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Armed and Unready

Congress could start by redirecting the billions the administration is now dumping into its high-tech "missile shield," a defense unlikely to be effective against even a minimal long-range attack.

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Such a catastrophe is unimaginable. But we must force ourselves to imagine it if we are to prevent it. As former assistant secretary of defense Graham Allison points out in his book, "Nuclear Terrorism," all other terrorist threats pale in comparison to the danger posed by a nuclear attack.

A nuclear weapon capable of destroying Hampton Roads, Richmond or Arlington could weigh as little as 200 pounds. It could fit in a large suitcase or backpack. The former Soviet Union built thousands of such weapons. Many of them are still not secured or even accounted for.

Terrorists who wish to build their own bomb could design a weapon using information freely available in the world's libraries. They would need to acquire only 9 pounds of plutonium, an amount about the size of a softball. A slightly larger amount of highly enriched uranium would also serve and would be much easier to obtain and work with. These bomb-making materials are readily available in dozens of countries with loosely guarded nuclear power reactors.

If terrorists obtain a nuclear weapon, preventing them from smuggling it into the country will be extraordinarily difficult. Each year, smugglers transport uncounted tons of illegal drugs and other contraband across our borders. We can't even manage to interdict the hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants entering our country. Thousands of anonymous truck-sized cargo containers are offloaded from ships in the ports of Richmond and Hampton Roads. How difficult would it be to transport a bomb that could easily fit in the trunk of a car or even in a large suitcase? Radiation sensors are virtually useless against such a weapon. A properly shielded nuclear bomb releases almost no detectable radiation.

How can we prevent nuclear terrorism from becoming a tragic reality? Allison proposes a comprehensive, coordinated program. It includes preventing additional nations from acquiring nuclear weapons or the capacity to produce weapons-grade uranium and plutonium, building an international alliance to deter nuclear terrorism, and rewarding both friends and adversaries for their cooperation. Allison's plan also includes meeting our own nation's treaty commitments to reducing its own nuclear arsenal. We cannot expect other countries to disarm unless we ourselves take genuine steps in the same direction. And we must also assist the dozens of countries with nuclear power reactors in securing their supplies of highly enriched uranium and plutonium.

The first step in Allison's proposal calls for safeguarding the nuclear warheads spread across Russia. During the administration of the first President Bush, Sens. Richard Lugar and Sam Nunn designed a program to accomplish just that. The effort was enormously successful in securing and dismantling nuclear weapons from the states of the former Soviet Union. But the job is only half completed. The Nunn-Lugar program is grossly underfunded, and the current Bush administration has not pushed for its rapid completion.

This is where Virginia's congressional delegation can make a great difference. A nuclear terror attack may still be preventable, if we take immediate steps to make unsecured bombs and bomb-making material unavailable at the source. Virginia's legislators — especially Sen. John Warner, who has just been appointed to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security — should support funding the rapid completion of the Nunn-Lugar program. We must help Russia secure its remaining nuclear weapons and bomb-making materials to what Allison calls the "gold standard" — that is, making them as secure as the gold in Fort Knox.

Allison estimates the task will cost about $30 billion. Is there money to carry it out? There must be. Imagine the economic damage our country would suffer if one bomb were detonated in a single American city. To find funding, Congress could start by redirecting the billions the administration is now dumping into its high-tech "missile shield," a defense unlikely to be effective against even a minimal long-range attack. That's clearly not where the gravest danger lies.

Sixty years ago, the United States became the first and thus far the only nation to use nuclear weapons against another country. Since then, the world has been fortunate to avoid the horrors of another nuclear attack. But as nuclear materials and technology spread, the possibility of another Hiroshima grows ever more likely. If we hope to avoid becoming the next victim of our own terrible invention, we must do everything in our power to help the world lock down its nuclear fuel and weapons, now. S



Paul Fleisher is a veteran educator and author of "Understanding the Vocabulary of the Nuclear Arms Race."

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.




Long-Distance Learning

By Ashley Ebert

Many people think that commuting provides the same education for less. College life, however, is defined by leaving home. As the first to attend college on one side of my family, I find that my relatives do not understand why I attend a university so far away when there are many distinguished schools an hour away from my home in Michigan. I always respond that I thoroughly researched many colleges and chose University of Richmond because I wanted to meet new people, have new experiences, and besides, it's only an hour-and-a-half flight from home. Despite my careful investigation, I overlooked the detail that going to Richmond meant leaving Michigan behind. Now that I am settled and have overcome any feelings of homesickness, I recognize that living away from home makes the college experience one of the most challenging and unique chapters in life.

If I had chosen to go to school an hour away from home, I would most likely visit home often and fail to benefit from everything that college offers. My friend who attends the University of Michigan drives home with his laundry every other weekend for a home-cooked meal. While I would do anything to escape the dining hall, I have learned the true value of the dinner off-campus with friends -- Olive Garden was clearly thinking of us when it advertised unlimited salad and breadsticks.

While at first, none of my hall mates and I had anything in common besides our unfamiliarity with the campus, we soon found that we shared many things beyond our living space. In the first half of the semester, we have already established traditions like Thursday night "The Apprentice" parties where, over some Chinese takeout, we eagerly watch the teams contend to win each task. When Hurricane Gaston hit Richmond during the first week of school, the resulting power outage became our first real excuse to stop working; we learned about each other as we huddled in the dark hallway playing a competitive game of Gin Rummy. Now that we know and care about one another, we take care of each other by alternating who plays the role of "mom." Whenever someone isn't feeling well, we always stop by with a Tylenol and a glass of water. As nervous as I was about leaving my family in Michigan, I have found another family away from home.

Without Mom and Dad to supervise, college students experience a newfound freedom; some use this opportunity to party too hard while most university students approach the situation maturely. Whether faced with a choice as simple as when to study or go out, or a more difficult decision like choosing friends, college students create their own identities. Without realizing it, everyday decisions ultimately affect the type of person college students become depending on how they accept their freedoms and responsibilities.

Although the university and our parents provide our housing, meal plans, and "Spidercards," they, unfortunately, do not assume all responsibilities. To my surprise, I recently received a $68 cable bill in the mail that I expected to be delivered directly to my parents. I have since decided to cancel my HBO; I refuse to spend that much money when I never have time to watch television. Yet, writing my first check for the cable bill was exhilarating even if it meant letting go of something. Needless to say, the excitement quickly wore off when I wrote my second check! Subtracting $68 from my bank account balance revealed more to me than the value of money; it taught me to appreciate what I have and recognize what I do not need.

While my classes are the reason I am at college, in reality, I learn much more outside the classroom. A GPA does not determine success in college as it does in high school; rather than attempting to obtain a perfect 4.0, my goal is to travel uncharted territory in order to find many passions that I would like to pursue. At the university level, it is impossible to become an expert on every subject. Striving to discover what to experience and accomplish in life is a much more realistic, worthy, and exciting ambition. By coping with the stress of friendships, an overwhelming course load, and even unexpected cable bills, college students realize what they are made of each day. When I recently visited home, my parents remarked several times how grown up I looked. I am certain that my appearance has not changed at all; perhaps they only perceived how different I feel. Whatever the change in my character, my move to Virginia caused it.



Ashley Ebert is a student at the University of Richmond. Her English class was assigned to read Style's Back Page and write an essay that might be appropriate for that space. This was the article the students chose to submit.















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