Nuclear Terrorism The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe

Graham Allison

Holt Paperbacks



Trade Paperback

288 Pages



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A New York Times Notable Book
A Foreign Affairs Bestseller

Americans today are keenly aware of our vulnerability to hijackings, biological attacks, and chemical weapons. But the deadliest form of terrorism is almost too scary to think about: a terrorist group exploding a nuclear bomb in an America city.

In this urgent call to action, Graham Allison, one of America's leading experts on nuclear weapons and national security, argues that we must face this terrible threat squarely in order to understand it and neutralize it. Nuclear Terrorism presents a compelling case for two propositions. The first is that on the current course nuclear terrorism is inevitable. Indeed, it may be closer than we think. In October 2001 President George W. Bush received a CIA report that Al Qaeda had smuggled a ten-kiloton nuclear weapon into New York City. It turned out to be a false alarm, but if such a weapon were to explode in Times Square, up to a million New Yorkers would die instantly. In Washington, an explosion like this could vaporize the White House, the State Department, and the Treasury, while the Pentagon and the Capitol building would look like the federal office building in Oklahoma City. Allison lays out the true nature of the threat: who are the groups likely to seek out nuclear weapons, what kind of material is available to them, where they are likely to get it, when such a nuclear device could be made operational, and how they might deliver it to our shores.

But Allison does more than weave a tale of doom, because his second proposition is that nuclear terrorism is preventable. He outlines an ambitious but feasible strategy by which we can essentially eliminate the danger of nuclear terrorism. The centerpiece of this strategy is to deny terrorists access to nuclear weapons and nuclear materials. It is certainly within our power to keep uranium and plutonium secure; the United States does not lose gold from Fort Knox, after all. Moreover, producing new fissile material requires large, expensive, complex, and visible facilities—giving a determined world opportunities to interrupt such efforts. Preventing nuclear terrorism may be a huge undertaking but it is nonetheless a finite one, subject to a finite solution. It is a challenge to our will and conviction, not to our capabilities. Whether one considers the continuing revelations of Pakistan's black-marketeering, Iran's clandestine programs, North Korean's brazen rejection of any restraints, or Libya as a window on a system spinning out of control, Allison's book provides a framework to help readers make sense of the news and to connect these dots to what matters most: how to prevent a nuclear terrorist attack here at home.


Praise for Nuclear Terrorism

"The indispensable text on the subject."—Hendrik Hertzberg, The New Yorker
"Persuasive."—John Tirman, The Washington Post Book World

"A rare dose of alarmism well informed."—Jai Singh, The Boston Globe

"Allison goes beyond the usual hand-wringing about a nuclear-armed Al Qaeda. He presents sharp critiques of White House failure to tackle the problem and proposes concrete solutions."—Newsweek

"Allison makes the subject clear and accessible; his recommendations come across as not only logical, but also imperative."—Foreign Affairs

"A well-written report [that] addresses all the big questions . . . Allison's comprehensive but accessible treatment of this vital subject is a major contribution to public understanding."—James Hoge, The New York Times Book Review

"Allison walks us through the problem, inducing an increasing sense of looming terror with facts, not inflammatory language. His cold-blooded presentation of the case, in fact, makes it even more terrifying in its promise. The book is an absolute ‘must’ read."—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"Impressive. If Part One [of this book] persuades that the nuclear 9/11 can't be prevented, Part Two makes you think it's inevitable only if we keep doing what we've done so far. We might head it off if we toughen up. Allison's wonderfully informative second half presents a slew of carefully recommended changes . . . Nuclear Terrorism succeeds at its chief task: making one superbly literate in the frightening realities of its subject."—Carlin Romano, The Philadelphia Inquirer

"Excellent . . . Allison presents a full discourse on the very real threat of nuclear terror and delivers the thesis of his book convincingly."—Senator Charles E. Schumer (in the New York Post)

"Mr. Allison is one of the country’s preeminent academic experts on national security . . . His prognostication needs to be taken seriously."—The Washington Times

