11 March 2004

A Nuclear 9/11

It's mystifying that the administration hasn't leaned on Pakistan to make Dr. Khan available for interrogation to ensure that his network is entirely closed. Several experts on Pakistan told me they believe that the administration has been so restrained because its top priority isn't combating nuclear proliferation - it's getting President Pervez Musharraf's help in arresting Osama bin Laden before the November election.

Another puzzle is why an administration that spends hundreds of billions of dollars in Iraq doesn't try harder to secure uranium and plutonium in Russia and elsewhere. The bipartisan program to secure weapons of mass destruction is starved for funds - but Mr. Bush is proposing a $41 million cut in 'cooperative threat reduction' with Russia.

'We're at this crucial point,' warns Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 'And how we handle these situations in the next couple of years will tell us whether the nuclear threat shrinks or explodes. Perhaps literally.'

The steps that are needed, like negotiating seriously with North Korea and securing sites in Russia, aren't as dramatic as bombing Baghdad. But unless we act more aggressively, we will get a wake-up call from a nuclear explosion or, more likely, a 'dirty bomb' that uses radioactive materials routinely lying around hospitals and factories. To clarify the stakes, here's a scenario from the Federation of American Scientists for a modest terrorist incident:

A stick of cobalt, an inch thick and a foot long, is taken from among hundreds of such sticks at a food irradiation plant. It is blown up with just 10 pounds of explosives in a 'dirty bomb' at the lower tip of Manhattan, with a one-mile-per-hour breeze blowing. Some 1,000 square kilometers in three states is contaminated, and some areas of New York City become uninhabitable for decades.

Let us hope this does not happen. Let us hope also (if such a disaster happens) that we do not have to listen to more speeches about what no-one could have imagined.

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