Panel highlights concerns about nuclear terrorism

When it comes to the threat of nuclear terrorism, the government must do more to secure fissile materials abroad, set spending priorities and better prepare the U.S. public for the aftermath of a possible domestic attack, a panel of experts said Monday.

"We need to have a rational, mature discussion in this country about what our priorities are," said Steven Brill, founder and chairman of the America Prepared Campaign, which was formed to help the public, government and media prepare for terrorist attacks and other emergencies.

The panel was convened by the 9/11 Public Discourse Project, started by former members and staff of the 9/11 commission, which issued its final report and recommendations almost one year ago. The Public Discourse Project plans to issue a report card at the end of July detailing the progress that has been made in implementing the commissioners' recommendations from the report and highlighting the gaps.

Brill said the government needs to weigh spending on security measures to risk. For example, he said, officials are evaluating what could become a $10 billion project to install missile defense systems on the nation's commercial planes to protect them from hand-held, shoulder-fired missiles. But he said the government should rationalize whether the money can be put to better use.

Ashton Carter, co-director of the Preventive Defense Project at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, noted that the Bush administration wants to spend tens of millions of dollars to create a Domestic Nuclear Detection Office. But Carter said the best way to stop nuclear terrorism is to secure fissile materials at their source, rather than try to detect them in transport.

"I think we have a war on terrorism. We don't have a war yet on weapons of mass destruction," Carter said.

The House Homeland Security Committee plans to hold a hearing June 28 on the government's efforts to secure fissile materials abroad. According to the committee, there are more than 3,700 metric tons of plutonium and highly enriched uranium spread across almost 60 countries, which is enough to make hundreds of thousands of nuclear weapons.

The hearing will evaluate how vulnerable weapons-grade nuclear materials are to terrorist theft and what must be done to protect them from being used in a potential attack.

Leonard Spector, deputy director of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute for International Studies, said the amount of fissile material being produced is actually growing. He said the administration is actively working to address the issue of securing fissile materials, but is not doing enough.

"Much, much more work needs to be done," Spector said.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec