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Security Defense

We Need to Speak Honestly about Nuclear Threats

A section from Hieronymus Bosch’s The Last Judgement, Central Panel. Courtesy Steven Zucker/Flickr

This article was originally published by War on the Rocks on 11 April 2016.

The fourth and final Nuclear Security Summit meeting, held in Washington DC, has been the catalyst for a flood of op-eds bemoaning either the imminent emergence of sub-state groups as nuclear powers or the relative lack of progress that President Obama has made on reducing the number of U.S. nuclear weapons. Both of these views are shortsighted, ignoring the actual threat in context to contemporary national security issues. Despite decades of global terrorism and the continuing growth of nuclear power and weapons programs, there has not been a successful terrorist radiological or nuclear attack. And while the United States has reduced its military nuclear weapons stockpile by more than 90 percent since its peak in 1968, the dangers posed by nuclear weapon states continue to require a nuclear deterrent. These are inherently linked arguments, given the technology-centered discussions on radiological/nuclear threats. In both cases, actions to advance either agenda — that nuclear terrorism is an imminent threat and that U.S. nuclear stockpiles must be further reduced — need to be informed by risk calculations as well as cost-benefit analyses, rather than by worst-case assumptions.

Most recently, Gary Ackerman and James Halverson warn that recent activities by ISIL and other terrorist groups, combined with potential vulnerabilities of nuclear power facilities and other nuclear storage facilities, represent a serious threat. I don’t question that a few sub-state groups may be interested in obtaining radioactive material or even nuclear fissile material. With the constant drumbeat by U.S. government officials warning of the existential threat posed by terrorist nuclear devices since 2001, any half-awake violent extremist group would have to wonder as to whether this capability represented a useful tool. Joe Cirincione and others have been warning about potential nuclear terrorism for at least the past 15 years. The mantra has been, “it’s not a question of if, but when,” and that terrorists will use a nuclear device or a “dirty bomb” as soon as they can acquire one. And yet it remains a fact that even given motive, opportunity, and time, these sub-state groups have not done so.