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Experts sober on nuclear risks

Growing appreciation of dangers has not been accompanied by action.

The White House is acutely aware of the danger. President Obama raised the issue of proliferation on the campaign trail last fall, and took time from dealing with the economic crisis to speak in Prague about nuclear dangers. His administration is negotiating with Russia over terms for a new strategic arms reduction treaty, to replace the bilateral agreement that expires next December. And on May 19, Obama met with the four “wise men” — former Republican Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Schultz; former Democratic senator Sam Nunn and Perry — who have urged the world to embrace the goal of abolishing nuclear weapons.

“North Korea and Iran are in the process of developing nuclear weapons capacity,” Obama said afterward. “We see a country like Pakistan with a large nuclear arsenal on the other side of a long-running conflict in the subcontinent with India. Terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda are trying to seek fissile material.”

But though there is growing appreciation of the danger, it has not been accompanied by urgency and action. Reaching a new strategic arms deal with the Russians, and getting it ratified by the Senate, will be harder than it sounds, said Perry. Iran and North Korea have rebuffed American appeals and threats. Senate Republicans have told Sen. John Kerry, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, that they will continue to block approval of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty — a modest pact designed to strengthen the international non-proliferation regime.

Scowcroft finds cause for hope in the many years that have passed since 1945, and the absence in that time of a conventional war on a scale approaching that of World War I or II. Nuclear weapons may have a stabilizing effect, he says. Even tyrants like Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong were deterred by the prospect of U.S. nuclear retaliation.

But can the same be said about terrorists such as Osama bin Laden, or the Pakistani Taliban — whose leaders have publicly asserted a god-given authority to recruit women and children as suicide bombers?

“Pakistan poses one of the greatest dangers of nuclear weapons leaking out,” said Perry. “Anything we can do to maintain the stability of the government is important because the worst possible outcome is for an insurgent group dominated by the Taliban … controlling more than 100 nuclear weapons.”

The U.S. could not abide by that outcome, and would likely intervene militarily to keep Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal out of extremist hands. But even if that mission seemed to succeed, how could the U.S. be sure that no nuclear device, or enriched uranium, would make its way to terrorists? Would India sit by and risk that happening?

“The nuclear weapons at the present time, at least I’m confident, are secure,” said Scowcroft. “I think they’re secure as long as the Pakistani army is a unified cohesive force. If it isn’t then something else may need to be done.”

Americans rallied after 9/11. But the next time civilians fleeing a terrorist attack cross the Brooklyn Bridge from lower Manhattan, or stagger away from the Pentagon, they may fit the description that writer John Hersey gave of the victims at Hiroshima: “People screamed for help, but no one helped … for they could not comprehend or tolerate a wider circle of misery.” As many as 50,000 or 100,000 Americans could die in a nuclear attack by terrorists and, as rumors and reports of bombs in other cities careened around the nation, panic would set in, and trade and commerce shudder to a halt.

“Even if the threat were not true,” said Perry, “the chaos — the economic, the political, the social chaos — that would occur would be fantastic.”

More on nuclear proliferation:

Opinion: Time to encourage South Korea and Japan to go nuclear?

North Korea conducts second nuclear test

Obama proposes nuclear-free world