What Would It Take To Rid The World Of Nukes?

The recent renewal of the start treaty between Russia and America was a big victory for Barack Obama's arms-control agenda. The former enemies agreed to slash their warhead arsenals to 1,550 each and also reduce missile launchers and bombers. Seeing as the two nations possess some 95 percent of the world's nukes, the agreement should relax fears about nuclear winter, right? Not quite. Problem is, the real threat these days isn't war between great powers; it's that a terrorist group might get its hands on loose nuclear material and produce a dirty bomb. It's hardly farfetched fearmongering: since 1993, the International Atomic Energy Agency has logged more than 1,500 incidents of trafficked nuclear and radiological materials.

That fact hasn't been lost on the White House. A year ago in Prague, Obama vowed to secure all "vulnerable nuclear material within four years." Most proliferation experts say four years is a pipe dream. But timelines aside, what would the U.S. have to do in order to truly tamp down the world's loose nukes?

First, it would have to deal with Pakistan. Islamabad not only presides over a secretive weapons program, but A. Q. Khan, the patriarch of its nuclear archipelago, has exported atomic secrets to rogue regimes like Iran, Libya, and North Korea. Add a dose of political instability and domestic extremist groups, and the possibility of an inside job to put nuclear material in terrorist hands is ever present. The most likely solution would be for the U.S. military to help secure the Pakistani program. But Islamabad has been hesitant to cooperate in the past and remains reluctant to show its hand to archrival India. Then there is North Korea, which already has an illicit weapons program; and Iran, which claims it could have one if it wanted to. Negotiations could still theoretically bring them into compliance with international rules, but that's looking increasingly unlikely.

Finally, there are the world's 250-odd research reactors, including some in worrisome places like Libya and Venezuela. These old neutron factories are used for education and to supply industry and the medical field. Distressingly, many run on highly enriched uranium. For years, America has been working to ship that fuel back to the U.S. or Russia and convert the reactors to low-enriched uranium, which can't be used in a bomb. Unfortunately, no matter how much more money or technology the U.S. throws at the problem, it will almost surely take longer than four years to get them all under wraps.

If the goal is a world without nukes, as Obama has declared, then the new START treaty is an encouraging beginning. But sooner or later, everyone has to face the fact that fellow nations are not their biggest concern when it comes to nuclear war. Terrorists don't care about détente. And that makes them the most worrisome, and urgent, threat of all.