Byline: I-wei J. Chang, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
A nuclear catastrophe could occur if terrorists gained access to nuclear weapons or weapons-grade materials, and if regional conflicts or instability degenerated into wars in which nuclear weapons were used, said a report by researchers at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to a Nonproliferation Conference last week.
Nuclear terrorism on the one hand, and regional proliferation and conflict on the other, are the two most pressing nuclear threats facing the world today, according to "Universal Compliance: A Strategy for Nuclear Security," the preliminary report by George Perkovich, Joseph Cirincione, Rose Gottemoeller, Jon Wolfsthal and Jessica Mathews. The final version is to be released in January to the next U.S. administration.
Unlike countries, which may fear retaliation, terrorist groups could be undeterred about using nuclear weapons to achieve a political agenda, the Carnegie report said.
Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has expressed interest in acquiring nuclear weapons. While terrorist groups are not believed to have the ability to produce nuclear weapons, they may be able to seize such weapons or materials from other countries.
The report, issued at the conference in Washington, recommends securing nuclear weapons facilities, particularly those in the former Soviet Union, and ending worldwide the production of weapons-usable nuclear materials.
"If the U.S. and others just keep doing what they are doing today, a nuclear 9/11 is more likely than not in the decade ahead," said Graham Allison, director of Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
"Nuclear terrorism is, in fact, preventable," Mr. Allison said. "It is a challenge to international will, determination and stick-to-itiveness, not to our technical capabilities."
Russia and the United States, which have the two largest stockpiles of weapons-grade plutonium left over from the Cold War, must take the lead, the report said.
U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham recently urged a Global Threat Reduction Initiative, to repatriate all Russian and U.S. nuclear fuel from research reactors around the world by 2009.
"This is neither a question of will, nor a question of resources," Mr. Abraham said June 14 at the National Press Club.
However, trends indicate Russia and the United States are re-emphasizing the role of nuclear weapons, said former Sen. Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat who served four terms ending in 1997 and a former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Mr. Nunn said U.S.-Russian agreements such as the Moscow Treaty don't seek a complete dismantlement of their nuclear arsenals, sending "a bad message to the rest of the world." He called on the American and Russian presidents to remove their nuclear weapons from hair-trigger alert, which makes possible launching in 15 minutes.
If this were accomplished, Mr. Nunn said, "we could immediately eliminate the threat of rapid assured destruction and dramatically reduce the chances of an accidental, mistaken or unauthorized launch."
Today, eight nations have nuclear weapons, according to the report. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) stipulated that only China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States - the five countries that detonated nuclear bombs before Jan. 1, 1967, and the only permanent members of the U.N. Security Council - would constitute the nuclear world order.
The United States is the only country to have used atomic weapons - against Japan in 1945 to hasten its World War II surrender.
Israel, India and Pakistan are the three other nuclear-weapons states. North Korea and Iran also seek nuclear weapons and the deterrence such weapons confer.
Several countries have ended nuclear weapons programs since the 1970s, …