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The Big One

The real danger is nuclear.

RUNS ON GAS masks in major cities. Arguments about the relative efficacy of Cipro versus doxycycline. The House of Representatives temporarily relocating. As the war on terrorism enters its second month, fear of flying is giving way to fear of opening the mail.

Psychologically, it may be that society can only concentrate on one threat at a time. But if that's the case—anthrax letters notwithstanding—the focus is in the wrong place. Biological weapons are bad, but so far none has ever caused an epidemic or worked in war. And it is possible that none ever will: Biological agents are notoriously hard to culture and to disperse, while living things have gone through four billion years of evolution that render them resistant to runaway organisms. Having harmed only a few people thus far, the anthrax scare may tell us as much about bioterrorism's limitations as about its danger.

There is, on the other hand, a weapon that we know can kill in vast numbers, because it already has: the bomb. If detonated in a major metropolitan area, a crude atomic weapon—of the sort that could be carried in a truck or SUV—could kill 100,000 people or more and render the vicinity uninhabitable for years. In Washington, D.C., such an attack would destroy democracy's seat and kill most of America's leaders. Enemies of the United States probably have the technical capacity to make atomic weapons and have definitely tried to obtain the materials necessary to build them. And we know that if they succeed, Cipro will be of no use whatsoever.

The leading atomic threat is Iraq, which has been pursuing weapons of mass destruction throughout Saddam Hussein's ugly reign. Building atomic weapons essentially requires two things: engineering skill and a supply of plutonium or enriched uranium. Iraq appears to have the first and has made repeated efforts to obtain the second.

A crude atomic bomb basically consists of conventional explosives timed to go off in such a way that two units of plutonium or enriched uranium slam together, creating a chain reaction. That takes mathematical and engineering knowledge, but the basic process is no longer secret. A 1998 report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace noted that several college students have designed apparently workable models of atomic bombs, using only information from open technical literature. (Nuclear fusion weapons or hydrogen bombs are far more powerful than atomic bombs—a single nuclear bomb might destroy all of Washington and kill millions—but also far more complex, and therefore probably beyond the reach of terrorists and rogue states. Most analysts believe that not even atomic powers India and Pakistan have built nuclear bombs.)

According to the nonprofit Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, documents obtained from Iraq after the Gulf war included designs for at least two apparently workable atomic bombs—one weighing around a ton, and the other a little more than half a ton. The apparent goal was a bomb light enough to mount atop a Scud missile capable of striking Israel or Saudi Arabia. Currently Iraq has no missile able to reach the United States. But if Iraq could smuggle in the components, a half-ton bomb could be installed in an SUV, driven into Washington or Manhattan, parked, and detonated.

What is not known is whether Iraq has the plutonium or enriched uranium to fuel its designs. But if Saddam lacks fissile material, it is not for lack of trying. His opening move was to build, near Baghdad, a "research" reactor whose true purpose was to generate fissile material for bombs. Israeli warplanes destroyed the reactor in 1981. (The UN general assembly "strongly condemn[ed]" Israel for bombing a "peaceful" facility.) At the time, Iraq had obtained about 250 tons of uranium but, due to the reactor's destruction, it could not enrich it into a form usable in atomic weapons. Saddam has not tried to build another reactor, perhaps because he assumes that if one were built, Israel would attack again. But he did begin exploring centrifuge technology. Centrifuges can enrich uranium without a reactor and can, in theory, operate in deep underground bunkers secure against Israeli bombs--and the prying electronic eyes of satellites. Whether Iraq currently has an enrichment centrifuge is unknown. Saddam effectively barred UN inspectors from access to Iraqi weapons research almost four years ago and, since 1998, no UN inspector has entered the country.

In addition to producing fissile materials, Iraq may also have tried to buy them—in particular, from one of the former Soviet states. According to the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, the former Soviet states may contain as much as 20 tons of "surplus" plutonium and 500 tons of surplus highly enriched uranium--enough to fashion thousands of crude bombs. The international community has not pressured Russia for an inventory of its surplus bomb materials, so no one knows how much may be missing. The International Atomic Energy Agency has documented 16 thefts of fissile materials, but these are only cases in which the culprits have been caught. "Of what iceberg are we seeing the tip?" asks Matthew Bunn, a nuclear arms expert at Harvard.

Given this, it is hardly encouraging that earlier this year the Bush administration proposed cutting $100 million from the program under which the United States provides advanced security at former Soviet nuclear weapons sites. Bush has also considered ending a nascent program under which the United States would pay Russia to render plutonium inutile for weapons use by burning it at atomic power plants. Though the program is not without controversy, the chance that some of this plutonium, unburned, could end up in the hands of someone like Saddam seems greater than the threat of Saddam making fissile materials himself. The Wisconsin Project estimates that Iraq is at least five years away from enriching enough uranium for an a-bomb, but could assemble one "within weeks" of obtaining the materials on the black market.

