Catastrophic Nuke Terrorism 'Inevitable,' Say Experts

Evan Moore | Correspondent | Friday, April 25, 2008

Catastrophic Nuke Terrorism 'Inevitable,' Say Experts

( - Should a major metropolitan area suffer a nuclear attack, the consequent catastrophe would overwhelm America's ability to respond, and kill thousands from the heat, blast, and radiation of the detonating weapon. Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) agrees that such an attack would be devastating, but says deterrence can work by threatening retaliation against the states that produced the weapon.

Clifford May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a conservative group, told Cybercast News Service that "the ramifications" of a nuclear attack on a major metropolitan area in the United States "would be catastrophic. Should an American city be wiped out, the death toll in the next terrorist attack would rise from 3,000 to 100,000."

"America would survive as a nation," he said, "but it would never again be the same."

In a hearing in the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee this month, Ashton Carter, co-chairman of the Preventive Defense Project at Harvard University, said that the "scale of this disaster would quickly overwhelm even the most prepared city, and state governments." He also predicted that, in the wake of such an attack, Americans would evacuate cities and disperse throughout the country.

Carter added that over the past five years, the possibility of a nuclear attack has "surely" grown. North Korea has become a nuclear power and Iran is attempting to do the same. Pakistan could potentially lose its nuclear technology to terrorists should the state disintegrate, and Russia's Soviet-era nuclear material remains unsecured.

He then predicted that should a Hiroshima-grade bomb of 10 kilotons be detonated on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. - the grassy stretch of public space that extends from the U.S. Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial -- an area within a two-mile radius would be destroyed.

Those immediately under a fallout cloud driven by the prevailing wind would suffer lethal doses of radiation, even should they seek "modest shelter," said Carter. People downwind could possibly survive if they sought shelter, but should they jam the roads in an attempt to evacuate, they would likely be exposed to heavy amounts of fallout.

In his column in National Review Thursday, May cited another expert, Cham D. Dallas, director of the Institute for Health Management and Mass Destruction Defense at the University of Georgia, who said a nuclear attack is "inevitable," and added, "I think it's wistful to think that it won't happen by 20 years [from now]."

In an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal last June, Sen. Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, agreed that \ldblquote the most dangerous threat America faces is the possibility that one of the world's most extreme groups -- like al Qaeda -- gets its hands on a nuclear bomb."

However, he said, "[A] would-be nuclear terrorist cannot make the ingredients for a modern-day Hiroshima by himself. Either a state will have to give or sell him a bomb or the nuclear material to make one, or the terrorist will have to steal the material."

Deterrence, said Biden, "will rest on our scientific ability to examine the air and ground debris created by an attack to determine the source of the nuclear material. ... In the aftermath of an attack -- or much better, if terrorists are caught smuggling nuclear material before an attack -- scientists [could] compare the samples they collect against what is known about other countries' nuclear material, to figure out the samples' country of origin."

To that end, Biden suggested creating an international forensics library to store information on the signatures of nuclear weapons and material produced in the world in order to credibly threaten retaliation against the states that produced the material, transmitted it or allowed terrorist agents to procure it.

May told Cybercast News Service that deterrence should be attempted - it should be very clear to our enemies that we will not hesitate to retaliate - and in a way that is beyond 'proportionate.' That said, those with the mentality of a 'suicide bomber' can not be deterred by the threat of death and destruction."

May suggested other means, as well, to guard against nuclear terrorism, including "passing FISA [intelligence telecommunications gathering] reform so we can at least attempt to listen in on the plans being made by our sworn enemies. Interrogation techniques for captured terrorists also must be adequate to the task - that need not include or imply torture. Control America's borders. Authorities must know who is visiting this country and what they are doing here. Resolve to defeat the enemy on every battlefield on which he is encountered."

Make media inquiries or request an interview about this article.

E-mail a comment or news tip to Evan Moore