and the urgency of the threat and the scope and pace of U.S., Russian, and international response,” said Bunn.