New York Earthquake: City of the Sixth Seal (Revelation 6:12)

New York earthquake: City at risk of ‚dangerous shaking from far away‘

Joshua Nevett

Published 30th April 2018

SOME of New York City’s tallest skyscrapers are at risk of being shaken by seismic waves triggered by powerful earthquakes from miles outside the city, a natural disaster expert has warned.

Researchers believe that a powerful earthquake, magnitude 5 or greater, could cause significant damage to large swathes of NYC, a densely populated area dominated by tall buildings.

A series of large fault lines that run underneath NYC’s five boroughs, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx and Staten Island, are capable of triggering large earthquakes.

Some experts have suggested that NYC is susceptible to at least a magnitude 5 earthquake once every 100 years.

The last major earthquake measuring over magnitude 5.0 struck NYC in 1884 – meaning another one of equal size is “overdue” by 34 years, according their prediction model.

Natural disaster researcher Simon Day, of University College London, agrees with the conclusion that NYC may be more at risk from earthquakes than is usually thought.

EARTHQUAKE RISK: New York is susceptible to seismic shaking from far-away tremors

But the idea of NYC being “overdue” for an earthquake is “invalid”, not least because the “very large number of faults” in the city have individually low rates of activity, he said.

The model that predicts strong earthquakes based on timescale and stress build-up on a given fault has been “discredited”, he said.

What scientists should be focusing on, he said, is the threat of large and potentially destructive earthquakes from “much greater distances”.

The dangerous effects of powerful earthquakes from further away should be an “important feature” of any seismic risk assessment of NYC, Dr Day said.


THE BIG APPLE: An aerial view of Lower Manhattan at dusk in New York City


RISK: A seismic hazard map of New York produced by USGS

“New York is susceptible to seismic shaking from earthquakes at much greater distances” Dr Simon Day, natural disaster researcher

This is because the bedrock underneath parts of NYC, including Long Island and Staten Island, cannot effectively absorb the seismic waves produced by earthquakes.

“An important feature of the central and eastern United States is, because the crust there is old and cold, and contains few recent fractures that can absorb seismic waves, the rate of seismic reduction is low.

Central regions of NYC, including Manhattan, are built upon solid granite bedrock; therefore the amplification of seismic waves that can shake buildings is low.

But more peripheral areas, such as Staten Island and Long Island, are formed by weak sediments, meaning seismic hazard in these areas is “very likely to be higher”, Dr Day said.

“Thus, like other cities in the eastern US, New York is susceptible to seismic shaking from earthquakes at much greater distances than is the case for cities on plate boundaries such as Tokyo or San Francisco, where the crustal rocks are more fractured and absorb seismic waves more efficiently over long distances,” Dr Day said.

In the event of a large earthquake, dozens of skyscrapers, including Chrysler Building, the Woolworth Building and 40 Wall Street, could be at risk of shaking.

“The felt shaking in New York from the Virginia earthquake in 2011 is one example,” Dr Day said.

On that occasion, a magnitude 5.8 earthquake centered 340 miles south of New York sent thousands of people running out of swaying office buildings.


FISSURES: Fault lines in New York City have low rates of activity, Dr Day said

NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the city was “lucky to avoid any major harm” as a result of the quake, whose epicenter was near Louisa, Virginia, about 40 miles from Richmond.

“But an even more impressive one is the felt shaking from the 1811-1812 New Madrid earthquakes in the central Mississippi valley, which was felt in many places across a region, including cities as far apart as Detroit, Washington DC and New Orleans, and in a few places even further afield including,” Dr Day added.

“So, if one was to attempt to do a proper seismic hazard assessment for NYC, one would have to include potential earthquake sources over a wide region, including at least the Appalachian mountains to the southwest and the St Lawrence valley to the north and east.”

Palestinians protest outside the Temple Walls (Revelation 12)

Palestinians take part in protest against Israeli annexation plans in Gaza City

Source: Xinhua| 2020-06-25 08:50:42|Editor: huaxia

A Palestinian man holding a placard takes part in a protest against Israeli annexation plans, in Gaza City, June 24, 2020. (Photo by Rizek Abdeljawad/Xinhua)

Palestinians take part in a protest against Israeli annexation plans, in Gaza City, June 24, 2020. (Photo by Rizek Abdeljawad/Xinhua)

Unrest to Spill Outside the Temple Walls (Revelation 11)

IDF chief warns anti-annexation unrest in West Bank could spill over to Gaza | The Times of Israel

By Alexander Fulbright

23 June 2020, 10:23 pm

Aviv Kohavi tells troops they could soon be facing ‘riots and terror,’ but does not mention annexation plan by name

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kovahi warned Wednesday Israel could soon face violent unrest in the West Bank, which could easily spread to Gaza, as the army preps for possible violence in response to the government’s plans to begin annexing lands claimed by the Palestinians.

Speaking at a military exercise in the north, Kohavi did not mention the controversial plan by name, but told soldiers they may soon need to shift their attention toward the West Bank should predictions of fighting in reaction to the move prove true.

“You can find yourself in a few weeks in the Judea and Samaria area because of riots and terror,” he was quoted saying in an IDF statement, using the biblical names of the West Bank.

“The upcoming events can develop into fighting in Gaza,” he added, predicting that months of calm with the normally tense enclave could return to intense fighting.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged to begin annexing parts of the West Bank next month, a move stridently opposed by the Palestinians and much of the international community.

Kohavi has refrained from commenting on the potential annexation of West Bank territories slated for Israel under the Trump administration’s peace plan, which Netanyahu can begin advancing on July 1 as part of his agreement with Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

The military has been preparing for a range of scenarios in response to annexation, but has been largely left out of the loop concerning Netanyahu’s plans, making it difficult to fully plan accordingly.

In a briefing Tuesday with reporters, Gantz said he’s reviewed potential annexation responses with the army and that the IDF is taking into account the possible consequences of the move.

“There is a security challenge in the Judea and Samaria area, and it may be a greater challenge as a result of applying the law — if and when that happens,” Gantz said.

The Palestinians have denounced Netanyahu’s annexation plans, with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declaring last month his West Bank-based PA was no longer bound by its agreements with Israel, including on security cooperation.

Hamas, the Islamist terror group that rules Gaza, has called for annexation to be met with “resistance.”

The prospect of unilateral annexation has been condemned internationally, with European and Arab states, as well as senior members of the US Democratic Party, warning the Israeli government against doing so.

Though the White House has signaled it won’t oppose annexation, Trump administration officials have signaled ambivalence about the timing of such a move and are expected to meet this week to make a final decision on whether to back Netanyahu’s plans.

