Dirty Secret, 'Dirty' Bombs
Op-Ed, Philadelphia Inquirer
June 13, 2002
Author: James Walsh, Former Executive Director, Project on Managing the Atom/Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program, 2002-2006; Former Research Fellow, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, 1999-2002
Thu, Jun. 13, 2002
Dirty Secret, 'Dirty' Bombs
White House Can Block Radiological Weapons.
By Jim Walsh
Reports that Abdullah al Muhajir was planning a radiological attack on an American city should serve as a warning about the nuclear dangers we confront. President Bush has said as much, calling the danger from weapons of mass destruction the most serious threat to our nation's security. But there is a dirty secret about "dirty" bombs that the administration prefers you didn't know.
The good news about radiological weapons is that this is one threat we can actually do something about. A report released last month by Harvard's Project on Managing the Atom, documents both the dangers posed by nuclear terrorism and the opportunities for meaningful action. Terrorists cannot carry out attacks with dirty bombs or nuclear weapons if they cannot gain access to the required radiological materials. Their ability to acquire those deadly elements depends on us. If we spend the money, time, and attention, we can prevent acts of nuclear terrorism.
That brings us to the dirty secret about dirty bombs. Despite strong speeches about the threat posed by radiological and nuclear terrorism, the truth is that the government really doesn't care very much about securing nuclear materials
- at least it doesn't act like it cares. President Bush has proposed that the U.S. government spend less next year than the Congress allocated this year for nuclear material accountancy programs in the former Soviet Union. The President proposed in August that the Department of Energy cut funding for many of these programs. After Sept. 11, the President reversed his recommendation and proposed slightly more funding. Congress called the President's bet and raised him, allocating more money to protect and secure nuclear material. Unbelievably, the President's proposal for 2003 is more than he proposed for 2002 but less than the government spent last year, after Congress boosted these programs.
The White House will no doubt claim that they have modestly increased funding for protecting nuclear materials. The truth here is that it doesn't matter. With tons and tons of plutonium and highly enriched uranium spread around the globe, a 10 percent increase or a 10 percent decrease is beside the point. Fiddling at the margins is not going to get the job done.
The simple fact is that the United States spends about a billion dollars a year on these programs, the equivalent of pocket change to the federal government. Next year, the administration plans to spend about $379 billion on defense, including a $45 billion increase over this year. The increase alone in the defense budget is 45 times larger than the entire budget for efforts to secure nuclear materials in Russia. The value of a robust defense force was demonstrated in Afghanistan, but all that will be for naught unless we also take the obvious step of securing these materials.
If the Bush administration is serious about nuclear terrorism, it must prove it on two fronts. First, it must commit financially and politically to securing nuclear material in Russia, the states of the former Soviet Union, and other
countries that possess these deadly substances. He should, as the Harvard study suggests, appoint a single senior-level person to oversee efforts to protect radiological materials. There is no such person in the government
today. He should also act on the recommendations of former Republican Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, whose expert panel urged that the government triple its spending on nuclear materials initiatives - a recommendation made before Sept. 11.
Second, the administration has to provide the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with the resources it needs to carry out its responsibilities. The IAEA is the one agency in the world responsible for looking over the world's nuclear material. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham has said that "our security, and that of nations around the world, largely depends upon what this agency does," but the truth is that IAEA has never been given the resources needed to carry out its many obligations. Indeed, what IAEA spends on its international system of inspections is little more than what the city of Pittsburgh spends on its police department. In short, the Bush administration has to do more - much, much more - in both its bilateral programs and in collaboration with the IAEA.
For the last month, the biggest controversy in Washington concerned the warnings and information that predated the Sept. 11 attacks. At the center of this controversy is a question: Did the government have enough credible and
specific evidence to take action before the attacks? That is not an issue here. We have more than enough evidence that terrorists could be interested in radiological materials and that those materials are vulnerable to theft. We have
every reason and opportunity to act. If we fail to do so, and the terrorists strike, no one can claim they weren't warned. The dirty secret about dirty bombs is out. What happens next is up to us.
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