The Carnegie Endowment
held a Special Advance Screening for:


Tuesday, May 14, 2002


The plot of this new film revolves around the timely issue of nuclear terrorism. It raises the provocative question: Could it really happen?

Carnegie Scholars, Joseph Cirincione and Jon Wolfsthal provided a brief technical and policy introduction before this special screening.

"The Sum of All Fears" website

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The latest thriller from Paramount Pictures, The Sum of All Fears, premiers on May 21, two days before Presidents Bush and Putin will meet in Moscow. The two presidents--and Bush in particular--should wrestle with the central question raised by the film: could terrorists smuggle and detonate a nuclear bomb on American soil? The short answer is yes, and unfortunately, the arms treaty the two will sign at their summit does too little to prevent reduce this risk and may even make the problem worse.

The movie's premise is that a lost nuclear weapon is acquired by terrorists who detonate the weapon in the United States. Could it really happen? To understand the risks, considered four basic questions. Could a country lose a nuclear weapon? Are some missing now? Could a terrorist group get expert help to make the bomb work? And, could the bomb be smuggled into the United States? The answers, unfortunately, are alarming.

Could a country lose a nuclear weapon? It has already happened. The United States alone has lost several nuclear weapons, including one left lying in the Sea of Japan after an A-4 jet plane fell off the aircraft carrier Ticonderoga in 1965. 2 weapon cores were lost over the Mediterranean Sea in 1956 when the B-47 bomber carrying them disappeared without a trace. We believe Russia may have also lost nuclear weapons, but no reliable nuclear histories for Russia or China or other nuclear weapon states exist.

Are weapons missing now? We simply don't know. While the United States is working cooperatively with Russia to help secure their nuclear weapons, there is no accurate way to know that all nuclear weapons are accounted for. We know that the materials to make nuclear weapons have been stolen and have already found their way onto the nuclear black market.

If a terrorist group got a weapon or materials, could they get scientific help? Yes. Russia still has a huge nuclear complex including thousands of underpaid, demoralized employees. Surveys show that over 80 percent of this technical population make less than $50 a month, and that 14% would be willing to do military work "for others." It would only take a few experts to make a terrorist's nuclear fantasy come true.

But could a weapon get into the United States? Despite their best and increasing efforts, US Customs officials acknowledge that there is no way to check every ship, plane, and cargo container that arrives in the US every year. With over 16 million containers to check, and almost 20,000 kilometers of coastline and 14, 000 airports to control, the sheer magnitude of the task suggests that there is a reasonable chance a bomb could get through. Ask any drug smuggler with a small plane.

After realizing this threat is not so remote, the obvious question is: what can be done? As the old adage says, the best defense is a good offense. The best way to keep a nuclear weapon from coming into the United States is to prevent it from getting lost or stolen in the first place. This means the United States, Russia and all nuclear weapon states need to do a better job controlling nuclear weapons, and to eliminate as many as possible. The United States is helping Russia secure nuclear weapons and materials, but the work is going much too slowly. Moreover, the Bush administration is sending Russia and other states mixed messages with its plans to retain large numbers of nuclear weapons and to develop a new generation of mini-nukes. Russia could try to follow suit - with disastrous results.

The new U.S.-Russian treaty only limits the number of weapons deployed on missiles and bombers. It doesn't actually eliminate any weapons. They will simply be moved from active deployment to relatively insecure warehouses. Ten years from now, both nations will still have over ten thousand nuclear weapons under the treaty. We are missing an historic opportunity to set up an international exchange of data on nuclear stockpiles, and mutual, verifiable elimination of warheads. As a result, more nuclear weapons will remain in circulation and in storage - weapons that might get lost, stolen or sold one day - than could have been the case with a more comprehensive agreement.

By forgetting that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure - a message at the heart of The Sum of All Fears - Presidents Bush and Putin have missed a chance to make the world a safer place. We are all the less secure as a result.
Joseph Cirincione and Jon Wolfsthal are co-authors of Deadly Arsenals: Tracking Weapons of Mass Destruction and are, respectively, senior associate and associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C.