Iran Approaching Nuclear Breakout (Daniel 8:4)

Iran’s Uranium Enrichment Program: Approaching Breakout

Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Raphael Ofek

June 24, 2020

Main sites of Iran’s nuclear program, image by Yagasi, translation of original work by Sémhur, via Wikimedia Commons

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 1,614, June 24, 2020

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Iran continues to insist that its nuclear program is designed for peaceful purposes despite all evidence of its military nature. This evidence includes the IAEA’s recent findings regarding Tehran’s progress in the field of uranium enrichment. Given Iran’s current uranium holdings and enrichment capabilities, it can theoretically break out from its NPT commitment and develop its first nuclear bomb within four months.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General issued a report on June 5, 2020 that is worded to deflate Iran’s renunciation of its signing of the JCPOA nuclear agreement. The report notes Tehran’s announcement on January 5 that its nuclear program is no longer “subject to any restrictions in the operational sphere,” but also notes that it claims a willingness to “continue to cooperate with the agency as in the past.”

Be that as it may, the report is hardly reassuring.

On June 1, Iran notified the agency that it has decided to stop implementing its commitment to limit centrifuge research and development. The report goes on to detail Tehran’s many deviations from the nuclear agreement, as discovered by the IAEA inspectors. These deviations include the following:

• On July 1, 2019, the agency verified that Iran’s accumulated enriched uranium stock exceeds the allowable amount of 300 kg of UF6 (uranium hexa-fluoride compound used in the uranium enrichment process) enriched to 3.67% (uranium content at 300 kg UF6 is 202.8 kg).

• On July 9, 2019, Iran began enriching uranium up to 4.5%, above the allowable rate of 3.67%.

• On November 6, 2019, Iran began once again to enrich uranium at the Fordow facility using 1,044 IR-1 centrifuges (Iran’s first centrifuge model).

• On May 11, 2020, Iran’s heavy water stockpile reached 132.6 tons. This exceeds the quantity allowed for aggregation (up to 130 tons).

• According to recent IAEA examinations, Iran has developed and manufactured centrifuge components as well as assembled centrifuge cascades in violation of the nuclear agreement.

• On May 20, 2020, the IAEA verified that the enriched uranium stockpile accumulated by Iran had reached a volume of 1,571.6 kg (550.7 kg over the amount found in the previous quarterly report). This quantity included 873.4 kg of enriched uranium to 4.5%, 215.1 kg of uranium enriched at 3.67%, and uranium enriched up to 2% or less. This is a significant breach of the agreement by Iran.

• The most significant deviation from the agreement, which was discovered on June 1, 2020, was the operation at the Natanz enrichment plant of advanced centrifuges developed in Iran for uranium enrichment to 4.5%: 164 IR-2m centrifuges, 164 IR-4 centrifuges, and 164 IR-6 centrifuges. According to a report by the Washington-based Institute of Science and International Security (ISIS) of June 8, 2020, which referred to the latest IAEA report, the IR-2m centrifuge enrichment capacity is 3.7 SWU (Separative Work Unit) per year, the estimated capacity of the IR-4 model is about 3.3 SWU/year, and the estimated capacity of the IR-6 centrifuge is 6.8 SWU/year. This can be compared with the first Iranian model, the IR-1, which, based on IAEA reports from the first half of this decade, is about 0.9 SWU/year.

As previously reported in the media, for example in the case of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons project (which, as is well known, has supplied knowhow on this topic to Iran in the past), to enrich natural uranium (whose fissile uranium-235 isotope’s concentration is about 0.7%) to 90% (weapons grade), the enrichment process must be performed in four steps. They are: enrichment to less than 5%; enrichment of the product obtained from the previous stage to 20%; enrichment to 60%, and finally to 90%. Theoretically, if Iran’s current uranium quantities—one portion enriched to 4.5% (873.4 kg) and the other to 3.67% (215.1 kg) as of May 20—were subsequently enriched to 20%, 60%, and 90%, the final product would be about 15 kg of uranium enriched to 90%. That is enough to produce one nuclear bomb core.

The enrichment capacity required for this is approximately 2,800 SWU. If we include the IR-1 centrifuges that Iran operates—5,600 at Natanz and 1,044 at Fordow—Iran’s current enrichment capacity is about 8,240 SWU/year. This implies that within four months, Iran could break out of its commitment to the NPT and enrich the amount of uranium it needs for its first nuclear bomb.

Kazem Garibabadi, Iran’s representative at the IAEA, confirmed the data presented in the IAEA’s latest report. He stressed that while Iran has suspended its 2015 commitments under the JCPOA nuclear agreement, it continues to cooperate with the IAEA in “nuclear verification and monitoring.” As for its decision in January to withdraw from the agreement, Tehran said that was in response to the sanctions imposed on it by the US and a signal to the EU, which it believes has not acted sufficiently to revoke or circumvent those sanctions.

Garibabadi’s comments appeared to reflect his country’s official statement that its nuclear program is “peaceful,” and that its signing of the 2015 nuclear agreement was “voluntary.” He also apparently wanted to send a message to the IAEA member states that Iran’s significant progress in developing its enrichment program is of a civilian nature.

Iran’s presentation of itself as a country building a peaceful nuclear program is flatly contradicted by the vast amount of intelligence revealed to date, particularly that gleaned from the “Iran’s Nuclear Archive” operation. That intelligence unequivocally indicated that the program is intended primarily for nuclear weapons production.

According to a March 3 report, the IAEA said it has identified three sites in Iran, undisclosed by the regime, where it may be storing undeclared nuclear materials or carrying out nuclear-related activities. In a statement to the IAEA’s Board of Governors on March 9, IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi urged Iran to fully cooperate with IAEA inspectors and allow them quick access to the suspected sites.

Garibabadi had this to say on the matter: “’Intelligence services’ (of course Western services) fabricated information… [which] creates no obligation for Iran to consider such requests.”

In April, a cyberattack attributed to Iran on Israeli water facilities was intended to increase the concentration of chlorine in the drinking water of Israeli citizens. Had it succeeded, the attack would have sickened many Israeli civilians and deprived many more of drinking water during a heat wave. Fortunately, the Iranian attack was detected at its beginning and thwarted before it could do any damage.

Iran’s attempt to poison the citizens of a country it considers to be an enemy demonstrates its willingness to go far to harm the State of Israel. As it has stated many times over four decades, it wishes to destroy Israel completely. If it succeeds in achieving a nuclear arsenal, that would constitute an existential threat to Israel.

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Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Raphael Ofek, a BESA Center Research Associate, is an expert in the field of nuclear physics and technology who served as a senior analyst in the Israeli intelligence community.

Trump’s Hopeless Plan to Contain the China Nuclear Horn

The Trump Administration Has a China Containment Plan

The Trump administration has announced a new strategic approach to China. The move has been interpreted as an escalation into a new “Cold War,” reminiscent of the old competition between the West and the Soviet Union.

But the new strategy for China is profoundly different from the political containment and détente strategies that the United States followed during the real Cold War. The competition with the Soviet Union and its allies was fundamentally political and military. A spiraling nuclear arms race converged in central Europe where two opposing military alliances, NATO and the Warsaw Pact, were poised for war. Moscow aggressively promoted the spread of communism, opportunistically fomenting and supporting revolution and guerilla wars around the world.

