Averting the Sum of All Fears

If you’re an al Qaeda terrorist who manages to get his hands on a nuclear warhead, what do you do with it? You don’t have an airplane that could reach the United States. You don’t have an intercontinental ballistic missile. But there is an obvious option: Hide it in a cargo container, to be loaded onto a ship bound for Los Angeles or New York. Once it arrives, the final step is easy.

Where would an al Qaeda terrorist get a bomb? Maybe from the cash-strapped North Korean government, which has few products to sell and a record of selling anything it has. It has already furnished ballistic missile technology to Iran and Pakistan.

Kim Jong Il is not suicidal, so he wouldn’t want to be implicated in nuclear terrorism. But being poor, friendless, isolated and beleaguered, his regime is more likely than any other nuclear state to miscalculate what it can get away with. President Bush may also have given the North Koreans false hope by first vowing he would never tolerate their acquisition of the bomb — and then failing to do anything serious to stop it.

The danger that Kim will launch a nuclear attack on the United States is very low. In the first place, the North Koreans haven’t advanced to the stage of building a warhead small enough to mount on a missile. And the long-range missile they tested last summer was a flop.

But there’s always the possibility the North Koreans might let one of their bombs slip into the wrong hands. Nor can we forget the ever-present danger that one of the old Soviet warheads could find its way onto the black market. Or that someone in the Pakistani government might smuggle a bomb to the Taliban. Those scenarios raise the question: What are we doing to keep weapons of mass destruction away from our shores?

We’ve gone to great lengths to prevent another airline hijacking — but the detonation of a nuclear device would be incomparably worse. The RAND Corporation, a California-based think tank, recently did a study to estimate the impact of such a catastrophe.

If a nuclear warhead went off in the port of Long Beach, it concluded, 60,000 people could die — 20 times more than on Sept. 11, 2001. Another 150,000 could suffer radiation poisoning requiring medical treatment. Fallout would force the relocation of at least two million people. The total economic wreckage could exceed $1 trillion. In short, the aftermath would make New Orleans after Katrina look like Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

The good news is that Congress and the administration are not ignoring the problem. The House and Senate recently approved a bill authorizing $2 billion to upgrade port security over the next five years. Since 2001, the Department of Homeland Security reports, annual funding for this purpose has risen from $259 million to $1.6 billion.

The bad news is that we are not doing nearly enough. Every year, U.S. ports handle 11 million containers shipped from foreign terminals. But only shipments deemed "high-risk" — about 6 percent of the total headed here — are subject to careful inspections before they leave port. So more than 10 million containers arrive uninspected.

It’s not enough to have tight screening of goods after they arrive here. By then, it’s too late. The only real protection is to stop a bomb from getting onto a ship in the first place. The current program is far too modest to give us any assurance of success in that endeavor. Finding a needle in a haystack is not something you’re likely to do by perusing 6 percent of the hay.

Democrats have pushed for the electronic scanning of all cargo destined for the United States, which the administration rejects as extravagant and impractical. But the port of Hong Kong has already implemented a system that puts every container through scanners that can detect radiation and material used to shield radiation. The estimated cost is just $7 per container.

Even if the bill were much higher, the question is not whether we should insist on 100 percent scanning but how soon we can reach that goal. The cost to keep terrorists from hiding bombs in foreign cargos headed here? Billions or tens of billions of dollars. Not seeing an American city go up in a mushroom cloud? Priceless.