The Power of Zero

By Wilson, Valerie Plame | Newsweek, August 9, 2010 | Go to article overview

The Power of Zero


Wilson, Valerie Plame, Newsweek


Byline: Valerie Plame Wilson

After spending years trying to thwart the nuclear black market, a former CIA spy says the only way to prevent terrorists from getting the bomb is to eliminate all of the world's nukes.

The smoke was still drifting off the World Trade Center when the CIA discovered that Osama bin Laden had secretly met just a few days before the attack with a top Pakistani nuclear scientist, seeking help in building a nuclear bomb. Immediately, nuclear terrorism jumped to the top of the list of urgent threats to the civilized world. My clandestine work as a CIA operations officer became laser-focused on counterproliferation as we mobilized to prevent a nuclear 9/11. We knew that the horror of a nuclear bomb detonated in a major city would dwarf any catastrophe previously suffered by our country--the death toll would be in the hundreds of thousands and the economic and social devastation sudden and catastrophic.

Nine years later, who is winning this contest of wills between the civilized world and terrorist groups trying to buy, build, or steal a nuclear bomb? I would like to believe the bad guys are losing, but, in fact, time favors them as long as nuclear-bomb-grade materials and weapons exist in the world. A valiant team effort by the CIA and our many partners around the globe has prevented an attack thus far. But my experience as part of that effort tells me that the only way to end this danger is to lock down all nuclear materials and eliminate nuclear weapons in all countries.

I am now dedicated to achieving this urgent goal as a leader of the Global Zero movement to rid the world of nuclear weapons. To help deliver a wake-up call to the public and policymakers, I recently participated in a chilling documentary that's in theaters now, Countdown to Zero, produced by Lawrence Bender and Participant Media--the team that made An Inconvenient Truth. This extraordinary film explains why living in a world with nuclear weapons and materials is simply not a viable option. Our only hope of survival is to drain the swamp as soon as we possibly can. The alternative is for nuclear weapons to spread around the world and, sooner or later, for terrorists to incinerate the heart of a major city.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, there have been at least 25 incidents of lost or stolen nuclear explosive material. If we estimate that the amount of recovered material represents 10 to 30 percent of the total amount that's made it onto the black market over the years, that translates into sufficient material to build two to five nuclear weapons. The CIA is trying to ensure that none of this falls into the hands of terrorists, but it's an uphill battle if the leakage of materials continues.

We may not precisely know the scale of the illicit trafficking in fissile materials, but we do know that rogue salesmen are peddling nuclear technology on the black market. The enterprising father of the Pakistani nuclear bomb, A. Q. Khan, hawked his wares for years before my group at the CIA caught him red-handed and put him out of business for selling a nuclear bomb to Libya in late 2003.

If terrorists get their hands on highly enriched uranium (a grapefruit-size quantity would be sufficient), they could smuggle it into a targeted city and detonate it on site. A hundred pounds of highly enriched uranium could fit in a shoebox--and 100,000 shipping containers come into the U.S. every day. Existing radiation sensors at the docks stand little chance: there are simply not enough of them, and it's easy to hide highly enriched uranium in common materials that also give off a slight radioactive signature, like kitty litter. And building a bomb is no longer a well-guarded secret. Graduate students at U. …

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