U.S. security experts say America must do more to prevent the smuggling of nuclear material. They sent a stern warning to U.S. lawmakers.
Testifying before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, 9/11 Commission Chairman Thomas Kean said the major threat facing America today is nuclear smuggling, and the danger it poses to coastal cities.
Of 41 recommendations made by the commission in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Kean said the most important is preventing terrorists from obtaining nuclear weapons.
He said efforts to safeguard nuclear material in the former Soviet Union is the first step toward preventing a terrorist nuclear attack inside the United States.
Kean said Congress and the Bush administration have to make the issue a priority.
"It's a priority when our leaders are talking about it," he says. "Now why isn't the president talking more often about securing nuclear materials? Why isn't the Congress focused? Why aren't there more hearings? Why isn't there greater member interest?"
Kean said despite an agreement between Washington and Moscow last year, half of Russia's nuclear facilities are still unsecured. At the current rate of effort, Kean said it will take another 14 years to secure the facilities and their nuclear material.
He says the United States cannot wait that long.
"Is there anybody, anywhere, who thinks in this country that we have 14 years? This is unacceptable," Kean says. "Bin Laden and the terrorists will not wait. The challenge is bigger, as you know, than the former Soviet Union."
Former Coast Guard Commander Stephen Flynn told the committee terrorists have been shifting their tactics away from spectacular attacks designed to kill scores of people, and are now concentrating more on economic targets. He says that shift, when combined with nuclear smuggling, means Washington must aggressively upgrade its homeland security measures.
"Confronting the nuclear smuggling threat requires that we take the post - 9/11 security framework the U.S. government has been developing largely on the fly over the past four years, and quickly move it to the next generation that builds on the original framework. We have a version 1.0," Flynn says. "We need a version 2.0."
The International Atomic Energy Association recently released a database detailing 660 incidents of international nuclear smuggling between 1993 and 2002. Of these, nearly 20 involved highly enriched uranium, a component of a nuclear weapon.