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Experts sober on nuclear risks

Growing appreciation of dangers has not been accompanied by action.

A boy looks at a huge photograph showing Hiroshima city after the 1945 atomic bombing, at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, Japan Aug. 6, 2007. Japan marked the 62nd anniversary of Hiroshima's atomic bombing with a solemn ceremony as the city's mayor criticized the U.S. for refusing to give up its nuclear weapons program. (Toru Hanai/Reuters)

The eyebrows of some were burned off and skin hung from their faces and hands. Others, because of pain, held their arms up as if carrying something in both hands. Some were vomiting as they walked. Many were naked or in shreds of clothing. On some undressed bodies, the burns had made patterns of undershirt straps and suspenders and, on the skin of some women (since white repelled the heat from the bomb and dark clothes absorbed it and conducted it to the skin) the shapes of flowers they had had on their kimonos. — John Hersey, “Hiroshima.”

WASHINGTON — It will be 64 years, in August, since that sunny morning when the Enola Gay dropped a small and crude atomic device, the “Little Boy,” on Hiroshima. A hundred thousand people, almost all civilians, died. The horror of that day, and the one that followed at Nagasaki, left a searing impression on humanity, even against the backdrop of the savagery that was World War II.

If the human race is fortunate — for we know it is not wise — the world will make it to 2045 without London, or New York, or Tehran, or Mumbai, or Tel Aviv, or Beijing suffering the fate of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The odds for such a celebration were getting better, as the United States and Russia (which together have 95 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons) spent much of the past two decades reducing their arsenals. But now the day has come, of which we were warned, in which the prospect of losing a city to atomic flames is again increasingly likely.

In the last few weeks, Iran has reaffirmed its intention to develop a nuclear capability. North Korea tested a nuclear device last week, and test-fired ballistic missiles, and U.S. and South Korean armed forces were put on high alert. The nuclear-armed Pakistani state, meanwhile, continued with its war against Taliban extremists.

The actions of these nations alarm their neighbors, many of whom — Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to name a few — have the economic and technological resources to become nuclear powers themselves. “There is concern that we may be reaching a so-called nuclear tipping point,” said Charles Ferguson, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

And if the number of nuclear-armed states increases — to potentially as many as 30 or 40 nations — so will the likelihood that terrorists could acquire a nuclear weapon, or the enriched uranium needed to build such a device.

“Nuclear terrorism is a very serious threat,” said former Defense Secretary William Perry, at a Council on Foreign Relations forum Thursday. “It is the most likely way a nuclear bomb will end up being detonated in one of our cities.”

Former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, sitting next to Perry, agreed. “We have been very lucky,” he said. With more and more nuclear-armed regimes “you have a tremendous danger of terrorists getting hold of fissile material, and then making a bomb is relatively easy.”

How likely? How lucky? How easy?

Last December, a commission of terrorism and weapons experts appointed by Congress and chaired by former Sen. Bob Graham completed the latest U.S. government report on the dangers posed by terrorists. If current trends continue, “it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013,” it concluded.

Though the commission found that terrorists were somewhat more likely to employ a biological, rather than nuclear, WMD in the next five years, it warned that the risks of nuclear terrorism were growing, not receding. And that was before the events of this spring.

“The number of states that are armed with nuclear weapons or are seeking to develop them is increasing,” the panel reported. “Terrorist organizations are intent on acquiring nuclear weapons or the material and expertise needed to build them. Trafficking in nuclear materials and technology is a serious, relentless and multidimensional problem.”