Besides the fissile materials, Saddam has been trying to obtain the other components necessary to construct a bomb—sometimes with the help of our Western allies. Now that Iraq's oil export ban has been essentially lifted—the United Nations allowed Iraq to sell $17 billion worth of petroleum last year—Saddam has cash and has been spending it on the high-tech market. In 1998 Iraq ordered from a German company six lithotripsy devices, extremely expensive machines that treat kidney stones without surgery. Why did Iraq require lithotripsy when millions of its citizens lack basic antibiotics? Presumably because the lithotripter employs an incredibly high-speed switch modeled on the high-speed switches in atomic warheads. Justified as a medical purchase, Iraq obtained eight of the switches, one in each machine plus two spares. Initially Iraq ordered 120 spare switches, a figure totally unrelated to the normal operation of lithotripters, and one that should have made Saddam's real purpose unmistakably clear. The German company balked at the purchase order for 120 switches, but happily sold the eight.

WHILE IRAQ MAY be the state sponsor of terrorism most likely to develop atomic weapons, it is not the only one trying. Iran is completing construction of a Russian-designed reactor in the port city of Bushehr. The purpose is ostensibly peaceful energy production, but it could also be used to enrich uranium. In an overlooked statement released just a few days before the September 11 attacks, the CIA reported that Iran is actively trying to build atomic warheads. Israeli officials estimate that like Iraq, Iran is about five years away from being able to make an a-bomb. Lack of fissile materials seems to be Iran's main obstacle.

Then, of course, there is Al Qaeda. Here as well, the primary obstacle is obtaining the fissile materials. And, here as well, they are trying. In testimony widely ignored at the time, Al Qaeda member Jamal al-Fadl said in federal court last winter that he had helped Osama bin Laden's operatives arrange meetings aimed at acquiring black market fissile materials, probably from former Soviet states. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that last spring a draft report on nuclear proliferation by the International Atomic Energy Agency said bin Laden's group was "actively seeking" an atomic bomb.

If Al Qaeda or another terrorist group got its hands on plutonium or enriched uranium, it could do great harm even without the engineering skills necessary to build an a-bomb. A simpler "radiological device"—basically ground-up radioactive material entwined with explosives—would not flatten a city, but would spread so much fallout that thousands or tens of thousands would eventually die from radiation sickness. It is likely that more Hiroshima deaths—an estimated 100,000—resulted from eventual fallout sickness than from the blast itself. Health care has improved since Hiroshima, but there is nothing, like an antibiotic, for high radiation exposure: Physicians can only make you comfortable while you die.

One reason Americans may not worry about the atomic threat is that we lived through a half-century of cold war nuclear standoff, and neither Washington nor Moscow pushed the button. But much of the reason was "mutually assured destruction"—the knowledge that if one side launched, it would also be hit. That logic might well prevent Saddam from directing an atomic bomb at the United States or Israel—because he would know that the counterstrike would be horrific beyond words. (It is believed that during the Gulf war, Washington warned Saddam that if he gassed coalition troops, the United States would go nuclear; Iraq put its chemical weapons away.) But Saddam might try to escape retaliation by transferring a bomb to some hard-to-trace third party—Al Qaeda or a similar group—for anonymous use against the United States or Israel. And nuclear deterrence may not work if the enemy can't be found--if the United States does not know what cave in Afghanistan bin Laden is hiding in, even nuclear warheads cannot kill him.

More important, nuclear deterrence only obtains if the other side is rational. And many terrorists are not; they actively court death. Indeed there's an eerie sense that bin Laden is actually pleased that the United States is now bombing Afghanistan, because the ensuing civilian deaths might spark the general conflict between Islam and the West--and among Islamic countries themselves--that he desperately desires. An American nuclear attack, by Al Qaeda's grizzly logic, might be even better than an American conventional attack, since death would come by the millions.

All of which leads to a series of deeply unpleasant choices. Should we begin bombing Iraq's weapons plants again—just in case one contains uranium enrichment centrifuges or other atomic hardware? Should Israel bomb Iran's reactor now, before it can make anything? If Iraq is creating atomic materials in a reinforced underground facility, should we use nuclear weapons to destroy the sites? (Nuclear force would be the only way to be sure.) If we learn of a terrorist bomb being stored in a sponsor nation such as Syria, should we attack? What if Pakistan—which has atomic weapons—fell to Taliban-like fundamentalists? Should we immediately attack Pakistani installations?

In 1991 the first Bush administration let Saddam stay in power rather than extend the Gulf war. George H.W. Bush found it easier to postpone the tough choices and pretend that a nice-nice system of UN inspections would bring Iraq to heel. Through the 1990s, the Clinton administration similarly put off any meaningful action against bin Laden or Saddam, instead firing cruise missiles into empty buildings and watching as the Iraqi sanctions regime crumbled. But we know now—as we didn't before September 11—that our enemies will use whichever weapons they have at their disposal. And that means we must expend greater effort, take greater risk, and endure greater international condemnation to keep the ultimate weapon out of our enemies' hands.

In retrospect, the United States was shockingly unprepared for the attack of September 11—simple security steps might have prevented a horror. If an atomic bomb someday explodes on American soil, in retrospect it may seem a thousand times more shocking that we did not take other steps while there was time. We can no longer say we were not warned.

This article originally appeared in the November 5, 2001 issue of the magazine.