"As the founding dean of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, a former assistant secretary of defense for policy and plans, and the author of an influential book on decision-making during the Cuban missile crisis, Graham Allison is eminently qualified to ring the alarm bells. In Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, he explains just how easy it is to design and build a nuclear weapon—a Princeton undergraduate in 1977 famously submitted a working design for one as his senior thesis—and how easy it would be to smuggle such a bomb into the United States . . . Nevertheless, Allison believes that a nuclear attack is preventable, and his book offers a concrete plan of action. The key, he says, is control of fissile materials—like highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium—without which a bomb cannot be built . . . Allison goes on to argue convincingly that much of the world's fissile material, perhaps most of it, can feasibly be recovered and placed under tight guard by the existing nuclear powers . . . More broadly, he advocates a world based on 'Three No's': 'no loose nukes, no new nascent nukes'—by which he means no new facilities for producing fissile material—and 'no new nuclear weapons states.'"—Ian Garrick Mason, San Francisco Chronicle
"The book is so good and persuasive. It is easy to read and understand, logically organized, well footnoted and makes a very powerful statement that, as a nation, we must act if we are to avoid catastrophe . . . There is no better book on the subject and for that, no more important one for policymakers and lawmakers, the media and the public to read and act upon."—Robert L. Gallucci, The National Interest

"Al Qaeda promises that four million Americans are slated to die in its jihad. Such numbers mean dirty bombs and worse—and, we're warned here, the government is doing too little to deal with the threat. 'If the United States and other governments keep doing what they are doing today,' writes former assistant secretary of defense Allison, 'a nuclear terrorist attack on America is more likely than not in the decade ahead.' Never mind those other governments; what is ours doing? Many things, and badly, according to Allison. One is failing to assess the whereabouts and to control the flow of extant stores of nuclear materials; at least 84 suitcase-sized bombs once kept by the KGB, for instance, have gone missing since the fall of the Soviet Union, and American intelligence agencies seem to have no idea where they are, to say nothing of homegrown supplies of uranium and plutonium that seem to have fallen off the truck. This failure is perhaps understandable, Allison acknowledges, but it speaks to systemic weaknesses; after all, Western intelligence as a whole failed as well to put Japan's Aum Shinrikyo cult on its radar, and the group 'spent half a decade building weapons of mass destruction without arousing concern.' Another failure is that of squashing Third World powers that have acquired the bomb; Allison proposes a 'Three No's' program that begins 'with an unambiguous bright line: no nuclear North Korea,' even if North Korea may now have more than half-a-dozen tactical nuclear weapons in its arsenal. Still another failure is the war on Iraq, which has diverted attention from North Korea, Iran, and Pakistan—and, of course, from al Qaeda and all its terrible ambitions, which 'can make 9/11 a footnote.' And so forth, in a somber but unfailingly attention-getting litany. We can stop the nuclear threat cold, Allison argues—but only by taking it seriously. His criticisms seem eminently well founded and deserving of discussion and debate."—Kirkus Reviews

"Allison applies a long, distinguished career in government and academia to this sobering—indeed frightening—presentation of U.S. vulnerability to a terrorist nuclear attack. While he begins by asserting such an attack is preventable, the balance of his text is anything but reassuring. Allison begins by describing the broad spectrum of groups who could intend a nuclear strike against the U.S. They range from an al-Qaeda [faction] with its own Manhattan Project to small and determined doomsday cults. Their tools can include a broad spectrum of weapons, either stolen or homemade from raw materials increasingly available worldwide. Once terrorists acquire a nuclear bomb, Allison argues, its delivery to an American target may be almost impossible to stop under current security measures. The Bush administration, correct in waging war against nuclear terrorism, has not, he says, yet developed a comprehensive counter strategy. Arguing that the only way to eliminate nuclear terrorism's threat is to lock down the weapons at the source, Allison recommends nothing less than a new international order based on no insecure nuclear material, no new facilities for processing uranium or enriching plutonium, and no new nuclear states. Those policies, Allison believes, do not stretch beyond the achievable, if pursued by a combination of quid pro quos and intimidation in an international context of negotiation and a U.S. foreign policy he describes as 'humble.' A humble policy in turn will facilitate building a world alliance against nuclear terrorism and acquiring the intelligence necessary for success against prospective nuclear terrorists. It will also require time, money, and effort. Like the Cold War, the war on nuclear terrorism will probably be a long struggle in the twilight. But no student of the fact, Allison asserts, doubts that another major terrorist attack is in the offing."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

From Nuclear Terrorism:
-Every day 30,000 trucks, 6,500 rail cars, and 140 ships deliver more than 50,000 cargo containers into the United States, but only 5 percent ever get screened. But even this screening, which rarely involves physical inspection, may not detect nuclear weapons or fissile material.

- There are approximately 130 nuclear research reactors in 40 countries. Two dozen of these
have enough highly enriched uranium for one or more nuclear bombs.

- If terrorists bought or stole a complete weapon, they could set it off immediately. If instead they bought fissile
Read the full excerpt


  • Graham Allison

  • Graham Allison, founding dean of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, is the director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government. He served as assistant secretary of defense for policy and plans and is the author of Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis. He lives in Belmont, Massachusetts.