Security First Forum: Continue Nuclear Cooperation

Should preventing the spread of nuclear weapons be the central organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy? David Bartoshuk, Elena Ilina and Shawn Vasquez of the Saga Foundation join the conversation, adding their response to the contributions of

Today the non-proliferation regime seems to be falling apart and the chances for a nuclear terrorist strike against the United States continue to grow. The RAND Corporation, in its report Considering the Effects of a Catastrophic Terrorist Attack, estimates that if terrorists detonated a ten kiloton nuclear bomb at the Port of Long Beach six million people would have to evacuate the Los Angeles area, tens of thousands of people would die from the blast and the early costs of the attack would exceed $1 trillion. Not only is the risk of such an attack real, but the catastrophic consequences of a successful attack demand our immediate attention.

Dr. Mueller, in the latest issue of the National Interest, argues that it is highly improbable that a terrorist group could succeed in building a small nuclear bomb due to the technical difficulties and that the incentives for terrorists to go nuclear are not strong enough. Yet, the evidence indicates that Al-Qaeda is willing and motivated to acquire the means to carry out a nuclear attack. To name just a few examples, Al-Qaeda attempted to buy nuclear materials a number of times in the early 1990's, a drawing of a crude nuclear bomb was found in Kabul, and a fatwa was issued authorizing the killing of four million Americans. Terrorist organizations are growing more sophisticated over time, both operationally and technically, and may soon be capable of building a small nuclear device.

The Saga Foundation vision is close to Dr Etzioni's statement that nuclear proliferation represents a real threat to our national security. Still, there is no need for proliferation hysteria. We need international commitment to a systematic approach that reduces risks and gives us peace of mind. The sources of the nuclear threat range from U.S. foreign policy and poverty to extremist ideologies and conflict over resources. However, there is another very practical side to the problem: poorly-secured nuclear materials and technologies, enormous stockpiles of nuclear weapons and the potential for nuclear proliferation in developing countries. This is where a consistent, international non-proliferation regime can pay dividends. The challenge is that programs such as CTR (Cooperative Threat Reduction) and the G-8 Global Partnership, which address these issues, will be terminated by 2012. In places like Ghana and Nigeria, nuclear reactors with weapons-grade materials remain poorly protected. With developing economies comes a growing interest in nuclear energy. Therefore it is critical to continue cooperative programs such as the Global Partnership and to apply the experience gained in Russia and the former Soviet republics in other countries.

Nuclear terrorism is preventable, but it must become a top priority for American leaders. The security of nuclear materials is the key to reducing this threat. We must promote international cooperation in creating safe nuclear practices and producing safe nuclear energy. In the end, this systematic approach will help protect the environment by providing alternative energy sources and keeping these materials out of the hands of terrorists.

David Bartoshuk is the president of the Saga Foundation. Elena Ilina and Shawn Vasquez serve as analysts.

How important is non-proliferation to U.S. national security? Amitai Etzioni,  Ted Galen Carpenter,  Charles D. Ferguson  and Anatol Lieven  weigh in as part of the ongoing Security First debate.