Preventing nuclear terrorism should remain a top U.S. priority

Preventing nuclear terrorism should remain a top U.S. priority
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President Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) is likely to be released in January 2018. Given the President’s reported remarks about increasing the U.S. nuclear arsenal tenfold, the focal point of the review will undoubtedly be on deterrence, not nuclear security. Regardless of decisions related to the size of the U.S. nuclear stockpile, preventing nuclear terrorism — an integral part of nuclear security — should still be a top priority. After all, terrorists, by their very nature, cannot be deterred in the same way that states can.

Since the end of the Cold War, each new administration has conducted an NPR to determine the role nuclear weapons will play in their security strategy. Specifically, the NPR assesses the international security threat environment; explains why maintaining the nuclear stockpile is in the national security interest; outlines nuclear deterrence policy and strategy; and aligns the country’s nuclear forces accordingly. As one would expect, each administration has followed a different process and outlined different priorities.

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The 1994 NPR was a bottom-up review, initiated by the Department of Defense (DOD), and focused on a set of force structure decisions, including the size and composition of U.S. nuclear forces. The 2001 NPR was mandated by Congress and led by the DOD, with engagement from the Department of Energy and the White House. This review addressed a broader set of issues, including nuclear and non-nuclear offensive strike systems; active and passive defenses; and the defense infrastructure.

Furthermore, the force structure requirements were driven by four factors: assuring allies, deterring aggressors, dissuading competitors and defeating enemies. The third and most recent NPR in 2010 was again mandated by Congress, but this time, the DOD was tasked to conduct a full interagency review. Officials from the Departments of State and Energy, together with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were involved, and U.S. allies were regularly briefed during the different stages of the review. The White House also took a much larger role in shaping the NPR.

President Obama’s NPR was unique in that it moved to de-emphasize the role of nuclear weapons within U.S. security strategy and the prevention of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism was a key objective. In this review, the development of new nuclear weapons was renounced, as was a nuclear attack against non-nuclear weapon states in compliance with their Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations.

President Trump’s NPR, in his words, will “ensure that the U.S. nuclear deterrent is modern, robust, flexible, resilient, ready, and appropriately tailored to deter 21st Century threats and reassure our allies.”  Overall, we should expect to see a reversion to the 2001 NPR and a re-emphasis on the role of nuclear weapons within U.S. security strategy. Iran, North Korea and Russia are likely to be singled out as key nuclear threats. None of that would be surprising. What would be surprising — and dangerous — would be an abandonment of the 2010 NPR nuclear security goals.

Primary among those goals is the prevention of nuclear terrorism — an ever-present danger confronting the United States. Nuclear, fissile and radioactive materials — ingredients for a nuclear weapon, crude weapon or dirty bomb — are quite literally all around us. They are stored in thousands of universities, hospitals and laboratories across the world because of their applications in medicine and research. Preventing these materials from ending up in the wrong hands keeps the world safe from a nuclear attack.

The dangers are not as distant as you might think. Security breaches have already happened. In 2012, an unarmed 82-year-old nun broke into the Y-12 maximum security nuclear facility in Tennessee, the “Fort Knox of uranium,” to protest. It is not hard to imagine that criminals bent on acquiring nuclear material could have similar success. The consequences of a nuclear terrorist event in any U.S. city are terrifying. Even a small nuclear detonation could cause immediate casualties from the blast, as well as panic, economic disruption, long-term evacuations, exorbitant decontamination costs, casualties from cancer and overwhelming psychological damage. Regardless of views on broader nuclear policy choices, the reason to maintain focus on nuclear security is clear.

The Nuclear Security Summit process — a President Obama initiative that brought together heads of state who pledged to prevent nuclear terrorism — has ended. Nevertheless, world leaders must continue to engage in this crucial issue area. By making nuclear security a clear priority in the NPR, the U.S. will signal its intention to remain a leader on these matters. Of course, support for the policy must also be reflected in budget support for U.S. nuclear security programs.

Make America Great Again is a simple slogan, but the work to make it a reality is anything but simple. Part of that effort requires keeping America safe and that isn’t possible without a strong, White House-supported nuclear security agenda that keeps prevention of nuclear terrorism a top priority.  

Sara Z. Kutchesfahani, Ph.D., is a senior policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, focusing on nuclear terrorism, and author of the book, “Politics and the Bomb: The Role of Experts in the Creation of Cooperative Nuclear Non-Proliferation Agreements.”