The Soviet Bloc, however, could never successfully compete with Western democracies in the marketplace. The rigid, centrally planned approach to economics pursued by Soviet-style communism did not hold a candle to the dynamic free-market economies of the West. The Soviet Bloc operated within its own closed economic world, generating far less prosperity than market-based economies. Ultimately, the Soviet system collapsed of its own weight, strangled both by its centrally planned dirigisme, and Western alliance trade controls that denied the Communist Bloc access to advanced technology and products. Anyone from the United States who traveled to Russia after the Soviet Union’s collapse in the early 1990s thought that they had walked into a time warp, a country stuck in the 1950s. In the end, the Soviets did not have the economic ability to keep up the military competition with the United States and its allies. The arms race bankrupted the Soviet Union and its centrally planned communist, economic system.

The current situation with China bears no resemblance to any of this. China is the world’s largest, market-based economy in purchasing power parity terms. The Chinese challenge is overwhelmingly a question of market governance. Unlike the former Soviet Union, China does not seek to impose or spread its style of communist rule on other countries (other than Taiwan), either by military means or political persuasion. China’s nuclear arms inventory is a fraction of that of the United States or Russia, adequate only to survive a first nuclear strike and retaliate. China’s economy is not centrally planned under Soviet-style communist principles. China’s economy has leaped to the top by exploiting and manipulating what the administration describes as the global economy’s “free and open rules-based order.” China is now the leading exporting country in the world and the second-largest importer after the United States. It has cynically manipulated free market rules to achieve its long-range goal of global economic dominance under an authoritarian communist party model more reminiscent of German-style fascism than Marxist socialist doctrine, or Soviet-style central economic planning and control. Like Nazi Germany, China espouses a form of (Han centered) ultra-nationalism, marked by dictatorial powers, suppression of dissent, and overwhelming regimentation of society and the market economy to serve the ends of one-party rule under a benighted leader.

But, unlike the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany, China’s military objectives have so far proven to be far more limited than its economic ambitions. China’s priority military focus is confined to the zealous defense of its territorial borders, including dominance over its littoral waters, the Yellow, East and South China Seas. While China’s navy today is the world’s largest, having built four warships for every one built by the United States over the last ten years, those ships are concentrated in waters near its coast, not patrolling throughout the world like those of the U.S. Navy. 

In the mid-1990s, China fired missiles into waters close to Taiwan, trying to intimidate that country’s first democratic, presidential election. In response, the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) sent two carrier battle groups into the Strait of Taiwan. Confronted with that U.S. naval might in those days, China had no choice but to back down. Chinese missiles stopped falling and Taiwan held its election. The balance of naval power in the region since then has dramatically shifted to China’s favor. PACOM would not sail modern carrier strike groups today into the Taiwan Strait to deter China. But while China’s navy, backed by thousands of missiles ashore, has grown far more powerful, its aims so far remain defensive to protect the homeland and adjacent waters, leveraging advantage from its interior lines of defense.

The Trump administration’s new policy approach to China marks a subtle recognition of these objective realities. The administration is marshaling a foreign policy strategy that is centered more on economic than military imperatives. 

The number one national security challenge posed by China according to the new policy is not existential or military but rather “state-driven protectionist policies and practices [that] harm United States companies and workers, distort global markets, violate international norms and pollute the environment.” Mercantilism, intellectual property theft, cyber hacking, discriminatory trade practices, business corruption, financially destabilizing, opaque loans to foreign governments, are listed as actions that compel a systemic policy response by the United States. While the strategy notes Chinese challenges to American values and military security as other concerns, it is clear that the major focus of the new national security policy is on economic governance challenges. The strategy also strikes a stark realist perspective by underscoring that it is not aimed at overthrowing or changing China’s communist regime, leaving that question of internal governance to “the Chinese people themselves.” This approach contrasts with old Soviet Cold War policy, (at least before the advent of Nixon/Kissinger détente) when effecting regime change in at least some communist countries was considered a possible goal. 

To implement its new policy, the Trump administration is pursuing a number of different avenues. The military aspects of the initiative will be relatively limited, calling mainly for increased military cooperation with allies, continued freedom of navigation cruises in the South China Sea (something that can be handled by one or two smaller warships such as frigates or destroyers), and continued development of precision strike missiles, drones, cyber and space capabilities. The financial investment necessary to support this kind of military commitment should be considerably less than what was spent during the Cold War and after on nuclear weapons, carrier battle groups, advanced stealth bombers and fighters, and weapons and equipment for mass infantry combat. The strategic competition with China is envisioned to be fundamentally peaceful, focused in the realm of economic and global governance.

The steps in the process of implementation by the Trump administration to address China’s unfair economic governance practices are manifold. They range from curtailing China’s access, under its “Military-Civil Fusion” strategy, to advanced U.S. technologies including telecommunications; to aggressive prosecution for trade secret theft; to restrictions on Chinese foreign direct investment in sensitive U.S. infrastructure and supply chains; to more aggressive enforcement of foreign agent registration laws on Chinese government agents in the United States; to combatting the U.S. sale of Chinese counterfeit products and fentanyl; to restricting access of students with connections to China’s military to sensitive academic fields; to imposing tariffs to protect strategically important U.S. industries such as steel and aluminum; to more crackdowns on illegal Chinese dumping and subsidies for products sold to the U.S. market.

While these measures are comprehensive, none involve a U.S. Cold War-style military buildup to confront China aggressively immediately off its coastline. The Trump administration’s new policy initiative makes it clear that the United States is not trying to impose regime change on China, however much the United States abhors its authoritarian practices. While the United States will continue to stand up diplomatically for human rights and respect for the autonomy of Taiwan and Hong Kong, the fact is that short of nuclear war, there are limits to what the United States (and its allies) can impose by military will on China. In the years ahead, the key to global stability will be the pursuit of effective economic diplomacy and trade policy, persuading China to practice fair and honest governance in the global marketplace consistent with General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, bilateral obligations and international norms. The national security structure of the United States will need to adjust overall. The role of the military in the conduct of foreign affairs, including powerful regional combatant commands, will likely be less compared to the Cold War and the post—9/11 eras. Future National Security Advisors at the White House may also be less likely to be generals, and more likely to be economists and international trade experts. While keeping its guard up, America will become less Sparta and more Athens. A new Cold War is not beginning.

Ramon Marks is a retired New York international lawyer.

Image: Reuters

The Trumpet Alarm of the Coming Nuclear War (Revelation 16)

Nuclear Alarmism: Proliferation and Terrorism

Alarmism about nuclear weapons is common coin in the foreign policy establishment.1 During the course of the Cold War, for example, the chief concern was that the weapons would somehow go off, by accident or by intention, devastating the planet in the process.

