Preventing a Terrorist Mushroom Cloud

David Krieger 10/10/2001


By David Krieger

The images of the hijacked planes crashing into the World Trade Center are nightmare images of unspeakable horror that will forever be a part of our reality.

Imagine, however, another nightmare — that of a mushroom cloud rising over an American city. This is a threat we can no longer ignore. Perhaps today citizens and leaders alike will better understand the seriousness of the nuclear threat.

The destruction of the World Trade Center was a powerful warning. It signals that determined terrorists are prepared to sacrifice their lives to harm us, that future attacks could involve weapons of mass destruction, and that nuclear dangers are increasing because of terrorist activity.

Our leaders have failed to grasp that our present nuclear weapons policies contribute to the possibility of nuclear terrorism against our country. We are simply not doing enough to prevent nuclear weapons or weapons-grade nuclear materials from falling into the hands of terrorists.

A US blue ribbon commission, headed by former Senate majority leader Howard Baker, has called for spending $3 billion a year over the next ten years to maintain control of the nuclear weapons, nuclear materials and nuclear scientists in the former Soviet Union. The Bush administration had planned to cut funding for this program from $1.2 billion to $800 million next year.

In 1998 India and Pakistan both demonstrated their nuclear capabilities. Pakistan, which borders on Afghanistan, is now the only country in the world to recognize the Taliban regime. Should there be a US led war in Afghanistan, it is possible that the Pakistani government could fall to extremists linked to the Taliban, thus putting nuclear weapons into the hands of a regime that might well support and harbor terrorists.

Up to now, the Bush Administration's primary response to the nuclear threat has been to push for a national missile shield costing billions of dollars, the technology of which is unproven, and which would at best be years away from implementation. A missile shield would likely do irreparable harm to our relations with other countries, countries that we need to join us in the fight against international terrorism, including Russia.

The mad nuclear arms race during the Cold War, and the paltry steps taken to reverse it since the end of the Cold War, have left tens of thousands of nuclear weapons potentially available to terrorists. Today there is no accurate inventory of the world's nuclear arsenals or weapons-grade fissile materials suitable for making nuclear weapons. Estimates have it, however, that there are currently some 30,000 nuclear weapons in the world. We simply don't know whether these weapons are adequately controlled, or whether some could already have fallen into the hands of terrorists.

More than ten years after the end of the Cold War we and the Russians still have more than 10,000 nuclear weapons each with a total of some 4,500 of them on hair-trigger alert, ready to be fired in moments. Russia has been urging the US to move faster on START 3 negotiations to reduce the size of the nuclear arsenals in both countries, but US leaders have been largely indifferent to their entreaties.

Large nuclear arsenals on hair-trigger alert are Cold War relics. They do not provide deterrence against terrorist attacks. Nor could a missile shield have prevented the terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center or the Pentagon, or protect against future nuclear terrorism.

The Bush administration's foreign policy course has been unilateralism and indifference to international law. It seems now to have recognized, however, that we cannot combat terrorism unilaterally. A multilateral effort to combat terrorism will require the US to change its policies and embrace multilateral approaches to many global problems, including the control and elimination of all weapons of mass destruction.

The global elimination of nuclear weapons can no longer be a back-burner, peace activist issue. It is a top-priority security issue for all Americans, and it will require US leadership to achieve.

David Krieger, an attorney and political scientist, is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. Other articles on nuclear dangers and other critical issues of peace may be found at the Foundation's web site:

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence,
and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending
spiral of destruction....The chain reaction of evil--hate begetting hate,
wars producing more wars--must be broken, or we shall be plunged
into the dark abyss of annihilation."
— Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength To Love, 1963

"Peace is the only battle worth waging."
— Albert Camu

David Krieger, President
Nuclear Age Peace Foundation
PMB 121, 1187 Coast Village Road, Suite 1
Santa Barbara, CA 93108-2794
Web site: