Academic journal article Prism : a Journal of the Center for Complex Operations

Nuclear Terrorism: Did We Beat the Odds or Change Them?

Academic journal article Prism : a Journal of the Center for Complex Operations

Nuclear Terrorism: Did We Beat the Odds or Change Them?

Article excerpt

It has been more than 13 years since the publication of Nuclear Terrorism: the Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, which sounded the alarm about the clear and present danger of nuclear terrorism. The book made the case for two seemingly contradictory propositions: first, on the current path, nuclear terrorism is inevitable; second, nuclear terrorism is preventable by an agenda of actions that are feasible and affordable. Juxtaposition of these propositions presented a paradox that the book attempted to resolve.

By highlighting the gap between what the United States, Russia, and other nations had been doing in the decade prior to 2004, and what could be done if they made preventing nuclear terrorism a first-order priority, I argued that on the current path we would likely see terrorists succeed in their aspirations for an "American Hiroshima." At the same time, I argued, there existed a feasible, affordable agenda of actions the United States and other civilized nations could take that would reduce this risk to nearly zero.

As reviewers later noted, the book "caught a wave." During the 2004 Democratic presidential primary, the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) led a concerted effort to raise the visibility of this issue. Former Senator Sam Nunn, a NTI co-chair, called the book "essential reading . . . calling citizens to arms against the real and rising threat of nuclear terrorism." The world's most successful investor, whose company's share value has increased a thousand fold during the five decades he has managed the investment corporation, selected Nuclear Terrorism as the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting's "book of the year." Warren Buffett declared: "Nuclear terrorism is by far the most important problem of our time. And this is the most important book that has been written on the subject."

In the final months of the 2004 presidential campaign, the question of what the United States should be doing to address the threat of nuclear terrorism became a compelling issue. Both contenders-John Kerry and George W. Bush-declared in their first debate that nuclear terrorism is the "single most serious threat to the national security of the United States." By the time he had won a second term, President Bush not only understood the threat, but he had embraced it emotionally. As he frequently stated, he was determined to do everything possible to "keep the world's most dangerous technologies out of the hands of the world's most dangerous people."1 His successor, President Barack Obama, also made preventing nuclear terrorism a priority, having read Nuclear Terrorism as a young senator who in 2005 accompanied Senator Richard Lugar on a congressional delegation to inspect Russian nuclear sites.2

Not surprisingly, the book attracted critics as well. The most common objection focused on what skeptics argued was an irresolvable contradiction between the core claims of "inevitable" and "preventable." If something is preventable, then it cannot be inevitable, they said.

My attempt to answer their point was proving largely ineffective, since for the most part, I just kept repeating the argument stated in the book. But fortunately, I was rescued by none other than Buffett himself. In making judgments about buying stocks, and even more in owning and running several reinsurance companies, Buffett had become a legendary oddsmaker. Those businesses had also forced him to think seriously about nuclear terrorism as one of what investors call "fat tail" risks. He had concluded that such an event was virtually inevitable and that the consequences would be devastating. Thus he prohibited his companies from writing insurance against nuclear terrorism.

The following two charts clarify Buffett's argument. Chart 1 demonstrates that if the probability of a successful nuclear terrorist attack in the year ahead is 10 percent, and if that condition persists for 50 years, the likelihood of nuclear terrorism occurring is almost 100 percent (99. …

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