In 1960, a top nuclear strategist declared it “most unlikely” that the world could live with an uncontrolled arms race for decades. And in 1979, political scientist Hans J. Morgenthau declared: “The world is moving ineluctably towards a third world war — a strategic nuclear war. I do not believe that anything can be done to prevent it. The international system is simply too unstable to survive for long.” In the 1980s, variously between 20 and 37 percent of the American population told pollsters that they held the potential for nuclear war to be the most important problem facing the country, even as creative activists at Brown University demanded that their health service should stockpile suicide pills for immediate dispensation in the event of a nuclear attack to those unfortunates who still remained unvaporized.2

In a 1982 New Yorker essay and a best‐ selling book, both entitled The Fate of the Earth, Jonathan Schell passionately, if repetitively, argued the not entirely novel proposition that nuclear war would be terrible, and he concluded ominously: “One day — and it is hard to believe that it will not be soon — we will make our choice. Either we will sink into the final coma and end it all or, as I trust and believe, we will awaken to the truth of our peril … and rise up to cleanse the earth of nuclear weapons.“3 As it happened, both options were avoided: neither final coma nor nuclear cleansing ever took place.

After the United States and the Soviet Union called off their Cold War in 1989, nuclear concerns dwindled, even though thousands of the weapons continued to be retained. Ever resourceful, however, nuclear alarmists quickly shifted their focus. If big countries with large nuclear arsenals were now unlikely to bring about the end of the world, small ones with small arsenals could do the job. Or even tiny groups of diabolical terrorists. After all, it was essentially argued, since a group of them, armed with box cutters and a clever plan, took down two skyscrapers, they might soon advance to nuclear weapons and then use them to topple American society, the ascendency of the modern state, or civilization as we know it, either all at once or seriatim.4

This chapter is devoted to alarmism about the supposed dangers to American national security inherent in the proliferation of nuclear weapons to states and to terrorists.

Nuclear Proliferation

In an influential book, Graham Allison argues that “no new nuclear weapons states” should be a prime foreign policy principle, and analyst Joseph Cirincione very much agrees, insisting that nonproliferation should be “our number one national‐ security priority.“5

There are good reasons to avoid alarmism in this area, however. First, the pace of nuclear proliferation has been far slower than has been commonly predicted primarily because the weapons convey little advantage to their possessor. Second, the consequences of such proliferation that has taken place have been substantially benign: those who have acquired the weapons have “used” them simply to stoke their egos or to deter real or imagined threats.6

And thirdly, the costs of anti‐ proliferation policy have been very substantial: the number of people who have died as a consequence of dedicated efforts to contain nuclear proliferation runs well into six figures.


Alarmists have been wrong for decades about the pace of nuclear proliferation. Dozens of technologically capable countries have considered obtaining nuclear arsenals, but very few have done so. Indeed, as Jacques Hymans has pointed out, even supposedly optimistic forecasts about nuclear dispersion have proved to be too pessimistic.7 Thus, in 1958, the National Planning Association predicted “a rapid rise in the number of atomic powers … by the mid‐ 1960s.“8 A few years later, C. P. Snow sagely predicted, “Within, at the most, six years, China and several other states [will] have a stock of nuclear bombs,” and John Kennedy observed that there might be “ten, fifteen, twenty” countries with a nuclear capacity by 1964.9

As part of that forecasting, it has generally been assumed that nuclear weapons would be important status — or virility — symbols; therefore, all advanced countries would want to have them in order to show how “powerful” they were. Thus, France’s de Gaulle opined in the 1960s, “No country without an atom bomb could properly consider itself independent,” and Robert Gilpin concluded that “the possession of nuclear weapons largely determines a nation’s rank in the hierarchy of international prestige.“10 In Gilpinian tradition, some analysts who describe themselves as “realists” have insisted for years that Germany and Japan must soon come to their senses and quest after nuclear weapons.11 Such punditry has gone astray in part because the pundits insist on extrapolating from the wrong cases. A more pertinent prototype would have been Canada, a country that could easily have had nuclear weapons by the 1960s but declined to make the effort.12 In fact, over the decades, a huge number of countries capable of developing nuclear weapons have neglected even to consider the opportunity — for example, Canada, Italy, and Norway — even as Argentina, Brazil, Libya, South Korea, and Taiwan have backed away from or reversed nuclear weapons programs, and Belarus, Kazakhstan, South Africa, and Ukraine have actually surrendered or dismantled an existing nuclear arsenal.13 Some of that reduction is no doubt due to the hostility of the nuclear nations, but even without that, the Canadian case seems to have proved to have rather general relevance.

To begin with, as Stephen Meyer has shown, there is no “technological imperative” for countries to obtain nuclear weapons once they have achieved the technical capacity to do so.14 Moreover, like military prowess in general, the weapons have not proved to be crucial status symbols. As Robert Jervis has observed, “India, China, and Israel may have decreased the chance of direct attack by developing nuclear weapons, but it is hard to argue that they have increased their general prestige or influence.“15 How much more status would Japan have if it possessed nuclear weapons? Would anybody pay a great deal more attention to Britain or France if their arsenals held 5,000 nuclear weapons, or would anybody pay much less if they had none? Did China need nuclear weapons to impress the world with its economic growth? Or with its Olympics? As Jennifer Mackby and Walter Slocombe observe, “Germany, like its erstwhile Axis ally, Japan, has become powerful because of its economic might rather than its military might, and its renunciation of nuclear weapons may even have reinforced its prestige.“16

Decades of alarmist predictions about proliferation chains, cascades, dominoes, waves, avalanches, epidemics, and points of no return have proved to be faulty. The proliferation of nuclear weapons has been far slower than routinely expected because, insofar as most leaders of most countries (even rogue ones) have considered acquiring the weapons, they have come to appreciate several defects: the weapons are dangerous, distasteful, costly, and likely to rile the neighbors. Moreover, as Jacques Hymans has demonstrated, the weapons have also been exceedingly difficult to obtain for administratively dysfunctional countries like Iran.17


Although we have now suffered through two‐ thirds of a century during which there has been great hysteria about the disasters inherent in nuclear proliferation, the consequences of the proliferation that has occurred have been substantially benign. The few countries to which the weapons have proliferated have quietly kept them in storage and haven’t even found much benefit in rattling them from time to time. And even the deterrence value of the weapons has been questionable — the major Cold War participants, for example, scarcely needed visions of mushroom clouds to conclude that any replication of World War II, with or without nuclear weapons, was a decidedly bad idea.18

Moreover, there has never been a militarily compelling — or even minimally sensible — reason to use the weapons, particularly because of an inability to identify suitable targets or ones that could not be attacked about as effectively by conventional munitions. And it is difficult to see how nuclear weapons benefited their possessors in specific military ventures. Israel’s presumed nuclear weapons did not restrain the Arabs from attacking in 1973, nor did Britain’s prevent Argentina’s seizure of the Falklands in 1982. Similarly, the tens of thousands of nuclear weapons in the arsenals of the enveloping allied forces did not cause Saddam Hussein to order his occupying forces out of Kuwait in 1990. Nor did possession of the bomb benefit America in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan; France in Algeria; or the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Proliferation alarmists may occasionally grant that countries principally obtain a nuclear arsenal to counter real or perceived threats. But many go on to argue that the newly nuclear country will then use its nuclear weapons to dominate the area. That argument was repeatedly used with dramatic urgency for the dangers supposedly posed by Saddam Hussein, and it is now being applied to Iran.

