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Wednesday, April 26, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Tackling the risks of nuclear terrorism

Special to The Times

The busy border crossing at Blaine recently became the focus of a congressional inquiry. Late last year, federal Government Accountability Office investigators proved that they can fool U.S. Customs and Border Protection guards there.

Using fake licenses and bills of lading, these investigators entered the United States from Canada with radioactive materials. While these particular materials would not have powered potent "dirty bombs," the ease of entry is disturbing.

More alarmingly, if the materials had been highly enriched uranium, for a nuclear bomb, radiation monitors at border checkpoints would likely not have detected it. Unlike a dirty bomb, a nuclear bomb can wreak massive destruction.

Sixty years ago, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the so-called father of the American atomic bomb, prophetically warned about terrorists armed with nuclear weapons. When a U.S. senator asked him in 1946, "What instrument would you use to detect an atomic bomb hidden somewhere in a city?" Oppenheimer quipped, "A screwdriver" to open each and every crate or suitcase because of the ease with which nuclear weapons can be shielded from detection.

As Oppenheimer understood, securing and eliminating vulnerable nuclear materials and weapons offer the greatest leverage in preventing nuclear terrorism.

Unfortunately, national and international efforts have fallen short in securing and eliminating nuclear weapons and weapons-usable nuclear materials. In particular, much more national and international action is needed urgently to tackle the problems of Pakistan's highly enriched uranium and nuclear arsenal; Russia's highly enriched uranium; weapons-usable uranium at more than 100 civilian facilities in dozens of countries; and tactical nuclear weapons.

The Bush administration should offer to brief Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, and a broad spectrum of Pakistani leaders to convince them that certain terrorist groups can build crude, but devastating, nuclear weapons if these groups have access to enough highly enriched uranium. If Musharraf and other Pakistani leaders can begin to take this threat seriously, Islamabad is far more likely to take further steps to improve nuclear security.

The United States should reach accord with Russia to accelerate and expand the successful "Megatons-to-Megawatts Agreement," which converts weapons-grade uranium to a non-weapons low enriched form for use as nuclear reactor fuel. Washington and Moscow should also quickly resolve access issues to complete by 2008 or earlier security upgrades at the remaining 20 percent of Russian facilities that contain about half of Russia's stockpile of weapons-usable nuclear materials.

Moreover, the United States and Russia should work together to secure and reduce tactical nuclear weapons that are more portable than strategic nuclear arms and thus can be more susceptible to terrorist acquisition.

Launched by the Bush administration in May 2004, the Global Threat Reduction Initiative aims to wean many civilian reactors off highly enriched uranium fuel and to remove weapons-usable uranium stored at poorly protected civilian facilities. But it has lagged behind schedule. The United States, Russia and their partners within the initiative should expand its scope to include all civilian reactors fueled with weapons-usable uranium.

Preventing nuclear terrorism is also closely connected to stopping the spread of nuclear weapons to other countries such as Iran. By reducing the number of countries with nuclear weapons or weapons-usable nuclear materials, terrorists will have fewer places to buy or steal these critical components of nuclear terrorism.

But the International Atomic Energy Agency, which inspects nuclear facilities to detect diversion of weapons-usable nuclear materials, is underfunded and understaffed. Presently, 650 IAEA inspectors are responsible for inspecting 900 nuclear facilities in 91 countries. The annual budget of the IAEA is about $120 million — not much greater than the payroll of the Seattle Seahawks.

IAEA member states should at least double the $15.5 million that the IAEA has annually budgeted for its nuclear-security fund, which focuses on providing needed security assistance to numerous facilities worldwide. Moreover, the member states should give the IAEA the authority it requires to expand its nuclear-security assistance and inspection activities.

While full completion of these urgently needed efforts will still leave a risk of devastating nuclear terrorism because of the continuing existence of nuclear arsenals and the enduring peril of nuclear proliferation, rapid national and international action will substantially reduce the likelihood that terrorists will seize or make nuclear weapons.

Charles D. Ferguson is a fellow for science and technology at the Council on Foreign Relations and is the author of the council's recent special report, "Preventing Catastrophic Nuclear Terrorism." He was stationed at the Naval Shipyard in Bremerton in 1989 when he was a U.S. naval officer.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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