Friday, April 20, 2007


WND Exclusive
Nuclear terror:
How likely is it?

50% chance of detonation
within 10 years, says expert

Posted: April 20, 2007
1:00 a.m. Eastern

© 2007

Graham T. Allison
WASHINGTON – How likely is it that terrorists will some day be successful at detonating a nuclear device in a major American city?

That was the question debated in an online forum sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations this week.

And while Harvard's Graham T. Allison and the CFR's Michael A. Levi may disagree over the likelihood of such an attack, they agreed it is a serious threat and much more needs to be done to avoid the disastrous consequences.

Levi, the skeptic, said: "Al-Qaida has grand ambitions and seeks mass casualties. And regardless of the probability of nuclear terrorism, the potential consequences of a successful attack should be enough to prompt us to more urgent action than we are currently taking."

Allison, author of the forthcoming book, "On Nuclear Terrorism," pointed out a growing consensus on the severity of the threat.

"In the hotly contested American presidential election in 2004, the two candidates agreed on only one fundamental point," he said. "In the first televised debate, they were asked, what is 'the single most serious threat to the national security to the United States?' President Bush, answering second, said: 'I agree with my opponent that the biggest threat facing this country is weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a terrorist network.'"

Michael A. Levi

Allison cited other authorities, including former Sen. Sam Nunn, who is on record as saying the likelihood of a single nuclear bomb exploding in a single city is greater today than at the height of the Cold War.

Perhaps no one, however, has studied the issue more thoroughly than Allison. In his book, based on the current trend line, he concludes the chances of a nuclear terrorist attack in the next decade are greater than 50 percent. He said former Secretary of Defense William Perry believes that assessment underestimates the risk.

"From the technical side, Richard Garwin, a designer of the hydrogen bomb who Enrico Fermi once called, 'the only true genius I had ever met,' told Congress in March he estimated a '20 percent per year probability with American cities and European cities included' of 'a nuclear explosion -- not just a contamination, dirty bomb -- a nuclear explosion.'"

Discounting arguments that terrorists don't want to take chances with potential failure, Allison explains why the stakes are so high for terrorists to conduct a nuclear attack.

"[T]he effect of a nuclear terrorist attack would reverberate beyond U.S. shores," he says. "After a nuclear detonation, the immediate reaction would be to block all entry points to prevent another bomb from reaching its target. Vital markets for international products would disappear, and closely linked financial markets would crash. Researchers at RAND, a U.S. government-funded think tank, estimated that a nuclear explosion at the Port of Los Angeles would cause immediate costs worldwide of more than $1 trillion and that shutting down U.S. ports would cut world trade by 7.5 percent."

Even a so-called "dud" in nuclear terms would cause more destruction than the most dramatic conventional attack.

"If a terrorist's 10-kiloton nuclear warhead were to misfire (known to nuclear scientists as a 'fizzle') and produce a one-kiloton blast, bystanders near ground zero would not know the difference," explains Allison. "Such an explosion would torch anyone one-tenth of a mile from the epicenter, and topple buildings up to one-third of a mile out."

Allison concludes: "The most important takeaway from this debate is that we must do everything technically feasible on the fastest possible time line to prevent terrorists from getting their hands on nuclear materials. Whether nuclear explosion, fizzle, or total dud, the repercussions of such materials in jihadist clutches are unacceptable."

The largest and most recent study of the effects of nuclear detonations in major U.S. cities showed that, while millions will die, millions of others can be saved with some practical preparations and education.

The three-year study by researchers at the Center for Mass Destruction Defense at the University of Georgia found a concerted effort to teach civilians what to do in the event of a nuclear attack is the best – perhaps only – thing that could save an untold number of lives that will otherwise be needlessly lost.

"If a nuclear detonation were to occur in a downtown area, the picture would be bleak there," said Cham Dallas, director of the program and professor in the college of pharmacy. "But in urban areas farther from the detonation, there actually is quite a bit that we can do. In certain areas, it may be possible to turn the death rate from 90 percent in some burn populations to probably 20 or 30 percent – and those are very big differences – simply by being prepared well in advance."

The government's own National Planning Scenario projects even a small, improvised 10-kiloton nuclear bomb would likely kill hundreds of thousands in a medium-sized city. The carnage was estimated at 204,600 dead in Washington, D.C. – with another 90,800 injured or sickened. Another 24,580 would likely die of thyroid cancer later because the simple compound potassium iodide, which can prevent it, was not made available to civilians in advance of the disaster.

President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and the 9/11 commission have all concluded a nuclear terrorist attack is not only the nation's No. 1 nightmare but also something of an inevitability at some time in the future.

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