Lockdown of Nuclear Material Best Way to Protect Charleston
Op-Ed, The Post and Courier, Charleston, S.C.
August 19, 2005
Author: Graham Allison, Director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs; Douglas Dillon Professor of Government, Harvard Kennedy School
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
If terrorists detonated a nuclear weapon in Charleston, how many people would die? How many devastated survivors would need hospital beds? And in what ways is the country prepared or unprepared? The Pentagon has been spending this week trying to wrap its mind around the idea of a nuclear mushroom cloud enveloping Charleston to inform a more effective national response to the ultimate terrorist catastrophe.
The war game is called "Sudden Respond 05." The Joint Task Force–Civil Support, a group from the five armed services plus civilian personnel, is running the exercise at its headquarters in Virginia. The Department of Defense has clearly recognized that modeling smaller scale attacks is not enough when our opponent has apocalyptic aims. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense Paul McHale has promised, "With an unflinching eye, we are taking a realistic look at worse-case scenarios."
In Charleston, a 10-kiloton tactical nuclear weapon, detonated at the corner of Congress and Hagood, would vaporize The Citadel, the National Guard armory and the city police department. After the blast, buildings as far away as Roper Hospital and the Karpeles Manuscript Museum would resemble the Murrah Federal Office Building in Oklahoma City. The City Market and the mansions south of Broad would be seared by flames and radiation.
Why Charleston? "The Holy City" would not be targeted for its churches, but for its port, the nation's fourth largest. The CIA estimates that the nuclear weapon terrorists would use in the first attack on the United States is far more likely to arrive in a cargo container than on the tip of a missile. Some 700,000 cargo containers are shipped from abroad to arrive at the Port of Charleston annually. These include steel containers measuring 40 feet long, 8 feet wide and 8 feet high, arriving directly from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.
Less than 5 percent of the cargo containers that arrive at U.S. ports are opened for inspection, providing ample hiding space for terrorists to stow a nuclear weapon or material from which a weapon could be made.
Charleston residents should applaud the Department of Defense for planning a response if the city comes under nuclear attack. But the truth is, once a weapon arrives in the Port of Charleston, it is too late.
Even if the region's first responders reacted flawlessly, a terror attack with an atomic bomb would devastate the region. Hundreds of thousands of people might die. Prevention is thus the only responsible course of action.
The largely unrecognized good news about the threat of nuclear terrorism is that it is, in fact, preventable. Unlike bioterrorism, it presents a finite challenge that can be defeated by a finite response. There is a specific list of feasible and affordable actions that, if taken, would reduce the likelihood of a terrorist's Hiroshima essentially to zero.
First, the best way to prevent nuclear terrorism is to lock down and secure the vulnerable stockpiles of nuclear weapons or materials where they are: Russia, Pakistan, North Korea or at risky research reactors in transitional or developing countries. Former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn, who pioneered an effort with Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana to keep Soviet nuclear weapons out of dangerous hands, has observed, "Acquiring weapons and materials is the hardest step for the terrorists to take, and the easiest step for us to stop. By contrast, every subsequent step in the process is easier for the terrorists to take, and harder for us to stop."
Here, physics is on our side: no fissile material, no nuclear explosion, no nuclear terrorism. Technologies for locking down valuable or dangerous items are well developed. The United States does not lose gold from Fort Knox, nor does Russia lose treasures from the Kremlin Armory. Moreover, producing new fissile material requires large, expensive, complex, visible — and thus vulnerable — facilities. Keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists is thus a challenge to our will and conviction, not to our technical capabilities.
It is difficult to imagine Charleston, which even General Sherman spared from his devastation, as the victim of mega-terrorism. Yet we must all recognize that if al-Qaida gets its hands on a nuclear weapon, it would not hesitate to destroy any U.S. city. Thus, the residents of one of the nation's oldest and proudest cities should take this Defense Department exercise as an occasion to think beyond response to prevention, which starts in darker and more tumultuous corners of the world.
Graham Allison, the director of Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, is the author of "Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe." He is a former assistant secretary of defense.
For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center Communications Office at 617-495-9858.
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