Column: The Public Eye: The Threat of Nuclear Terrorism in the United States

By Bob Burnett
Tuesday March 20, 2007

Opening his memorable Graceland album, Paul Simon sang: 


It was a slow day, 

And the sun was beating 

On the soldiers by the side of the road. 

There was a bright light, 

A shattering of shop windows 

The bomb in the baby carriage 

Was wired to the radio. 


It’s been five and a half years since 9/11. With each passing day, it’s more likely the United States will suffer from a “bomb in the baby carriage ... wired to a radio.” More probable this attack will involve nuclear terrorism. 

Americans fear our imminent encounter with a suicide bomber or a remotely controlled explosive device. For good reason. As the Iraq war grinds on and terrorist incidents surge worldwide, it’s clear George Bush’s “war on terror” has backfired; rather than reduce the threat of savage assaults on civilians, the opposite has occurred: the average number of terrorist attacks has increased sevenfold. Nonetheless, the Bush administration does little to guard against these attacks. Particularly those involving “radioactive dispersal devices”—dirty bombs. 

At a recent San Francisco gathering, Illinois Senator, and Democratic Presidential candidate, Barack Obama remarked that, after Iraq, his number one foreign policy objective is control of nuclear weapons and radioactive material. Obama believes the Bush Administration hasn’t paid enough attention to the problems of worldwide stockpiles of nuclear weapons, fissionable material, and radioactive debris. 

Writing in the current New Yorker, Steve Coll discussed what’s being done to safeguard America from nuclear terrorism. The good news is the possibility of terrorists getting their hands on an atomic bomb seems extremely low. The bad news is “the world ... is awash in uncontrolled nuclear material.” Much of the contaminated detritus could be used in a dirty bomb: a conventional explosive device surrounded by radioactive material. Coll observes, “The Bush administration has not assigned the same urgency to the dirty-bomb threat that it has to the threat of a terrorist attack using a fission weapon.” 

What should be done to protect the United States from nuclear terrorism? Republicans and Democrats agree that our borders ought to be closely monitored to make sure bad guys don’t sneak radioactive materials into the United States. A necessary component is more money; the Democratically controlled Congress is ready to allocate more funds for this purpose. However, the United States has to have the right technology: radiation detectors able to detect nuclear material slipping across our borders. There’s controversy about the efficacy of the sensors being deployed. Unfortunately, experts agree on one critical point: detecting highly enriched uranium is beyond the capability of the current generation of radiation detectors. 

On Dec. 5, 2005, the 9/11 Public Discourse Project, the public-interest group that followed the 9/11 Commission, issued a status report on the efforts of the Bush Administration to prevent another terrorist attack. They concluded, “We are not as safe as we need to be ... there is so much more to be done ... Many obvious steps that the American people assume have been completed, have not been ... Some of these failures are shocking.” The group’s Republican chair, Thomas Kean, observed, “We believe that the terrorists will strike again. So does every responsible expert that we have talked to ... If they do, and these reforms that might have prevented such an attack have not been implemented, what will our excuses be?” 

A particularly disturbing finding was the “administration’s woeful record in strengthening global counterproliferation efforts to keep weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of terrorists.” In November of last year, MIT Professor Stephen Van Evera reported, “Amazingly, in the two years after 9/11 no more loose nuclear weapons and materials were secured than in the two years prior ... This policy lapse is among the worst failures of government in modern times.” The White House isn’t effectively addressing the threat of nuclear terrorism. 

On March 29, 2006, Democratic leaders unveiled their national security strategy, “Real Security: The Democratic Plan to Protect America and Restore Our Leadership in the World.” They promised that Democrats will “secure by 2010 loose nuclear materials that terrorists could use to build nuclear weapons or “dirty bombs.” Realistically, Congressional Dems can do little beyond holding hearings and authorizing the appropriate expenditures. 

Given that we are stuck with Bush and company for 22 excruciating months, three actions seem obvious: The first is for progressives to continue to point out how ill-advised Bush’s foreign policy is. How taking our eye off of Al Qaeda and invading Iraq detracted from the primary objective of Bush’s “war on terror”: making America safer. The second point is for all presidential candidates, not just Barack Obama, to make control of nuclear weapons and radioactive material their highest priority foreign policy objective and present their plan. The third is for the Bush Administration, and the next Presidency, to shift their emphasis from nuclear weapons to nuclear debris. To take seriously the possibility of nuclear terrorism, the chilling possibility that the next “bomb in the baby carriage ... wired to a radio” is likely to be a dirty bomb. 



Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at