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UCLA Chancellor Carnesale on the Risks of Nuclear Attacks on the United States

UCLA Chancellor Carnesale on the Risks of Nuclear Attacks on the United States

Security expert Albert Carnesale looks at U.S. options to head off nuclear spread in North Korea and Iran, and the danger of terrorist groups with atom bombs.

Leslie Evans Email LeslieEvans

The world's nuclear powers have done a pretty good job in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons over the last thirty years, Chancellor Albert Carnesale told some 400 students in a session of the first class series of UCLA's new Global Studies major May 16. The main dangers, he said, lie in North Korea's probably already existing nuclear arsenal, in Iran's impending nuclear capability, and in the risk that terrorists may acquire a nuclear weapon, most likely from the enormous store of warheads now under uncertain security control in the former Soviet Union.

Chancellor Carnesale is also a professor in UCLA's School of Public Policy and Social Research and is an internationally known specialist on security issues, particularly nuclear proliferation. He served on the U.S. negotiating team in the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks I with the Soviet Union.

The Chancellor began by saying that "the university has no position on North Korea, Iran, terrorism and the like -- but I do." The United States, he said, faces no potential threat of invasion by any other power. The only "direct threat to our homeland would be by weapons of mass destruction -- primarily nuclear weapons, perhaps biological weapons but substantially more difficult, and chemical weapons should hardly be thought of as in the same category."

Protecting security, he added, also involves concern with longer-term threats, such as the rise of a hostile power or disruption of systems on which we depend, such as world trade or energy markets. The current stocks of nuclear weapons, however, constitute the greatest pool of risk. "Russia has about 7,000 operational nuclear warheads." China "has about 400 operational warheads deliverable to the United States." These two powers are not hostile, "but it is important to say who could, if they chose to, push a button and the United States almost disappears."

Successful Restraint of Nuclear Spread

Chancellor Carnesale pointed to the comparative success of efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation in the last thirty years. In the early 1970s there were five countries that publicly announced that they owned nuclear bombs: The United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, France, and China. India tested a nuclear device in 1974. "Israel was recognized as having a substantial number of nuclear weapons. And in 1975 South Africa probably had a few nuclear weapons. So that's a total of eight countries with nuclear weapons in 1975."

In contrast, in 2005 the list includes the original five plus India and Israel. South Africa has since been persuaded to abandon its nuclear arsenal. Pakistan "detonated a nuclear weapon in 1998. And you may have North Korea." So the total now is nine countries with nuclear weapons compared to eight thirty years earlier.

"The fact is, the growth has been slow. The pessimism has been largely unwarranted."

The Russian Nuclear Arsenal

A major source of risks of nuclear spread or of a rogue agency getting their hands of a nuclear bomb emerged with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Initially, Carnesale recalled, this left nuclear weapons in the hands of four former Soviet Republics: Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. The international community succeeded in persuading Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine to return their nuclear arms to Russia. "But we relied for many years on the Soviet Union having a very tight military command and control system. We didn't know where all those weapons were that they had -- because at the peak of the cold war they probably had  a number like 25,000 or 30,000 of them. Today they probably have about 15,000 total including those that are on the shelf, not operational. We have about 10,000 including those that are on the shelf, not operational. So they have thousands of nuclear weapons, and we are not as confident in the command and control system for them. Hundreds of tons of weapons-usable plutonium and weapons-usable highly enriched uranium. Several thousand nuclear engineers who know a lot about nuclear weapons. And we've been working on trying to contain those materials, and, indeed, those engineers, to keep them busy doing peaceful stuff."

American tax money, he noted, is used to employ hundreds of Russian nuclear engineers, working on the environment and many other projects, "just so they are not working on nuclear weapons or they don't feel it is necessary, to support their families, to go to work for some other country on nuclear projects."

The Axis of Evil

Also of concern, he said, are those states with very limited nuclear capability that might actually use such weapons against the United States or it allies, or sell them to terrorist groups. Carnesale said he thought President Bush's famous Axis of Evil designation of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea flowed from this consideration.

"Iraq, of course, we learned, did not have weapons of mass destruction. Not only no nuclear weapons, no biological, no chemical as well." North Korea, however, has produced weapons-grade plutonium. "Maybe enough for six to eight weapons. We do not know if they have actually assembled any weapons, but they claim that they have."

Iran, he continued, does not have currently usable nuclear weapons or even plutonium or highly enriched uranium. "But we know they have put in place facilities at which they could produce highly enriched uranium. They claim it is to produce low-enriched uranium as fuel for nuclear reactors. But unfortunately the same technology might be used to produce highly enriched uranium."

Terrorist Organizations

Terrorist organizations today, Carnesale noted, "have global reach, global communications. But they need a state sponsor if they are going to get nuclear weapons. They either need a state sponsor that will produce them and give them to them or sell them to them, or else they have to buy or steal nuclear weapons. But they are not going to make [such weapons], like these other countries might."

This is not a negligible threat, he added. Pakistan's Abdul Qadeer Khan, the chief scientist in that country's nuclear weapons program, "operated the Wal Mart of nuclear proliferation. He sold this stuff to anybody, including Libya, Iran, North Korea, and we don't know who else. Not weapons, but the technologies through which you could make them, and even weapons designs."

Here Chancellor Carnesale focused in on three potential threats: North Korea, Iran, and terrorist organizations.

The North Koreans Sell Anything

The principal nuclear threat from North Korea, Carnesale said, is that "they sell anything." They are perhaps the poorest country outside of sub-Saharan Africa. "So we worry that if they produce these materials they may sell them, and possibly sell them to terrorists."

A nuclear North Korea also puts heavy pressure on South Korea and Japan to develop their own nuclear arsenals. It appears, he said, that North Korea is preparing a nuclear test. What is its goal? "They may think it is important to deter an attack by the United States in conjunction with South Korea." Contributing to this fear, he said, is that they were assigned to the Axis of Evil by President Bush. "The U,S, government now has a doctrine of preemption, that if a country is developing nuclear weapons that might be used against us, we feel authorized to go in an destroy those facilities. We are certainly interested in regime change in North Korea. So if you think of the check list that we had to go into Iraq -- regime change, weapons of mass destruction (and this country actually has them), source of instability, they meet most of the things on the check list. They don't have oil."

Carnesale said that it is also possible that the North Koreans are using their nuclear capability "purely as a bargaining chip. It's a very poor country. What they want is money." If this was the case it might be possible to persuade them to abandon their nuclear program in exchange for material aid and a nonaggression pact. The U.S., he said, has few options in dealing with North Korea, and whatever it does must take into consideration the concerns of North Korea's major neighbors: China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan.

"The idea of preempting against [North Korea] and destroying their nuclear weapons requires at a minimum knowledge of where those nuclear weapons are. One thing that doesn't sound like a very good idea is attacking North Korea and having a very angry North Korea that still has nuclear weapons." Hence, diplomacy, however weak, "remains our least bad option."

How Big a Threat Is Iran?

Iran, Albert Carnesale said, "is a long way from nuclear weapons." It does have some centrifuges that can be used to enrich uranium."But it would take them a decade to have their first weapon." What is the real risk here? "It is unlikely that Israel would sit there and allow Iran to get nuclear weapons. At some point the Israelis would do their best to preempt, and think what that would do in the Middle East. But from an Israeli point of view they know their country's survival might be jeopardized." Carnesale pointed out that six or eight nuclear hits would destroy Israel and virtually its whole population, such an inconceivable risk that, in his view, the Israelis would prefer to take the risk of confronting the whole Iranian army than face the possibility of complete annihilation.

The potential for an Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear installations would certainly arise long before the ten years needed for Iran to have operational nuclear weapons, Carnesale said.

Ironically, the chancellor added, in the 1970s the United States had planned to sell nuclear power plants to Iran -- under its previous government of the pro-U.S. shah. The degree to which nuclear technology is regarded as a security danger by the United States flows even more from the nature of the regime than from the technology itself. Carnesale noted that both Britain and France have the capability of erasing the United States from the planet, but that this is not generally a worry of American policy makers.

