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Experts Predict a Possible Terrorist Strike with a Nuke in the US by 2013 -- What Can We Do to Stop It?

There’s no way around it: nuclear weapons are scary. Will fear drive Americans away from Obama’s arms control agenda?

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Among the lessons of the global disarmament movement of the 1980s is that fear has the potential to generate and sustain energy and focus in confronting nuclear threats. It was mass-audience nightmare-inducing films like The Day After and Threads that fueled the U.S. and European anti-nuclear movements, not anemic statistics about strategic redundancy. One million people did not fill Central Park demanding a nuclear freeze because they were dreaming of kittens in the summer of 1982. It was gut-fear that motivated President Ronald Reagan, his secretary of state, and their Soviet counterparts to abandon arms racing and begin seriously contemplating total nuclear disarmament in the mid-'80s. (Their conversion experiences are recounted in Richard Rhode's important history of the nuclear arms race, Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race.)

As during the first nuclear age, the bald facts of the second are terrifying. It is not "hyping" them -- as Shellenberger and others suggest -- to describe them accurately and argue for an urgent response. Along with the lingering threat of global thermonuclear apocalypse, groups of different stripes and levels of technological sophistication continue to seek the stuff of nuclear weapons. The International Atomic Energy Agency has confirmed 18 incidents of theft or loss of weapons grade uranium or separated plutonium in the last year alone; there are hundreds of known cases since the end of the Cold War. (Fortunately, almost all of these cases have involved material of poor quality and small quantity.) It's anyone's guess how many incidents have gone unreported. As Harvard's Mathew Bunn reminds us in his annual report, Securing the Bomb , it takes relatively little of this material to set off a chain reaction. "Fat Boy," the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki, was made with 6 kilograms of plutonium. That amount fits in a soda can.

The challenge of the next four years is to find a way to convey the force of this reality, while at the same time explaining that the answer, however counterintuitive it may seem, is the exact opposite of the right-wing prescription of missile defenses, 20th century-style deterrence and the occasional pre-emptive war. Fully justified nuclear fears, harnessed by intelligent leadership, leads in one direction only: down a path of international cooperation and arms control, terminating in nuclear disarmament before 2050. The WMD commission is just the latest group to add its voice to a growing chorus calling for a strengthening of international treaty regimes and the dawning of a new day in arms control. This half of the equation gets less attention than the bleak percentages of an American Hiroshima, but it is to this part of the equation that requires better and more regular explanation and advocacy.

Barack Obama is the right president to lead this effort. Not only can he correctly pronounce the word "nuclear," he moves to the White House from the same Southside Chicago neighborhood where the Doomsday Clock is maintained by the board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. He fully understands the interrelationships between proliferation, arms control and nuclear terrorism.

"As president, I will lead a global effort to secure all nuclear weapons materials at vulnerable sites within four years," Obama told Arms Control Today before the election. "[I will also] convene a summit on preventing nuclear terrorism [and] make the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons worldwide a central element of U.S. nuclear policy."

The incoming administration will find ever-widening support for a bold arms control agenda in the policy community in Washington. The sea change first gained attention in 2006, when Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, William Perry and George Shultz penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. In so doing, the statesmen were following in the footsteps of other doyens of Cold War foreign policy, such as Robert McNamara and Paul Nitze, who also came to realize the balance of terror could not maintain its balance in the new century. In the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs , Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institute and Jan Lodal, former president of the Atlantic Council, set out the challenges and imperatives of fulfilling the "logic of zero." The basic vision, they write, "has been endorsed by no less than two-thirds of all living former secretaries of state, former secretaries of defense and former national security advisers. Both Barack Obama and John McCain have expressed support for it, as well. Given this remarkable bipartisan consensus, the next president will have an opportunity to make the elimination of all nuclear weapons the organizing principle of U.S. nuclear policy."

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