Exactly how that domination business is to be carried out is never made clear.19 But the notion apparently is that should an atomic Iraq (in earlier fantasies) or North Korea or Iran (in present ones) rattle the occasional rocket, other countries in the area, suitably intimidated, would supinely bow to its demands. Far more likely, any threatened states will make common cause with each other and with other concerned countries against the threatening neighbor. It thus seems overwhelmingly likely that if a nuclear Iran brandishes its weapons to intimidate others or to get its way, it will find that those threatened, rather than capitulating to its blandishments or rushing off to build a compensating arsenal of their own, will ally with others (including conceivably Israel) to stand up to the intimidation — rather in the way they coalesced into an alliance of convenience to oppose Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

It is sometimes said, or implied, that proliferation has had little consequence because the only countries to possess nuclear weapons have had rational leaders. But the weapons have proliferated to large, important countries run by unchallenged monsters who, at the time they acquired the bombs, were certifiably deranged: Josef Stalin, who in 1949 was planning to change the climate of the Soviet Union by planting a lot of trees, and Mao Zedong, who in 1964 had just carried out a bizarre social experiment that resulted in an artificial famine in which tens of millions of Chinese perished.20 It is incumbent on those who strongly oppose an Iranian bomb to demonstrate that the regime there is daffier than these.

The few countries to have acquired nuclear weapons programs seem to have done so sometimes as an ego trip for current leaders and, more urgently (or perhaps merely in addition), as an effort to deter a potential attack on themselves: China to deter the United States and the Soviet Union, Israel to deter various enemy nations in the neighborhood, India to deter China, Pakistan to deter India, and now North Korea to deter the United States and maybe others.21 Insofar as nuclear proliferation is a response to perceived threat, it follows that one way to reduce the likelihood of such countries’ going nuclear is a simple one: stop threatening them.

The Costs of Alarmist Nonproliferation Policies

Although the consequences of nuclear proliferation have proved to be substantially benign, the same cannot be said for the consequences of the nuclear nonproliferation quest.

Candidate Barack Obama announced during the campaign of 2008 that he would “do everything in [his] power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon — everything,” and John McCain insisted that Iran must be kept from obtaining a nuclear weapon “at all costs.“22 Neither bothered to tally what “everything” might entail and what the costs might be, and both continue to make the same kinds of pronouncements.

Such a mentality was a chief motivator of the 2003 Iraq War, which was essentially a militarized antiproliferation effort. It was sold almost entirely as a venture required to keep Saddam Hussein’s pathetic and fully containable and deterrable rogue state from developing nuclear and other presumably threatening weapons and to prevent him from palming off some of them to eager and congenial terrorists.23 Thus, in an influential 2002 book, Kenneth Pollack strenuously advocated a war whose “whole point” would be to “prevent Saddam from acquiring nuclear weapons,” which Western intelligence agencies, he reported, were predicting would occur by 2004 (pessimistic) or 2008 (optimistic).24 As the Defense Department’s Paul Wolfowitz pointed out, nuclear weapons, or at any rate weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), were the “core reason” for the war.25 For their part, Democrats have derided the war as “unnecessary,” but the bulk of them came to that conclusion only after the United States was unable to find either weapons or weapons programs in Iraq. Many of them have made it clear that they would support putatively preemptive (actually, preventive) military action — and presumably its extensive bloodshed if the intelligence about Saddam’s programs had been accurate.26 Well over 100,000 people have died in this antiproliferation war; the number who perished at Hiroshima and Nagasaki is often put at around the same magnitude.27 An alarmist mentality was shown by decisionmakers in the Clinton administration in 1994. They were apparently prepared to go to war with the miserable North Korean regime to prevent or to halt its nuclear development.28 A full‐ scale war on the peninsula, estimated the Pentagon, could kill 1 million people, including 80,000 to 100,000 Americans; could cost more than $100 billion; and could do economic destruction on the order of $1 trillion.29 That is a considerable price, one might think, to prevent a pathetic regime from developing weapons with the potential for killing a few tens of thousands — if they were actually exploded, an act that would be suicidal for the regime.30

Nuclear Terrorism

Alarm about the possibility that small groups could set off nuclear weapons has been repeatedly raised at least since 1946, when atomic bomb maker J. Robert Oppenheimer contended that if three or four men could smuggle in units for an atomic bomb, they could “destroy New York.” Thirty years later, nuclear physicist Theodore Taylor explained “how comparatively easy it would be to steal nuclear material and step by step make it into a bomb.” At the time, he thought it variously already too late to “prevent the making of a few bombs, here and there, now and then,” or “in another ten or fifteen years, it will be too late.“31 Four decades after Taylor, we continue to wait for terrorists to carry out their “easy” task.

In the wake of 9/11, concern about the atomic terrorist surged even though the attacks of that day used no special weapons. By 2003, United Nations Ambassador John Negroponte judged there to be “a high probability” that within two years al Qaeda would attempt an attack using a nuclear or other weapon of mass destruction. And it was in that spirit that in 2004, Graham Allison published a book relaying his “considered judgment” that “on the current path, a nuclear terrorist attack on America in the decade ahead is more likely than not.” He had presumably relied on the same inspirational mechanism in 1995 to predict that “in the absence of a determined program of action, we have every reason to anticipate acts of nuclear terrorism against American targets before this decade is out.“32

Allison has quite a bit of company in his perpetually alarming conclusions. According to Robert Gates, former secretary of defense, every senior government leader is kept awake at night by “the thought of a terrorist ending up with a weapon of mass destruction, especially nuclear.” And on April 11, 2010, President Barack Obama held the atomic terrorist to be “the single biggest threat to U.S. security.“33

However, thus far, terrorist groups seem to have exhibited only limited desire and even less progress in going atomic. That lack of action may be because, after a brief exploration of the possible routes, they — unlike generations of alarmists — have discovered that the tremendous effort required is scarcely likely to be successful.34

Obtaining a Finished Bomb: Assistance by a State

One route a would‐ be atomic terrorist might take would be to receive or buy a bomb from a generous like‐ minded nuclear state for delivery abroad. That route is highly improbable, however, because there would be too much risk — even for a country led by extremists — that the ultimate source of the weapon would be discovered. As one prominent analyst, Matthew Bunn, puts it, “A dictator or oligarch bent on maintaining power is highly unlikely to take the immense risk of transferring such a devastating capability to terrorists they cannot control, given the ever‐ present possibility that the material would be traced back to its origin.” Important in this last consideration are deterrent safeguards afforded by “nuclear forensics,” which is the rapidly developing science (and art) of connecting nuclear materials to their sources even after a bomb has been exploded.35

Moreover, there is a very considerable danger to the donor that the bomb (and its source) would be discovered before delivery or that it would be exploded in a manner and on a target the donor would not approve of — including on the donor itself. Another concern would be that the terrorist group might be infiltrated by foreign intelligence.36

