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Nukes Worthy

April 12, 2010

Though the traffic in DC may be particularly screwed-up for the next couple of days, that congestion is a small price to pay to begin untangling the mixed-up priorities now that Obama has the political momentum to do exactly what needs doing by taking real opportunity costs into account.  Maybe it’s just another instance of my own personal political agreement with Obama’s political approach, but I cannot direct enough applause his way for making nuclear terrorism the top security priority.  For a long time, I have considered nuclear terrorism the most serious threat to security because it defies the normal political move of weighting and averaging probabilities and effects of various risks, even though a staggeringly low 12% of the rest of America would agree.  Just in time for the summit, Valerie Plame patiently explains how the portability of the fissile materials and their relative availability after the rise and fall of the Soviet-U.S. arms race has left far too many weapons in the hands of far too many unaccountable individuals and countries to even attempt the mental calculus.

In the past two decades, there have been at least 25 instances of nuclear explosive materials being lost or stolen. There is enough highly enriched uranium, or HEU, in the world today to build more than 100,000 bombs.

Terrorists looking to buy or steal HEU could look to the approximately 40 countries with nuclear weapons materials. And then there are rogue individuals out there who are running black markets selling nuclear materials and technology.

Pakistan’s Dr. A. Q. Khan did it for years before my group at the CIA brought him down in December 2003 after catching him red-handed selling a full-scale nuclear bomb to Moammar Gadhafi’s regime in Libya.

In many ways, Valerie Plame is a uniquely qualified spokesperson for this issue, given her history of dealing with the realities and unrealities of the international nuclear trade.  I really hope she does influence some public opinion and attracts some signatures for the declaration at (do it now!) because the facts are too simple and terrifying to put out of mind, even though America usually manages the latter task with the greatest of skill.  We simply can’t let probability run its course when that means giving more and more opportunities for that one fatal screw-up.  Individuals, after all, are not always subject to the cold, computational logic that typifies our cultural recollection of Cold War realpolitik.  In an era where suicide attacks on American soil are finally cognizable in the American consciousness, it should be impossible to deny that the mere existence of nuclear weapons poses an inherent (and in my mind, intolerable) risk.

John Cleese explains our cultural take on that last bit pretty well:

One Comment leave one →
  1. Astute Observer permalink
    April 12, 2010 11:29 pm

    For all the terrorism rabble Dubya dumped on the American public (clearly overplaying the tangible threat for political expediency/electoral considerations), it’s perhaps not astonishing that such a tremendous threat registers so low in the consciousness of Americans. In the past there has been some chatter of a terrorist nuke exploding in a major American city, but most of that was done to scare Americans into any given political posture (supporting torture, supporting the war in Iraq and/or the surge). Here we have a real threat and it seems the terrorism threat has been so badly abused and overplayed that the American electorate is left blind to the real clear and present danger.

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