Interview with Allison
Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, published in August 2004, was authored by Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Selected by The New York Times as one of its “Notable Books” for 2004, the book takes a clear-eyed, readable approach to the threat of nuclear catastrophe, first showing why such a disaster could be inevitable if action isn’t taken and then presenting clear steps for its prevention.
Why was it important to write this book now?
At one of the presidential debates, both Bush and Kerry said that nuclear terrorism is the single most serious threat to national security. While the book is not partisan, I was not unaware that it would be published in an electoral season, when politicians have to say what they believe are the important issues. I wrote the book for the broader thinking public in the hope that they will come to understand the issue of nuclear terrorism and feel emboldened to press their government representatives to take the steps required to prevent it. I saw it as a learning moment.
How can nuclear terrorism be prevented?
If the United States and other governments maintain the status quo, a nuclear bomb will explode in an American city sometime in the decade ahead. That’s the dark news for a dark day. The good news is that nuclear terrorism is preventable. I organize a strategy of prevention under a doctrine of three “no’s.” No loose nukes, which means locking down all existing weapons and current material to a new gold standard of security. No new nascent nukes, which means no new national production of enriched uranium or plutonium. And no new nuclear weapons states. That means we draw a line under the current eight and prevent North Korea from joining them. This is not a permanent solution — it’s a solution to a mostly unacknowledged crisis in which the whole nonproliferation regime is at risk of rupturing. It’s a way of buying time while we continue to address the issue.
Which country poses the greatest threat? Is it worthwhile to think of the problem that way?
Probably not. Any bomb would be pretty deadly, no matter where it came from. It’s great if we can cross Pakistan or some other country off our list, but we still wouldn’t be bomb-free. We’re vulnerable to the weakest link in the chain.
Will it take a nuclear catastrophe to get people to focus on this issue?
The pessimists will point out that there were plenty of reasons for thinking that Osama bin Laden might try to kill a lot of Americans before 9/11, but it wasn’t possible to wake people up to that fact before the attacks. In my gloomier moods I think it might take a nuclear bomb to motivate this agenda, but I’m more of an optimist. It’s not beyond the capacity of ordinary thinking people to take a step from 9/11 to a nuclear 9/11. And the president has said this is the single most important security issue. There’s currently a disconnect between the administration’s words and its actions, but I’m hoping that will be bridged as discussion of this topic continues to circulate.
How does this challenge compare (in difficulty and commitment of resources) to our involvement in Iraq?
If we could have taken one-quarter of the presidential focus, diplomacy, money, and military force expended on Iraq over the past two years and devoted it to the prevention of nuclear terrorism, we’d be close to completing the steps that need to be taken in order to prevent a nuclear catastrophe.
What can an ordinary person do to prevent nuclear terrorism?
First, get up to speed on the issue — read the book. The picture is layered, but not so complicated that a thoughtful citizen can’t get his or her mind around it. That makes it easier to influence policymakers and impress upon them the importance and urgency of the issue. While the agenda I’ve proposed to prevent nuclear terrorism is feasible and affordable, it’s also ambitious and requires a broadly supportive community that congratulates policymakers on their successes and holds them to account when they’re not. — Julia Hannah