Stopping Nuclear Terrorism

On Friday, the New York Times reported that the Obama administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, to be released in February, will focus on nuclear terrorism. This will be the first time the review makes countering this threat a central goal of the country’s nuclear planning.

What is the best way to stop nuclear terrorists? Of course, we can -- and should -- break up al-Qaeda cells, secure loose nukes, and scan our cities for tell-tale signs of radiation. Yet if that is our emphasis, we are playing a losing game.

Why? On an average day, people successfully smuggle 21,000 pounds of cocaine and marijuana into the United States. On an average day, 29,000 trucks, 1,100 buses, 27,000 cargo containers, and 295,000 cars cross into America. On an average day, 124,000 pedestrians enter our country legally and another 1,500 people do so illegally. Should we be confident that, in the midst of all this traffic and over the course of decades, we will be able to find disassembled nukes, softballs of uranium, and oranges of plutonium? We may catch shipments now and then, but all it takes is one failure to change the course of history.

Yet we are not doomed to suffer a nuclear detonation on our soil. Terrorists, as capable as they are, cannot enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium. In other words, they cannot produce fissile material, the cores of nuclear devices. They can steal such material, but that is also an extremely difficult task, even in chaotic Pakistan, whose army has been penetrated by terrorist sympathizers. As a practical matter, nuclear terrorists need to purchase uranium or plutonium, and the most likely seller is North Korea.

In April 2003 in Beijing, a North Korean diplomat told one of ours that his country reserved the right to sell nuclear weapons. Pyongyang has a history of carrying through on its threats. This decade, it has sold to Iran weapons-grade uranium, which spilled on the tarmac of the Tehran airport in May 2004, and a nuclear reactor, which the Israelis destroyed in the Syrian desert in September 2007. Iranian technicians reportedly witnessed both of North Korea’s nuclear detonations, in October 2006 and May of this year. There is evidence that the North has sold plutonium to Iran and, by way of Pakistan, uranium to Libya. There is one inescapable conclusion: North Korea poses one of the gravest threats to the international community.