TIME Barack Obama

Yes, Obama Really Is Worried About a Manhattan Nuke

The President was accused of changing a difficult subject when he said a nuclear weapon going off in New York City was more of a threat to the U.S. than Russia, but he is actually laser-focused on non-proliferation and nuclear security issues

President Obama invoked a bracing image responding to a question about the threat Russia poses to America while speaking at a nuclear-security summit in Brussels on Tuesday.

Russia’s actions “don’t pose the No. 1 national-security threat to the United States,” Obama said in the Hague, the Netherlands. “I continue to be much more concerned, when it comes to our security, with the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan.”

Yikes! Does Obama really think there’s a serious chance that Manhattan could get nuked?

He almost certainly does.

Some people accused Obama of changing a difficult subject: “Simply because the President can dream up other horrible scenarios is no excuse for failing to address the immediate ones,” snapped conservative Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin.

Obama made his startling claim in response to a question about the way he’d teased Mitt Romney for claiming, during the 2012 campaign, that Russia was America’s greatest strategic foe. In hindsight, Obama’s response to Romney seems glib at best.

And nuclear terrorism certainly seems a more remote prospect than it did a few years ago. After Sept. 11, 2001, there was constant talk about such a nightmare scenario. It was invoked as a reason to invade Iraq. John Kerry and George W. Bush agreed on virtually nothing in 2004, except the view that nuclear terrorism was the gravest security threat facing the U.S. Such talk is less common now, thanks to a weakened al-Qaeda leadership and, perhaps, a post-Iraq reluctance in Washington to hype the WMD threat. (Incidentally, the White House said on Tuesday that Obama wasn’t referring to any specific new intelligence about nuclear terrorism.)

Sept. 11 also caused governments around the world to take the prospect of catastrophic terrorism more seriously. That led to security upgrades everywhere from Eastern Europe to Africa to Australia (and the surrender of 15 bombs’ worth of material by Ukraine). But the threat itself remains all too real.

“We’ve made enormous progress over the course of the last few years,” Matthew Bunn, a nuclear-proliferation expert at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said at a recent nuclear-security conference in Washington. “But there’s a long, long way to go.”

Experts have recently estimated the probability of such an attack in the near future at between 30% and 50%. That number might’ve been too high to begin with, and may be even more so now thanks to recent advances in nuclear security.

But what’s an acceptable risk for such an utterly nightmarish event? Would you fly on a plane with even a 1% chance of crashing? The probability guru Nate Silver has looked at the numbers and concluded that nuclear terrorism represents a far greater risk than conventional terrorism, adding that “a more rational antiterrorism policy would focus resources heavily, perhaps almost exclusively, on threats of nuclear and weapons-of-mass-destruction terror.”

As it happens, the federal government spends millions of dollars furnishing New York City and other major cities with nuclear-detection gear — although NYC lawmakers seized on Obama’s comment to complain that the President’s budget would cut Manhattan’s nuke-finding funding from $22 million to $12 million next year.

By the time a bomb reaches a big city, however, it’s probably too late to avert a catastrophe. That’s why Obama has put so much effort into his nuclear-security summits, which emphasize the need to carefully secure and monitor nuclear material that could be stolen and fashioned into a bomb. A terrorist group could never enrich its own uranium, or acquire plutonium — just look at how much time, money and effort Iran has spent trying to do so. A small group with modest scientific knowledge and a low budget, however, probably could make a Hiroshima-grade bomb from highly enriched uranium.

Where would terrorists get that nuclear material? They could steal it by force, a scenario that can’t be ignored in Pakistan. Or they could buy it from smugglers, who continue to be caught peddling uranium stolen from the old Soviet nuclear complex.

The goal of the U.S.-led nuclear summits is to keep world leaders focused on the problem. “He believes that this is one of the most important legacies of his Administration,” Obama’s coordinator for weapons of mass destruction and arms control, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, said earlier this month. A gimmicky nuclear-terrorism war game conducted in the Hague this week — which reportedly irritated German Chancellor Angela Merkel — seems mainly to have been a PR stunt. The main task now is to pursue international standards and practices for ensuring nuclear security.

Unfortunately, the countries of greatest concern — namely Pakistan and North Korea — refuse to participate in such collegial international efforts. That’s just one reason why Obama’s concern is justified. Vladimir Putin may threaten international norms — but nuclear terrorism threatens civilization as we know it.

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