When World War II ended with Japan’s surrender 57 years ago today, few could have anticipated the extent to which deadly weapons would one day threaten humanity. However, the history of the world since 1945 can be described as the history of the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and the missiles that transport them have proliferated from developed to developing nations, and there is an increasing possibility that these weapons may fall into the hands of terrorist groups.
At present, eight countries possess nuclear weapons: the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, together with Israel, India and Pakistan. Three other countries (Iraq, Iran and North Korea) are reportedly on the way to possessing nuclear capabilities. The Federation of American Scientists estimates that 27 states possess chemical weapons, 19 are suspected of possessing biological weapons and 16 have missiles. In addition, many countries possess the means to produce chemical weapons from general substances such as agricultural chemicals.
Concern that international terrorist groups might get hold of and use weapons of mass destruction has mounted since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States last year. After that, there was an outbreak of biological terrorism in the U.S. involving anthrax. In Afghanistan, structural designs for nuclear weapons and other such materials were confiscated from underground hideouts of the al-Qaeda terrorist group. Furthermore, in an interview with a Pakistani newspaper, Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda, declared that he possessed nuclear and chemical weapons. It was also revealed that a member of al-Qaeda arrested in the U.S. in May had been planning to use a dirty bomb packed with radioactive substances in a terrorist attack on Washington.
The U.S. government is studying ways of strengthening its defenses against terrorist attacks using weapons of mass destruction. Congressional debates and think-tank surveys, however, have revealed the weakness of countermeasures. Efforts to prevent terrorism using weapons of mass destruction must focus on strengthening controls, such as bans on obtaining raw materials, export restrictions and tougher measures to prevent weapons from being brought into the country.
International terrorism using nuclear materials could follow any one of the following four patterns: the seizure of nuclear weapons from former Soviet countries; the homemade manufacture of nuclear weapons; the manufacture and use of dirty bombs; or the crashing of a hijacked passenger plane into a nuclear power station. The problem of the management of nuclear weapons and nuclear substances has been highlighted most critically in the case of Russia.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, more than 40,000 nuclear weapons plus more than 1,000 tons of highly enriched uranium and more than 150 tons of plutonium — both of which can be used in nuclear weapons — were left behind in Russia and other former Soviet republics. To deal with the situation, the U.S. so far has allocated a whopping $10 billion to about 30 projects for dismantling nuclear weapons in Russia.
However, the ratio of nuclear substances that the U.S. has been able to verify as being under safe management amounts to only about 21 percent of the total. Reports of thefts at nuclear facilities in Russia are frequent, and the total amount of stolen substances is unclear. Many nuclear engineers in Russia are reported to be unemployed. With U.S. assistance, radioactive detectors have been installed along main roads and railways and at airports, but in some cases reportedly poor performance makes them useless.
As for Pakistan, concerns about problems in the management of the estimated 30 to 50 nuclear weapons possessed by that country as well as rumored relations between some nuclear engineers in Pakistan and elements of al-Qaeda have prompted the U.S. to strongly urge Islamabad to bolster its management in this area.
Various treaties and agreements at the state level, such as the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, contain stipulations that prohibit the transfer of technologies and substances to developing nations in order to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction. However, terrorist groups are trying to wriggle their way through this web of regulations to obtain such weapons. Moreover, some states support terrorist groups. To deal with this situation, ways must be sought to further strengthen international cooperation, including support for the dismantling of nuclear weapons in Russia and elsewhere and for bolstering management of materials.
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