EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Can terrorists really acquire nuclear weapons?
, May 1, 2010
Last week, an international conference was attended by leaders of 47 countries in Washington, to stop terrorists procuring nuclear weapons.
In opening the Nuclear Security Summit, US President Barack Obama stated: "Nuclear materials that could be sold or stolen and fashioned into a nuclear weapon exist in dozens of nations. ... Terrorist networks such as al Qaeda have tried to acquire the material for a nuclear weapon, and if they ever succeeded, they would surely use it. In short, it is increasingly clear that the danger of nuclear terrorism is one of the greatest threats to global security - to our collective security."
Separately, he described nuclear terrorism as "the single biggest threat to US security". The claimed threat of terrorists acquiring and using nuclear weapons does not
accord with the facts.
Since nuclear weapons were invented over 60 years ago, the security issues surrounding the safe-keeping of radioactive materials, including enriched uranium and plutonium, have been very well developed by governments, and agencies such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)."Dirty bombs"
Certainly, the theft of radioactive materials would pose serious health risks if used in "dirty bombs". In the explosion at the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl in 1991 - which was not a nuclear explosion, but rather, an explosion of superheated water which breached the reactor's containment systems - radioactive elements quickly contaminated surrounding countries.
Not only are there very strong national enforcement systems, but the International Atomic Energy Agency was established, in part, to prevent nuclear proliferation.
One reason why al Qaeda cannot acquire nuclear weapons is that it requires the resources of a nation, and billions of dollars spent over a period of years, to build such sophisticated weaponry. It took India and Pakistan over 20 years to build nuclear bombs; and Iran, since the 1990s, has been trying to develop enrichment technology, to get it to the preliminary stage to build weapons.
A terrorist organisation could possibly acquire nuclear weapons from a nuclear state, but such action would have catastrophic consequences for that state which would face probable attack by other nuclear powers.
Even then, terrorists would need the co-operation of the supplier to arm the weapon and use it as a bomb. Nothing like this has happened over the past 65 years, despite violent changes of government in nuclear states such as Pakistan, and despite the fall of the Soviet Union.
The likelihood of terrorists building their own nuclear weapons has long been considered - and discounted. About 24 years ago, the Nuclear Control Institute in Washington published a paper which discussed this very issue. That paper, written by five scientists and engineers who worked in the US nuclear weapons program, showed that it would be almost impossible.
The same technological impediments exist today. The idea that terrorists whose technical expertise is at the level of manufacturing roadside bombs would be capable of building nuclear weapons is a fantasy.
A preoccupation with nuclear terrorism ignores the fact that terrorists can more easily acquire a range of other materials which could inflict substantial damage on a modern economy. Following the attacks on New York's World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, there have been numerous defence studies into hypothetical terrorist threats, with most focussed on attempts to use conventional explosives, as well as chemical and biological weapons.
These threats are real. The suicide-bombings on the London Underground, bombings of resorts in Bali, hotels and the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, threats to blow up power stations, and even a threat to attack the Holsworthy Army Base in New South Wales - all these indicate the likely targets and methods. For all of these, nuclear explosives are utterly unnecessary.
Why is the risk of al Qaeda nuclear terrorism being exaggerated? Is it a distraction from the failed policies of the US Administration?
Since coming to power, President Obama has trebled US military involvement in Afghanistan (al Qaeda's base) from around 30,000 to 90,000 troops. There are another 50,000 from other countries. Yet the war goes on.
The Islamic extremists, the Taliban, who took control of the country in the 1990s, offered al Qaeda a base from which to train and conduct its terrorist operations, culminating in the 9/11 attack on the New York World Trade Center.
Islamic terrorism cannot be defeated by military means alone. The failure to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan after eight years of fighting is undoubtedly radicalising many thousands of Muslims throughout the world, from Russia to Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and creating a fertile recruiting ground for al Qaeda.
There needs to be a new approach, based on building the economies of, and trust and co-operation with nations such as Indonesia, Malaysia, India and Pakistan, which are threatened by the rise of Islamic extremism.Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.