Nuclear weapons and terrorists have a lot in common.
They target civilians, killing indiscriminately.
They make us vulnerable because they strike, not on a battlefield, but where we live and work.
They intimidate through fear -- changing our behavior by their very existence.
They make us feel that no place is truly safe.
So, it's no surprise that terrorists would want to wield nuclear weapons. Nor is it a surprise that the US Government views such a destructive pairing as a serious threat.
But it may come as a surprise that a storehouse of 2,000 pounds of plutonium and weapons-grade uranium -- estimated to be enough to build 300 nuclear weapons -- sits only about 40 miles from San Francisco in the town of Livermore.
Even more surprising is that, according to a story in this week's Time Magazine by Adam Zagorin, security flaws were recently exposed at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the nuclear weapons research facility where the fissile material is kept.
The Time article quoted "sources" saying that "a commando team posing as terrorists attacked and penetrated the lab, quickly overpowering its defenses" to reach "a mock payload of fissile material." The article went on to quote "experts" including "congressional staff from both parties informed of the episode," concluding that "the test amounts to an embarrassment to those responsible for securing the nation's nuclear facilities, and that it required immediate steps to correct what some called the most dangerous security weaknesses ever found at the lab."
The Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration said on May 9 that the "force-on-force exercise" at Livermore " highlighted a number of areas that require immediate attention."
And the San Jose Mercury reported that "Rep. Ellen Tauscher, whose district includes most of Lawrence Livermore, said the exercise highlights the need to remove the plutonium from the lab, which is on the outskirts of the densely populated San Francisco Bay Area."
The Time article further explained that "in 2005 the Energy Department approved the doubling of the amount of plutonium stored at Livermore, less than five months after a scientific panel recommended, for security reasons, that nearly all of it be moved to a safer, more remote site."
What neither Time nor The San Jose Mercury nor the Department of Energy spelled out is that the national labs at Livermore aren't even run by the government.
In fact, they were managed for the government for many years by the University of California. Last year the management contract was won by Lawrence Livermore National Security LLC, a group of five organizations including the University of California and Bechtel National.
You remember, the giant company Bechtel. It won a huge reconstruction contract for Iraq in 2003. It left the country in 2006, blaming a lack of security for problems it encountered. A year later, a US government report concluded Bechtel had completed less than half its projects. Of course, Bechtel is no stranger to nuclear matters. Since 2001, they have been working on the design and construction of the $1.8 billion Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site.
But, you might wonder, why is the highly esteemed University of California doing R and D for nuclear weapons?
How could such weapons of mass destruction be part of its mandate for higher education and life-enhancing research?
Well, the UC has been involved in nuclear weapons design, testing and production since 1952 at Livermore. Yes, California's respected public university system is very much part of the military industrial complex, using great minds to design and refine weapons that can kill the innocent on a massive scale.
The deeper you dig into the story, the more complicated, and troubling, it gets. Some Livermore residents -- the town's total population is around 82,000 -- say the nuclear weapons lab is most vulnerable from the air because nearby flight paths to local airports regularly bring planes in the vicinity.
And one of the biggest flaws discovered in the "force-on-force" exercise was apparently the failure of a Gatling gun. had an idea that Gatling guns belonged to the 19th century, invented as they were during the Civil War. Well, there are modern Gatling guns, too. Monsters that spray bullets faster and much more powerfully than a machine gun. Imagine thousands of bullets fired a minute.
Maybe the thinking is that you need a really nasty conventional weapon to defend really nasty weapons of mass destruction.
But if we want a safer world, there is a better way to achieve than with fissile material and Gatling guns. I would suggest the biggest security flaw in the system is our policy on nuclear weapons. It is a policy that defends the thousands and thousands of nuclear weapons we have and the vast stores of fissile material we maintain while telling other nations that it is extremely dangerous for them to have the same weapons and fissile material. I suggest that what is bad for one is bad for all.
Why not change US policy on nuclear weapons? Instead of trying to protect the ultimate weapons of destruction and the fissile material used to make them, we could destroy these tools of death and the threat they pose in anyone's hands.
To my mind, the only way to be truly safe is to eliminate nuclear weapons and control the nuclear material used to make them. The only way to do that is with international co-operation led by the United States for a mutual, phased and verifiable disarmament process.
Fissile material in places like the Lawrence Livermore lab is a disaster waiting to happen.
Do we really need to wait until a terrorist manages to make and detonate a nuclear device -- or attack a facility like Lawrence Livermore -- before we realize that we really should have done something about the situation now?
And it is possible to do something now. Go to www.wagingpeace.org and sign on to the US Leadership Appeal, a petition run by the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, an educational charity. You can send a message to the next occupant of the White House. A message urging the next president to change US policy and provide leadership for a nuclear weapons-free world.
Senator Sam Nunn, the former chair of the Senate Armed Services committee, had this to say in Oslo this year as he addressed an international conference about his personal support for a world free of nuclear weapons and about the urgent need for international cooperation.
"The greatest dangers of the Cold War were addressed primarily by confrontation
with Moscow. The greatest global threats today -- catastrophic terrorism, a rise in the
number of nuclear weapons states, increasing danger of mistaken, accidental or
unauthorized nuclear launch -- can only be prevented in cooperation with Moscow,
Beijing and many other capitals.
"Both leaders and citizens from around the world must reflect on what is at stake.
I believe that we are in a race between cooperation and catastrophe."
Wouldn't it be great if our next president and the Congress would take the lead us in working to engender such cooperation?
Follow Steven Crandell on Twitter: www.twitter.com/stevencrandell