Final results in weekly nuclear awareness column

70 percent of Carnegie Mellon students who responded to my surveys agreed that the single most serious threat to U.S. national security is nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists. The remaining students were divided, with half concluding the largest threat was a nuclear attack by a rogue state, and the other half saying it was an accidental meltdown by a U.S. nuclear reactor.

Students were less decisive when asked to identify which nuclear nation would pose the biggest threat to national security over the next 10 years. Iran and North Korea were identified to be most likely threats (under the assumption that both will become nuclear nations), followed by China, Pakistan, and finally Russia.

In addition, roughly one-third did not believe any of the above nations listed would pose a national security threat to the U.S. over the next 10 years.

During the first 2004 presidential debate, President Bush stated that he believed the most serious threat to national security was nuclear weapons “in the hands of a terrorist enemy.” Bush addressed this threat in 2001 when the Department of Defense issued its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). According to the NPR, “new [nuclear] capabilities must be developed to defeat emerging threats such as hard and deeply buried targets … mobile and relocatable targets … and to improve accuracy and limit collateral damage.”

The U.S. is currently examining other methods to eliminate the security threat of nuclear weapons. In an article in the September 11, 2005, issue of The Washington Post, a doctrine proposed by the Pentagon outlines the use of nuclear weapons to “preempt an attack by a nation or a terrorist group using weapons of mass destruction.”

It is not clear that nuclear weapons will be more effective than conventional weapons at achieving the goals outlined in the NPR and ensuring national security. The burden of demonstrating this fact lies on the shoulders of the government. An Israeli attack against an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 demonstrated that conventional weapons are capable of disabling a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program. Justifying the collateral damage guaranteed by a nuclear attack against a small group of terrorists is a hard case to make. These doubts, combined with those of the recent U.S. intelligence track record, make it difficult to presume the current U.S. nuclear stance is an effective one.

With the spread of nuclear technology, there exists the possibility that terrorists could simply buy a nuclear weapon on the black market. Given their past history of illicit weapons exports, it is very likely that North Korea would be willing to sell one if they were able to acquire a sufficiently large supply of nukes. Russia’s economy has declined over the last several years, but its nuclear stockpile has remained. With less money to secure its weapons and pay its scientists, there is a threat that a Russian nuclear weapon will be stolen and sold. With each passing day, the threat of a terrorist group acquiring a nuke increases.

While an aggressive approach to remove the threat of nuclear weapons is welcomed, as a world leader, the avenue the U.S. pursues is likely to be followed by others. Declaring that “nuclear weapons play a critical role in the defense capabilities of the United States” does not encourage non-nuclear nations to remain so. If other nations see nuclear weapons as the solution to their national security problems, an aggressive attack to prevent their WMD development is more likely to support this viewpoint than diminish it.