Nuclear Terrorism

The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe

Graham Allison

Holt Paperbacks

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.


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


Praise for Nuclear Terrorism

“Graham Allison's Nuclear Terrorism is absolutely first-rate. Our survival as a civilization may well depend more than anything else on our heeding the recommendations of this chilling and superbly crafted book.”
--R. James Woolsey, former Director of Central Intelligence

“Graham Allison is a latter day Paul Revere, calling citizens to arms against the real and rising threat of nuclear terrorism. In clear, readable words of wisdom, Allison tells us ‘everything we ever wanted to know about nuclear terrorism,’ but he also tells us what we must do to prevent nuclear terrorism. For everyone from national security specialists trying to define a strategy to parents who want to leave their children a world worth living in, Graham Allison’s book is essential reading.”
--Sam Nunn, former U.S. Senator and co-chairman, Nuclear Threat Initiative

“Graham Allison has produced a book that it is truly alarming about the danger of nuclear terror -- yet optimistic about our prospects if we do all that we could and should. One only hopes it is read and heeded.”
--Richard Haass, president, Council on Foreign Relations

"In an era of color-coded terror alerts and rigorous security checks, Allison provides a rare dose of alarmism well informed."
--The Boston Globe

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

"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."
--Publishers Weekly

"Addressing general readers, Allison comprehensively discusses the perilous situation. Required for the current affairs shelf."

Reviews from Goodreads



  • 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.


Available Formats and Book Details

Nuclear Terrorism

The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe

Graham Allison




Holt Paperbacks