In addition, almost no one would trust al Qaeda. As one observer has pointed out, the terrorist group’s explicit enemies list includes not only Christians and Jews but also all Middle Eastern regimes; Muslims who don’t share its views; most Western countries; the governments of Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, and Russia; most news organizations; the United Nations; and international nongovernmental organizations.37 Most of the time, it didn’t get along all that well even with its host in Afghanistan, the Taliban government.38

Stealing or Illicitly Purchasing a Bomb: Loose Nukes

There has also been great worry about “loose nukes,” especially in postcommunist Russia — weapons, “suitcase bombs” in particular, that can be stolen or bought illicitly. A careful assessment conducted by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies has concluded that it is unlikely that any of those devices have been lost and that, regardless, their effectiveness would be very low or even nonexistent because they (like all nuclear weapons) require continual maintenance.39 Even some of those people most alarmed by the prospect of atomic terrorism have concluded, “It is probably true that there are no ‘loose nukes,’ transportable nuclear weapons missing from their proper storage locations and available for purchase in some way.“40

It might be added that Russia has an intense interest in controlling any weapons on its territory because it is likely to be a prime target of any illicit use by terrorist groups, particularly Chechen ones of course, with whom it has been waging a vicious on‐ and‐ off war for two decades. The government of Pakistan, which has been repeatedly threatened by terrorists, has a similar interest in controlling its nuclear weapons and material — and scientists. As noted by Stephen Younger, former head of nuclear weapons research and development at Los Alamos National Laboratory, “Regardless of what is reported in the news, all nuclear nations take the security of their weapons very seriously.“41 Even if a finished bomb were somehow lifted somewhere, the loss would soon be noted and a worldwide pursuit launched.

Moreover, finished bombs are outfitted with devices designed to trigger a nonnuclear explosion that would destroy the bomb if it were tampered with. And there are other security techniques: bombs can be kept disassembled with the components stored in separate high‐ security vaults, and security can be organized so that two people and multiple codes are required not only to use the bomb but also to store, maintain, and deploy it. If the terrorists seek to enlist (or force) the services of someone who already knows how to set off the bomb, they would find, as Younger stresses, that “only few people in the world have the knowledge to cause an unauthorized detonation of a nuclear weapon.” Weapons designers know how a weapon works, he explains, but not the multiple types of signals necessary to set it off, and maintenance personnel are trained in only a limited set of functions.42

There could be dangers in the chaos that would emerge if a nuclear state were to fail, collapsing in full disarray — Pakistan is frequently brought up in this context and sometimes North Korea as well. However, even under those conditions, nuclear weapons would likely remain under heavy guard by people who know that a purloined bomb would most likely end up going off in their own territory; would still have locks (and in the case of Pakistan would be disassembled); and could probably be followed, located, and hunted down by an alarmed international community. The worst‐ case scenario in that instance requires not only a failed state but also a considerable series of additional permissive conditions, including consistent (and perfect) insider complicity and a sequence of hasty, opportunistic decisions or developments that click flawlessly in a manner far more familiar to Hollywood scriptwriters than to people experienced with reality.43

Building a Bomb of One’s Own

Because they are unlikely to be able to buy or steal a usable bomb and because they are further unlikely to have one handed off to them by an established nuclear state, the most plausible route for terrorists would be to manufacture the device themselves from purloined materials. That is the course identified by a majority of leading experts as the one most likely to lead to nuclear terrorism.44

The simplest design is a “gun” type of device in which masses of highly enriched uranium are hurled at each other within a tube. Such a device would be, as Allison acknowledges, “large, cumbersome, unsafe, unreliable, unpredictable, and inefficient.“45

The process of making such a weapon is daunting even in this minimal case. In particular, the task requires that a considerable series of difficult hurdles be conquered and in sequence.

To begin with, now and likely for the foreseeable future, stateless groups are incapable of manufacturing the requisite weapons‐ grade uranium themselves because the process requires an effort on an industrial scale. Moreover, they are unlikely to be supplied with the material by a state for the same reasons a state is unlikely to give them a workable bomb.46 Thus, they would need to steal or illicitly purchase the crucial material.

A successful armed theft is exceedingly unlikely, not only because of the resistance of guards but also because chase would be immediate. A more plausible route would be to corrupt insiders to smuggle out the necessary fissile material. However, that approach requires the terrorists to pay off a host of greedy confederates, including brokers and money transmitters, any one of whom could turn on them or — either out of guile or incompetence — furnish them with stuff that is useless.47 Moreover, because of improved safeguards and accounting practices, it is decreasingly likely that the theft would remain undetected.48 That development is important because if any missing uranium is noticed, the authorities would investigate the few people who might have been able to assist the thieves, and one who seems suddenly to have become prosperous is likely to arrest their attention right from the start. Even one initially tempted by, seduced by, or sympathetic to, the blandishments of the smooth‐ talking foreign terrorists might soon develop sobering second thoughts and go to the authorities. Insiders tempted to assist terrorists might also come to ruminate over the fact that, once the heist was accomplished, the terrorists would, as analyst Brian Jenkins puts it none too delicately, “have every incentive to cover their trail, beginning with eliminating their confederates.“49

It is also relevant to note that over the years, known thefts of highly enriched uranium have totaled fewer than 16 pounds. That amount is far less than that required for an atomic explosion: for a crude bomb, more than 100 pounds are necessary to produce a likely yield of one kiloton. Moreover, none of those thieves was connected to al Qaeda, and, most arrestingly, none had buyers lined up — nearly all were caught while trying to peddle their wares. Indeed, concludes analyst Robin Frost, “There appears to be no true demand, except where the buyers were government agents running a sting.” Because there appears to be no commercial market for fissile material, each sale would be a one‐ time affair, not a continuing source of profit such as drugs, and there is no evidence of established underworld commercial trade in this illicit commodity.50

If terrorists were somehow successful in obtaining a sufficient mass of relevant material, they would then have to transport it out of the country over unfamiliar terrain, probably while being pursued by security forces. Then, they would need to set up a large and well‐ equipped machine shop to manufacture a bomb and populate it with a select team of highly skilled scientists, technicians, and machinists. The process would also require good managers and organizers. The group would have to be assembled and retained for the monumental task without generating consequential suspicions among friends, family, and police about their curious and sudden absence from normal pursuits back home. Pakistan, for example, maintains a strict watch on many of its nuclear scientists even after retirement.51

Some observers have insisted that it would be “easy” for terrorists to assemble a crude bomb if they could get enough fissile material.52 However, Christoph Wirz and Emmanuel Egger, two senior physicists in charge of nuclear issues at Switzerland’s Spiez Laboratory, conclude that the task “could hardly be accomplished by a subnational group.” They point out that precise blueprints are required, not just sketches and general ideas, and that even with a good blueprint, the terrorist group “would most certainly be forced to redesign.” They also stress that the work, far from being “easy,” is difficult, dangerous, and extremely exacting and that the technical requirements “in several fields verge on the unfeasible.“53

Los Alamos research director Younger makes a similar argument, expressing his amazement at “self‐ declared ‘nuclear weapons experts,’ many of whom have never seen a real nuclear weapon,” who “hold forth on how easy it is to make a functioning nuclear explosive.” Information is available for getting the general idea behind a rudimentary nuclear explosive, but none is detailed enough for “the confident assembly of a real nuclear explosive.” Younger concludes, “To think that a terrorist group, working in isolation with an unreliable supply of electricity and little access to tools and supplies” could fabricate a bomb “is far‐ fetched at best.“54

Under the best of circumstances, the process could take months or even a year or more, and it would all, of course, have to be carried out in utter secret even while local and international security police are likely to be on the intense prowl. In addition, people, or criminal gangs, in the area may observe with increasing curiosity and puzzlement the constant comings and goings of technicians unlikely to be locals.

