The Bush administration insists that its top priority is keeping weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of terrorists. But in a withering new book, one of America's foremost nuclear weapons experts argues that the White House has been so heedless of the threat that nuclear armageddon in one or more US cities is now "more likely than not" over the next decade.
Graham Allison, a former defense official under both Republican and Democratic administrations and now a leading researcher at Harvard, describes the Bush administration as "reckless" for its failure to secure fissile materials around the world and its apparent lack of interest in preventing North Korea and Iran from becoming nuclear powers. In his book Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, Mr Allison lays out a series of measures to minimize the risk that al-Qa'ida or another group could either build or buy a nuclear weapon and then smuggle it into the United States.
He demonstrates that the Bush White House, for all its bullish rhetoric, has taken none of them.
"No one observing the behavior of the US government after 9/11 would note any significant changes in activity aimed at preventing terrorists from acquiring the world's most destructive technologies," he writes. At the same time, al-Qa'ida is known to have taken steps to obtain nuclear weaponry since 1992, and has publicly stated its ambition to kill four million Americans.
"On the current course," Mr Allison concludes, "nuclear terrorism is inevitable." The most likely scenario, according to security experts, is that al-Qa'ida or another group would buy or steal fissile material and then construct its own bomb, using science that has been in the public domain for 30 years. Hence the urgent need to secure the world's relatively restricted stockpiles of that fissile material - either highly enriched uranium or plutonium. However, a program for securing nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union, pioneered by US Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, has been so poorly funded that it will take another 13 years to finish at the current pace. "The incandescent and incontestable fact is that in the two years after 9/11, fewer potential nuclear weapons' worth of highly enriched uranium and plutonium were secured than in the two years before 9/11," Mr Allison told The Independent on Sunday.
A further 43 countries have varying amounts of fissile material as by-products of their civilian nuclear power industries, but as things stand the US is only willing to take this off their hands if they pay for the privilege.
Mr Allison described the Bush administration's approach to North Korea and Iran as "paralysis" - offering neither carrots nor sticks to prevent those countries becoming full nuclear weapons states. If North Korea developed a full nuclear production line - carrying with it the distinct possibility of selling parts or technology to the highest bidder - it would be "the greatest failure of American diplomacy in all our history".
A nuclear North Korea would almost certainly induce Japan and South Korea to develop their own programs. And the Bush administration is talking about new nuclear tests and the development of so-called "mini-nukes" and atomic bunker-buster bombs.
Mr Allison ascribed many of the White House's failures to the war in Iraq, which, he says, has diverted attention and eaten up resources in a country that had neither nuclear weapons nor a nuclear weapons program
But he also accused the White House of a failure of imagination, an odd combination of denial and fatalism."They don't get that this is a preventable catastrophe," he said. An effective "war on nuclear terrorism", Mr Allison argued, would cost around $5bn (£2.75bn) per year. "In a current budget that devotes more than $500bn to defense and the war in Iraq," he suggested, "a penny of every dollar for what Bush calls 'our highest priority' would not be excessive."
© 2004 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd