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?

"Megaterror Attack Likely By 2013, Say Experts." It's a good bet this headline caused thousands of Americans to stop in the tracks of their morning routines.

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Even by the tough post-9/11 standards of a.m. bummers, it was a gulper. On Dec. 4, the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism convened a press conference to declare that our margin of safety against an act of megaterror is shrinking at a disturbing clip. The commission also issued a book-length study, World at Risk, which concluded, "unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013."

Depending on whom you ask, this is the good news. The WMD commission's conclusion is actually a little sunnier than some previous warnings of the same ilk. In 2004, one of the commission's ranking members, Harvard's Graham Allison, published a book called Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, in which he estimated that there was an even chance that a nuclear weapon -- not a "dirty bomb," but an actual Hiroshima-style fission bomb -- would destroy an American city within a decade unless swift action was taken to lock down the world's sprawling stocks of fissile material, concentrated in, but not limited to, Russia.

Too dark a forecast? Maybe. The truth is nobody knows. But if people are skeptical of, or inured to, this kind of warning after eight years of Bush/Cheney, it's understandable. Bogus mushroom-cloud visions, after all, were used to sell the Iraq war. Later, nuclear terror fears were stoked with gusto by a Bush administration fighting dirty in defense of every aspect of its war on terror. In the run-up to the 2004 election, Vice President Dick Cheney took a one-man, nuke-terror traveling roadshow through Midwestern swing states, at one point famously suggesting that the Democrats simply did not grasp the dangers of nuclear terrorism. "You have to get your mind around [the] concept," said the vice president, seething with condescension.

What made Cheney's fearmongering especially infuriating is that Democrats have always had their minds more firmly around the concept than Republicans. In 2004, it was Sen. John Kerry, not President Bush, who pledged to create a cabinet-level position to coordinate the battle against loose nukes and the black market in nuclear materials. And it was Kerry, not Bush, who proposed boosting funding for nuclear-threat-reduction programs. Kerry had even discussed nuclear terrorism in his 1998 book The New War: The Web of Crime That Threatens America's Security, written when Cheney was busy saddling Halliburton with asbestos class-action suits.

Four years later, the Democrats are finally in a position to show the country, and the world, what real leadership on the threat of nuclear terrorism looks like. The bipartisan WMD commission, created by Congress in 2007, has written a report that's both useful resource and timely reality check. Nuclear terrorism is not just the stuff of manipulative neoconservative fantasy. A consensus is hardening around the world that the threat is real and growing. While America's actions on the world stage can mitigate this threat, a more benign foreign policy alone will not eliminate it. The United States is not the only potential target, and U.S. foreign policy is not the only inspiration for groups seeking these weapons.

Luckily, the incoming president grasps the issue in all of its complexity. Barack Obama has produced a layered and ambitious agenda to confront the interlocking threats of nuclear terrorism, proliferation and the lingering arsenals of the world's two biggest nuclear powers, the United States and Russia, which maintain thousands of missiles on hair-triggers. Everything is in place to begin to put the hydra-headed nuclear genie into an internationally controlled bottle. As with other planks on the incoming administration's agenda, the question is whether Democrats will be able to force its arms control program past the opposition of conservative critics and entrenched interests in Washington, which will be at least as hard as persuading the world's other nuclear powers to meet us half way.

When it comes to public opinion, the nuclear question is trickier than most. The mere discussion of nuclear dangers, some studies suggest, appears to drive the public away from the very policies that would reduce them. It's a catch-22 for peace and security advocates who would rally public support behind arms control in the coming years, which may present a precious final window of opportunity. Ignore or downplay the threats, and people will not feel they are pressing enough to radically alter the status quo. Be honest about the nature of the threats, and people may instinctively retreat into support for militaristic policies that increase the danger.

The dilemma is especially acute when it comes to nuclear terrorism. A recent study conducted by the research firm American Environics found that even mentioning the  words "nuclear" and "terrorism" together is counterproductive in trying to engage the public. First, it scares people -- "increases mortality salience," in social psychology jargon -- and second, it's cognitively jarring, as people are accustomed to using different mental frames when considering terrorist threats (pre-emption) and nuclear threats (deterrence). This is a serious bind for those advocating bold new nuclear policies. How can you raise awareness and deepen understanding of an issue that dares not speak its name?

"Fear provokes support for strong defense policies, not mutual disarmament and arms control," says Rob Willer, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, who worked on the American Environics study. "Support for those kinds of cooperative and disarmament policies are a more difficult outcome, requiring a basis for trust, a sense of security."

Unlike the arms control negotiations of the 1980s and '90s, there isn't much basis for trust when it comes to Islamist terrorist groups or doomsday cults. Nor is a sense of security likely to be established until new policies are put in place -- policies whose political success requires first confronting the reality of the situation head-on.

"The incoming administration has a robust 12-point plan on nuclear policy," says Naila Bolus, executive director of the Ploughshares Fund, which supplies grants for peace and security initiatives. "Understanding the role of fear and how to use or counter it will be an important element in our ability to accomplish the[se] goals. Fear can be both a motivator and an inhibitor, and recent research has shown that, post-9/11, certain phrases such as 'nuclear terrorism' can trigger a reflexive conservative response that leads the public to oppose further reductions in nuclear weapons."

"Nonproliferation and disarmament advocates see an opportunity with the election of Obama to increase public fears of nuclear terrorism as a way to advance their agendas," says Michael Shellenberger, co-founder of the Breakthrough Institute, a think tank that strategizes effective messaging for progressive causes. "[But] raising fears of nuclear terrorism increases support for military action -- including pre-emptive nuclear bombing -- by the U.S."

Wary of this conservative reflex, some Democratic advocates for arms control have criticized the "scariness" of last week's WMD commission report. "[Post-Iraq], a fear-based strategy of reducing nuclear dangers is not politically sustainable," Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Henry L. Stimson Center, told a Washington audience shortly after the commission report was made public. "We [don't need] to terrify the American people with alarming details about possible threats to the homeland," Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., the chairwoman of a Homeland Security subcommittee, told Global Security Newswire. "It's time to retire the fear card."

But is it really possible to "retire the fear card" in an age of mounting nuclear threats? And is it desirable?

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."

It isn't just in Washington that a new anti-nuclear wind is beginning to blow. Last Wednesday in Paris, an international group of high-level ex-officials from nuclear and non-nuclear states launched the Global Zero project (with funding by Richard Branson) to free the world of nuclear weapons within 25 years. As with the WMD commission and the IAEA, the group urges the public to understand the link between arms control and nuclear terrorism: "In recent months, the threat of proliferation and nuclear terrorism has led to a growing chorus of world leaders calling for the elimination of all nuclear weapons," the group said in a release. "It is urgent that we begin now."

No one who looks honestly at 21st century nuclear threats could disagree. Confronting the dangers of the second nuclear age will be scary, and it will be difficult. But facing our nuclear fears is necessary if we are to move beyond them and accomplish the historic task sitting between now and any future worth having.

Alexander Zaitchik is a freelance journalist.