The process of fabricating a nuclear device requires, then, the effective recruitment of people who at once have great technical skills and will remain completely devoted to the cause. In addition, a host of corrupted coconspirators, many of them foreign, must remain utterly reliable; international and local security services must be kept perpetually in the dark; and no curious outsider must get wind of the project over the months, or even years, it takes to pull off.

The finished product could weigh a ton or more. Encased in lead shielding to mask radioactive emissions, it would then have to be transported to, as well as smuggled into, the relevant target country. Then, the enormous package would have to be received within the target country by a group of collaborators who are at once totally dedicated and technically proficient at handling, maintaining, and perhaps assembling the weapon. Then, they would have to detonate it somewhere under the fervent hope that the machine shop work has been proficient, that no significant shakeups occurred in the treacherous process of transportation, and that the thing — after all that effort — doesn’t prove to be a dud.

The financial costs of the extended operation in its cumulating entirety could become monumental. There would be expensive equipment to buy, smuggle, and set up, as well as people to pay — or pay off. Some operatives might work for free out of dedication, but the vast conspiracy also requires the subversion of an array of criminals and opportunists, each of whom has every incentive to push the price for cooperation as high as possible. Any criminals who are competent and capable enough to be an effective ally in the project are likely to be both smart enough to see opportunities for extortion and psychologically equipped by their profession to be willing to exploit them.


In addition, the evidence about the degree to which al Qaeda has pursued, or even has much interest in, a nuclear weapons program is limited and often ambiguous. For example, in 2004, the 9/11 Commission insisted that “al Qaeda has tried to acquire or make nuclear weapons for at least ten years.” The only substantial evidence it supplies for that assertion comes from an episode that supposedly took place around 1993 in Sudan, when Osama bin Laden’s aides were scammed when they tried to buy some uranium.55 Information about that caper apparently comes from a man who defected from al Qaeda in 1996 after he had been caught stealing $110,000 from the organization. He tried selling his story around the Middle East, but only the Americans were buying. In his prize‐ winning The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright relays the testimony of the man who allegedly purchased the substance for bin Laden, as well as that of a Sudanese intelligence agent. Both assert that, although there were various other scams going around at the time, the uranium episode never happened.56

Various sources suggest that radical elements in bin Laden’s entourage were interested in pursuing atomic weapons or other WMDs when the group was in Afghanistan in the 1990s. However, the same sources indicate that bin Laden had little interest in that pursuit and essentially sabotaged the idea by refusing to fund it, or even to initiate planning for it.57 Analyst Anne Stenersen notes that evidence from a recovered al Qaeda computer indicates that only some $2,000–$4,000 was earmarked for WMD research, all of it apparently for (very crude) chemical work with some potentially for biological weapons. For comparison, she points out that the millennial terrorist group Aum Shinrikyo appears to have invested $30 million in its sarin gas manufacturing program alone.58 There are also reports that bin Laden had some “academic” discussions in 2001 about WMDs with some Pakistani nuclear scientists who did not, actually, know how to build a bomb.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the apparent mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, reportedly says that al Qaeda’s atom bomb efforts never went beyond searching the Internet.59 After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, technical experts from the Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of Energy examined information uncovered in Afghanistan and arrived at conclusions generally supportive of that assertion. They found no credible information that al Qaeda had obtained fissile material or a nuclear weapon, and no evidence of “any radioactive material suitable for weapons.” They did uncover, however, a “nuclear‐ related” document discussing “openly available concepts about the nuclear fuel cycle and some weapons related issues.“60 Physicist and weapons expert David Albright is more impressed with the evidence, but he concludes that any al Qaeda atomic efforts were “seriously disrupted” — indeed, “nipped in the bud” — by the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, and that after the invasion, the “chance of al Qaeda detonating a nuclear explosive appears on reflection to be low.“61

Rumors and reports that al Qaeda managed to purchase an atomic bomb, or several, have been around now for well over a decade, beginning around 1998. One alleges, for example, that bin Laden gave a group of Chechens $30 million in cash and two tons of opium in exchange for 20 nuclear warheads. If any of those reports were true, one might think the terrorist group (or its supposed Chechen suppliers) would have tried to set one off by now or that al Qaeda would have left some trace of the weapons behind in Afghanistan after it made its very hasty exit in 2001.

Bin Laden pronounced on the nuclear weapons issue a few times, talking about an Islamic “duty” or “right” to obtain the weapons for defense. Some of those oft‐ quoted assertions can be viewed as threatening, but they are rather coy and indirect, indicating perhaps something of an interest, but not acknowledging any sort of capability. And as Louise Richardson concludes, “Statements claiming a right to possess nuclear weapons have been misinterpreted as expressing a determination to use them,” feeding “the exaggeration of the threat we face.“62

When examined, the evidence of al Qaeda’s desire to go atomic and about its progress in accomplishing that exceedingly difficult task, even in the comparative safety of its Afghan haven of the 1990s, is remarkably skimpy, if not completely negligible. The scariest stuff — a decade’s worth of loose nuke rumor, chatter, and hype — seems to have no substance whatever.

After an exhaustive study of available materials, Stenersen concludes that, although al Qaeda central may have considered nuclear and other nonconventional weapons, there “is little evidence that such ideas ever developed into actual plans, or that they were given any kind of priority at the expense of more traditional types of terrorist attacks.“63 And there is no reason to believe things got better for them after they were forcefully expelled from their comparatively unembattled base in Afghanistan.

In 1996, one of terrorism studies’ top gurus, Walter Laqueur, insisted that some terrorist groups “almost certainly” will use WMDs “in the foreseeable future.“64 Presumably any future foreseeable in 1996 is now history, but in contrast, terrorists in effect seem to be heeding the advice found in a memo on an al Qaeda laptop seized in Pakistan in 2004: “Make use of that which is available … rather than waste valuable time becoming despondent over that which is not within your reach.“65 That is, keep it simple, stupid. Although there have been plenty of terrorist attacks in the world since 2001, all (thus far, at least) have relied on conventional destructive methods. There hasn’t even been much in the way of the occasional gas bomb, not even in Iraq where the technology is hardly much of a secret.