"Now Iran is purchasing a nuclear power plant from Russia, and they claim that they want to be able to produce the fuel for their own power plant rather than have to rely upon Russia or any other outside country for the fuel." He noted that Iran is surrounded by hostile states where U.S. troops are based: Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, as well as by Pakistan, a U.S. ally. He added that not only was Iran listed as part of the Axis of Evil where regime change was advocated by Washington, but it met every criteria that North Korea did, and also had oil, matching the list that sparked the U.S. invasion of Iraq. "So they may really feel a need themselves . . . to have a deterrent force."

It is also plausible, Carnesale said, that the Iranians are genuinely interested in securing a reliable supply of fuel for their nuclear power plant. "If you were building a nuclear power plant would you want to rely on Russia to provide the fuel for the next thirty years regardless of what your diplomatic relations were?"

What are the American options? It would be a little easier to preempt in Iran than in North Korea, Carnesale estimated. "But you can be sure that if you preempt and attack Iran now, all you are going to do is drive that nuclear program underground and you won't have any international inspections and the like as we have now."

The chancellor said that it appears that negotiations are the best alternative in dealing with Iran also, and that such negotiations would need to include guarantees of an international supply of fuel for their nuclear reactor. "My guess is that they are pursuing both, fuel and bombs, and we might be able to strike some deal that makes them take much longer to get to bombs."

How Terrorists Might Stage a Nuclear Attack on the United States

What would a terrorist organization have to do to set off a nuclear explosion in an American city? "First, they have to get a nuclear weapon," Albert Carnesale said. In his opinion it is unlikely that any terrorist organization would have the expertise and the secure base to build its own nuclear bomb, but they might be able to buy or steal one, "or somebody might give it to them."

If they purchase or are given such a weapon they would presumably be trained in how to use it. "If they have to steal one, then they have to figure out how to bypass all the safeguards that are built into a weapon."

Then comes the delivery problem. "If you have only one or two nuclear weapons and are a terrorist," Carnesale said, "the last way you are going to try to deliver it is with some long-range missile. First of all you have to get one of those and figure out how it works."

The options would be to assemble the bomb in the city the terrorists want to blow up, or to bring in into a harbor in a boat, drive it over the border -- preferably the less-guarded Canadian border rather than the Mexican border -- or plant the bomb in a shipping container, 90% of which are still not inspected on entering American ports.

What Protective Measures Can Be Taken?

In turning to how to thwart the danger of a rogue nuclear attack, Chancellor Carnesale said that "nothing is more important than enhancing our intelligence capability at all levels. Not just having a better idea of what is going on physically but some idea of what governments' intentions are. . . . Knowing about intentions can be just as important as knowing about capabilities, sometimes even more so."

The second priority, he said, is to "secure those nuclear weapons and weapons-usable materials in Russia."

The third priority, Carnesale said, is to roll back North Korea's nuclear program "or at minimum, freeze it." This is a higher priority than Iran's nuclear program both because the Korean program is much more advanced and because there is greater expectation that North Korea would sell nuclear weapons to nonstate organizations.

Carnesale's fourth priority, and he said these are in order of importance, is to freeze or internationalize Iran's uranium enrichment program. "And by internationalizing it this means that it stays under safeguards, there are inspectors that see it all the time, television cameras and the like. And if Iran should decide at some point that they want bombs, they let us know. They say that they plan to withdraw from the [nuclear nonproliferation] treaty" so there is some warning period before Iranian nukes are operational.

Fifth, he said, "is simply to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to additional countries."

Sixth is enhancing the protection of U.S. borders. Here, he noted again that 90% of shipping containers are not inspected. Moreover, while passenger luggage is inspected to prevent another airplane takeover, there is no inspection of either commercial or chartered cargo flights, which could be used to ship an atomic weapon into the United States and move it around within the country. "So enhancing the protection of our borders is on my list, but notice how hard that is. That is really hard."

The final priority, Carnesale concluded, is to train the first responders in the event that prevention fails -- firefighters, police, and medical personnel. "Just to try to limit the size of the catastrophe."

Of all the security threats the United States faces, the chancellor said in closing, nuclear weapons remain the worst and must therefore stay in the forefront of all defensive efforts. "Given that in the last thirty years we have added only one country that has nuclear weapons, this is not a hopeless case and it deserves our highest priority."

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