A nuclear attack on U.S. soil is possibly the most catastrophic threat facing the nation, which is why it has been at the top of the national security agenda for the last two administrations. President George W. Bush espoused a strategy based on a layered defense involving: increased efforts to secure and reduce nuclear material and stockpiles globally; increased efforts to counter nuclear smuggling through the Proliferation Security Initiative in 2003; enhanced international cooperation by expanding the 1991 Cooperative Threat Reduction Program and announcing the 2006 Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism; and, finally, increased focus on domestic measures to protect the United States against a radiological and/or nuclear (R/N) attack.
U.S. Initiatives to Guard Against Nuclear Attacks
In 2005, President Bush issued National Security Presidential Directive-43, and Homeland Security Presidential Directive-14, to establish the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). DNDO’s principal goals are to:
- Develop an enhanced domestic system to detect, and report attempts to import or use, R/N materials/weapons in the United States;
- Enhance and coordinate nuclear detection efforts of federal, state, and local governments;
- Establish procedures needed to ensure that detection leads to effective response;
- Develop an enhanced Global Nuclear Detection Architecture; and
- Support the effective sharing of appropriate information.
President Barack Obama has built upon this strategy, while putting additional emphasis on reducing the threat, through the Global Nuclear Lockdown program and the New STrategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia. START further reduces the U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles.
Despite these concerted efforts, there are continuing concerns that the nuclear threat is growing. The Commission on the Prevention of WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) Proliferation and Terrorism echoed this concern in its “World at Risk” report, which stated the following:
“The number of states that are armed with nuclear weapons or are seeking to develop them is increasing. Terrorist organizations are intent on acquiring nuclear weapons or the material and expertise needed to build them. Trafficking in nuclear materials and technology is a serious, relentless, and multidimensional problem. … [T]he Commission was unanimous in concluding that the nuclear aspirations of Iran and North Korea pose immediate and urgent threats to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Successful nuclear programs in both countries could trigger a cascade of proliferation.”
Since the Commission’s report, activities in both of these nations reinforce the need for increased concern about their intentions and capabilities. With respect to Iran, assessments emanating from the International Atom Energy Agency’s (IAEA) inspections include:
- Operations at the deep underground enrichment facility near Qom;
- Uranium enrichment at the highest rate ever – i.e., 3.5 percent;
- Quantity of centrifuges operating in Natanz at a new high – with more than 5,000 yet to be installed;
- Production of enriched uranium at the fastest rate ever – i.e., 20 percent;
- Decreased amount of time needed to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon, which could produce enough material for a weapon in 43 days (dropping to 11 days by February 2013 if 20-percent enrichment rate continues).
These revelations, along with Iran’s stated objectives and ties to terrorist groups, serve as a clear signal that the United States needs a multi-faceted strategy to prevent Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold, while also recognizing that it may very well reach nuclear weapons state status. Meanwhile, North Korea continues to defy the international community with its missile launches and reported plans to conduct an additional underground nuclear test.
The Commission also cites that Pakistan poses a particular concern because of: (a) its own stockpile of nuclear weapons; and (b) the active presence of al-Qaida within its borders. Insights that came to light following the killing of Osama Bin Laden raise additional concerns about the nexus of terrorism with a nuclear armed state. Moreover, the recent nuclear crisis in Japan provides even more evidence that nuclear-related events require consideration of all-hazard approaches to threat response. Concerns about medical countermeasures arise after an R/N threat is acknowledged, and those concerns will require the public health community to be involved in managing the response even before an attack is officially launched.
Against this backdrop, DomPrep surveyed its readers regarding: (a) the current state of U.S. preparedness to defend against an R/N attack; and (b) steps that might and/or should be taken to improve preparedness.
- More than half of the respondents agreed that developing a domestic layer of the Global Nuclear Detection Architecture serves as an effective tool in preventing an R/N attack. Interestingly, almost one-third were unsure about its effectiveness possibly due to limited exposure to the goals of the architecture or a serious concern about its utility.
- More than three-quarters of the respondents felt that current federal government efforts to increase preparedness of major U.S. cities were not adequate to protect against an R/N attack.
- Regarding the responsibility and means to develop capabilities and capacities to prevent an R/N attack, an overwhelming number of respondents feel that it is a shared responsibility among federal, state, and local governments. On the other hand, less than one-fifth felt the DHS-managed grant process was an effective approach to build capabilities and capacities.
- Nearly all of the respondents felt that integration across the federal government, law enforcement, and emergency response communities to react to a possible R/N threat is minimal or only exists in certain communities.
- More than three-quarters of the respondents agreed that exercises and training were very important to improving preparedness and response capabilities, and they should be routinely conducted at the state and local level with support from the federal government.
Vayl S. Oxford
Vayl S. Oxford is the national security executive policy advisor at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). Before joining PNNL, he spent a short time in private industry after 35 years of public service. His career highlights include serving at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) from October 2003 to January 2009, where he held the positions of policy advisor to the undersecretary of science and technology, acting director of the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the first director of the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office. Before DHS, he served as the director for counterproliferation at the National Security Council and chaired the interagency working group for Operation Iraqi Freedom. From 1987 to January 2002, he held several positions within the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and its predecessor organizations (Defense Special Weapons Agency, Defense Nuclear Agency). He also held several positions in the U.S. Air Force.