Concerns about the dangers inherent in nuclear proliferation and in nuclear terrorism certainly seem overwrought.

It would be desirable that a number of variously designated regimes (and quite a few others) never obtain nuclear weapons. Accordingly, there is nothing wrong in making nonproliferation a high priority. Indeed, if the efforts successfully dissuade Iran from foolishly launching a nuclear weapons program, they would be doing it a favor — though, quite possibly, the Iranians wouldn’t notice.

However, if new nations acquire the costly weapons, they are most likely to put them to use — if that is the term — the same way other nuclear countries have: to stoke their collective egos and to deter real or perceived threats. Even countries that once seemed to be hugely threatening such as Communist China in the 1960s have been content to use their weapons for those purposes. Accordingly, history suggests that the proliferation of nuclear weapons scarcely presents a major danger to the word.

Moreover, any anti‐ proliferation priority should be topped with a somewhat higher one: avoiding militarily aggressive actions under the obsessive sway of worst‐ case‐ scenario fantasies, actions that might lead to the deaths of tens — or hundreds — of thousands of people.

If the potential for atomic terrorism is indeed the single most serious threat to the national security of the United States as many maintain, that potential could actually be viewed as a comparatively cheering conclusion. Sensible cost‐ effective policies designed to make that probability even lower may be justified, given the damage that can be inflicted by an atomic explosion. But any notion that terrorist groups will come up with nuclear weapons, even if they wanted to and tried hard, looks extremely unlikely. There may be reason for concern, or at least for interest and watchfulness. But alarm and hysteria (not to mention sleeplessness) are hardly called for.

John Mueller

John Mueller is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.

Related Content

Donald Trump will resume nuclear testing

Nukes in Nevada – Will Donald Trump resume nuclear testing? | United States | The Economist

Jun 24th 2020

Over four decades, America’s government conducted 928 nuclear tests in Nevada. The mushroom clouds could be seen from Las Vegas, where the chamber of commerce cannily issued tourist calendars with dates, times and plum viewing spots. On September 23rd 1992, the ground shook for the last time. President George H.W. Bush, following the Soviet Union’s example the previous year, joined a moratorium on nuclear-weapons testing that has been extended by every president since. Yet some fear that America’s 28-year nuclear lull may be drawing to a close.

On June 23rd the State Department told Congress that it suspected that Russia had conducted “nuclear weapons-related experiments that have created nuclear yield”, in violation of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). It also said that excavation and other activity at China’s Lop Nur test site “raise concerns regarding China’s adherence to its testing moratorium”. All three countries signed the CTBT in 1996, but only Russia has ratified it. The treaty would not enter into force until 44 designated countries ratify it; of those, India, Pakistan and North Korea have not even signed up.

Most experts say the accusations are thin gruel. America itself does in Nevada much of what it says China is doing at Lop Nur. Moreover, all three countries conduct “subcritical” tests, in which there is no critical mass of plutonium, no chain reaction and therefore no yield. Under the CTBT, these are kosher. Some, however, can be outwardly indistinguishable from illicit tests with tiny yields. In 1997 a Russian “test” turned out to be an earthquake.

But the charges are ominous. In May, according to the Washington Post, American officials considered conducting a “rapid test” to demonstrate the country’s nuclear prowess, with the intention of forcing Russia and China into trilateral nuclear talks, something that China has thus far resisted.

Detonating a nuke is relatively straightforward. American law requires the government to be able to conduct a nuclear test within two to three years of a presidential order. The problem is that it can be done properly, or quickly, but not both. A “fully instrumented” test, designed to capture useful data, would take at least 18 months, according to the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). But a crude detonation designed as a theatrical act of chest-beating, rather than a meaningful scientific endeavour, could be slapped together in months, well before Mr Trump’s first term concludes in January.

There are also economic and environmental issues. A test would cost somewhere between tens and hundreds of millions of dollars, according to insiders. And although the Nevada site is kept in working order, the population of Las Vegas and its environs has more than tripled since 1992, coming uncomfortably close. “When they used to do underground tests, it would at times rock buildings in Las Vegas,” says Cheryl Rofer, who worked at Los Alamos as a scientist from 1965 to 2001 (though modern tests would have far smaller yields). An editorial in the Las Vegas Sun, one of the city’s newspapers, offered a pithy response to the idea of churning up the ground again: “No. Hell no. Not now. Not ever.” The sentiment is widespread. Polls conducted last year show that 72% of Americans (and 59% of Republicans) disapprove of testing.

Unsurprisingly, the Department of Energy, which oversees nuclear weapons, and its laboratories, like Los Alamos in New Mexico, are not keen on the idea. Nor are the Pentagon or the armed forces. On June 16th a dozen distinguished scientists, many formerly associated with America’s nuclear laboratories, wrote an open letter to Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, arguing that explosive testing “would serve no technical or military purpose”. That is because there are now sophisticated ways to inspect and improve nuclear weapons without setting them off.

America spends eye-watering sums to tend its arsenal; the NNSA requested nearly $16bn for the coming fiscal year. That buys some impressive kit. Modern supercomputers can simulate thermonuclear explosions with remarkable fidelity. In 1993, shortly after the last test, the world’s most powerful supercomputer, at Los Alamos, could manage less than 60 gigaflops, a measure of computing speed. Today’s equivalent, at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, can exceed 148 petaflops, which is more than 2m times faster. American government laboratories own six of the world’s 20 fastest supercomputers, though China has been catching up. The debate over testing is in part a “conflict of generations”, says one senior scientist: many who cut their teeth on explosive tests distrust the new, virtual ways.

America also has an enviable pile of data from its old tests, having done more than every other country put together (see chart). It conducted 22 tests for every Chinese one. Its rivals would therefore have the most to gain from any resumption of testing. American data may be superior, too. Steven Pifer, a former American diplomat now at Stanford University, recalls visiting a Soviet test site in Kazakhstan in 1988 where the vertical test shafts were less than half the width of America’s, leaving far less space for instruments. India’s lone test of a hydrogen bomb is widely thought to have been a fizzle. Pakistan is eager to refine smaller nukes that could be aimed at Indian tank columns. The rush to testing might spell doom for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), whose non-nuclear members are fed up with the lack of tangible progress towards disarmament.

Many experts reckon that even the truculent Mr Trump would shy away from a test. The aim at present, they suggest, is pactocide. Mr Trump’s administration is stacked with arms-control sceptics who never wanted America to sign the CTBT in the first place, viewing it as an irksome fetter on American power.

Having swept aside a series of other agreements—a nuclear deal with Iran in 2018, the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty with Russia last year and the Open Skies treaty in May—the treaty-phobes spy an opportunity to slough off the CTBT, too. In his recent book, “The Room Where It Happened”, John Bolton, America’s national security adviser until September, writes that “unsigning” it “should be a priority”. Mr Bolton is persona non grata in the White House these days, but his diplomatic nihilism lives on.