I'm a worst-case scenario kind of thinker. My May 2005 article about the destruction of New Orleans by a Category 5 hurricane--an article published about 100 days before Katrina--certainly demonstrated as much. I think it's rational to worry about extreme scenarios in direct proportion to how bad they would be if they actually happened--not to simply dismiss them because they're "unlikely" at any given moment or in any given year. So perhaps that's why it is that lately, I find myself thinking a lot about the possibility of nuclear terrorism in a major U.S. city. How many people, when they contemplate geting into the D.C. condo market, first research how likely it is that their new home will be vaporized within the next five to ten years? But that's what I've been doing. An article in the November/December Foreign Policy (unfortunately subscriber only) lays out what it would take to kill hundreds of thousands in a U.S. city: A year's work, a team of just under twenty trained professionals, and about $ 5.5 million dollars. Of course the great variable in terms of both cost and the feasibility of the plan is obtaining highly enriched uranium, but as the authors note:
No one really knows how much highly enriched uranium there is in the world, or how close the wrong groups are to getting the right amount. The frightening truth is that fissile material, including nuclear explosive material, is an item of commerce, and moves from place to place. One of the side effects of our globalized economy is that opportunities for direct theft and bribing of nuclear custodians abound. And when rogue states like Iran and possibly North Korea continue to enrich uranium, ostensibly for energy purposes, it is even harder to control what happens to it. Although building a nuclear device remains an expensive, complex undertaking out of reach for most organizations, a well-financed group that seeks to kill very large numbers ofpeople may well find it an irresistible option. A wealthy organization seeking to kill several hundred thousand people could hardly find a more economical method than the detonation of a small nuclear device. That is reason enough to consider the nuclear threat a serious one. Just because a nuclear terrorist attack hasn't happened shouldn't give us the false comfort of thinking it won't.
I am not an arms control expert (or even arms control blogger) by any stretch. Maybe this is not news to all of you--or maybe it is. In any event, the authors of the piece are big shots in this area: Peter D. Zimmerman, professor of science and security in the Department of War Studies at King's College London, and previously chief scientist of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee and of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency; and Jeffrey G. Lewis, executive director of the Managing the Atom Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School, as well as author of Arms Control Wonk. If these guys are worried, shouldn't we all be?