The Next Nuclear Wave

Not since the early days of the Cold War have proliferation experts and the general public been so attuned to the threat of nuclear weapons--and with good reason. There are more than 28,000 nuclear devices in existence today, more and more countries are acquiring the means to produce them, and there is mounting evidence that al Qaeda has every intention of using a nuclear weapon if only it can get its hands on one. Simply recognizing these dangers, however, is not a strategy for confronting them; workable remedies are sorely needed.

Nuclear threats fall into two basic categories. In the short term, nuclear terrorism poses the most acute risk. Once al Qaeda or another group possesses a weapon, deterring or preventing an attack will be all but impossible. Luck, as much as money and hard work, has helped prevent such an attack to date. A second, more complex danger stems from the proliferation of nuclear capabilities to governments. In the long term, the wider state acquisition of nuclear weapons dramatically increases the odds that one might be used, intentionally or not. This concern applies not only to so-called rogue regimes, but to key U.S. allies as well. Given the global insecurity of much weapons material, state proliferation also contributes to the risk of a nightmarish nuclear terrorism scenario.

The conclusions of the 1965 Gilpatric report on nonproliferation to President Lyndon Johnson noted,

The spread of nuclear weapons poses an increasingly grave threat to the security of the United States. New nuclear capabilities, however primitive and regardless of whether they are held by nations currently friendly to the United States, will add complexity and instability ... aggravate suspicions and hostility among states neighboring new nuclear powers, place a wasteful economic burden on the aspirations of developing nations, impede the vital task of controlling and reducing weapons around the world, and eventually constitute direct military threats to the United States.

Forty years later, this assessment still holds--with the added danger posed by the nexus of nuclear weapons and terrorism.

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