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The Threat of a Nuclear War or Attack
I’ve noted in the past that I have been a contributor to the organization Nuclear Threat Initiative, co-chaired by Ted Turner and former Senator Sam Nunn. It is a most worthy endeavor, to say the least. Following is a bit from their recently released annual report.
A single nuclear attack anywhere would be catastrophic for the world. The loss of life, the rise in fear and the loss of confidence could result in unpredictable consequences, including a severe and prolonged global depression. And that’s one attack. The first attack may make even the threat of a second or a third destabilizing beyond measure.
Ominously, the chances of a nuclear attack are increasing, not decreasing – and it could come from any one of three directions: 1) A terrorist nuclear attack launched against a major city, such as Moscow, London, New York, Washington or Delhi, designed to trigger maximum chaos; 2) A nuclear exchange between nuclear weapons states such as India and Pakistan; or 3) An accidental or unauthorized launch from any nuclear weapons state – made more likely as nations move toward the capability to launch weapons in a matter of minutes.
Each one of these scenarios is plausible, but there are steps we can take to reduce these dangers.
Terrorists are seeking nuclear weapons, and there can be little doubt that if they acquire a weapon, they will use it (or threaten to use it). Their chances of acquiring a weapon increase with every new facility that starts enriching uranium or separating plutonium, every new country that builds nuclear weapons and with every nuclear facility that has poorly secured weapons materials.
Highly enriched uranium and plutonium are the raw materials of nuclear terrorism. Right now, there are nuclear weapons materials spread across approximately 40 countries. At the current pace, it will be several decades before this material is adequately secured or eliminated.
Even under tight security, nuclear material is at risk. In November of 2007, four gunmen broke into the Pelindaba nuclear facility in South Africa, deactivated several layers of security and broke into the emergency control center, where they shot a guard. Fortunately, the guard was able to trigger an alarm, and the intruders fled. But what would have happened if the intruders had gained access to the highly enriched uranium? The facility has enough weapons-usable uranium to make 25 nuclear bombs.
The availability of highly enriched uranium is a serious threat to international security – and so, therefore, is the ability to produce enriched uranium. Today, the number of enrichment facilities worldwide is increasing. A number of countries are considering developing the capacity to enrich uranium to use as fuel for nuclear power, but the ability to enrich uranium also gives them the capacity to produce highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapons program if they chose to do so.
At the same time, the number of nuclear weapons states is increasing – with North Korea developing a weapon and Iran moving closer. Others may soon follow. A world with 12 or 20 nuclear weapons states will be immeasurably more dangerous than today’s world.
In addition, the United States and Russia continue to deploy thousands of nuclear weapons on ballistic missiles that can be launched immediately and hit their targets in less than 30 minutes. Russia’s erosion of conventional military capability has led it to increase its dependency on nuclear weapons, including tactical ‘battlefield nuclear weapons.’ And now Russia has declared – as NATO did during the Cold War – that it may use nuclear weapons even if not first attacked with nuclear weapons.
While the overall risk of war is down, more than 17 years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, we continue to live with a level of risk of an accidental, mistaken, or unauthorized nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia that is not much lower – and may actually be higher – than existed during the Cold War.
There are several causes: budget problems and an erosion in non-nuclear forces in Russia have led the Russian military to increase its reliance on nuclear weapons; a perceived tilt in the U.S. and Russian strategic forces in favor of the U.S. may make Russia more likely to launch upon warning of an attack, without waiting to see if the warning is accurate; and the Russian early warning system is degraded and more likely to give a false warning of incoming missiles.
The U.S. has a strong security interest in improving Russian early warning capabilities. The fact that the Russian military today may not be able to provide its leaders with accurate information relating to the possible launch of a ballistic missile should concern us all, as it raises the possibility of a Russian president making a fateful decision to launch what he mistakenly believes is a retaliatory nuclear strike based on a faulty warning of an attack. That America’s survival could depend on the accuracy of Russia’s early warning or command and control systems working perfectly 365 days a year is an absurd situation in today’s security circumstances.
Mistakes can and do happen – including in the U.S. military where there is evidence that attention to nuclear weapons security has diminished. In August of 2007 on North Dakota’s Minot Air Force Base, six U.S. nuclear weapons were taken out of the weapons bunker, loaded on a B-52, and flown across U.S. air space – inadvertently – without the knowledge or authorization of anyone in the Air Force. If it can happen in the United States, it can happen anywhere.
We have come to a nuclear tipping point. With no dramatic change of direction, the likelihood of a nuclear catastrophe will multiply in the next decade.
Source: nti.org…contributions can be sent either through the site or to: Nuclear Threat Initiative, 1747 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Seventh Floor, Washington, D.C. 20006