Graham Allison Commentary: Don't Underestimate Nuclear Terror Threat
October 9, 2009
by Graham Allison
Before 9/11, most Americans found the idea that international terrorists could mount an attack on their homeland and kill thousands of innocent citizens not just unlikely but inconceivable.
After more than eight years without a second attack on U.S. soil, some skeptics suggest that 9/11 was a 100-year flood. The view that terrorists are preparing even more deadly assaults seems far-fetched.
Yet President Barack Obama rightly identifies nuclear terrorism as "a threat that rises above all others in urgency." As he recently said, "There is no graver danger to global security than the threat of nuclear terrorism and no more immediate task for the international community than to address that threat."
The U.N. Security Council recently adopted a resolution that in part calls for reducing the risk of nuclear terrorism "with the aim of securing all vulnerable nuclear material ... within four years."
To assess the threat of nuclear terrorism, it is necessary to answer five questions:
- Who could be planning a nuclear terrorist attack? Al-Qaida remains a formidable enemy with clear nuclear ambitions. Former CIA Director George Tenet wrote in his memoirs that al-Qaida's leadership has remained "singularly focused on acquiring weapons of mass destruction," and willing to "pay whatever it would cost to get their hands on fissile material."
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, recently said, "What I've worried about for some time is terrorists who get their hands on nuclear devices ... and at the very high end, al-Qaida still both seeks that capability and sees us as the enemy."
- What nuclear weapons could terrorists use? They could acquire an existing bomb from one of the nuclear weapons states or construct an elementary nuclear device from highly enriched uranium made by a state. Theft of a warhead or material would not be easy, but attempted thefts in Russia and elsewhere are not uncommon. Once a terrorist group acquires about 100 pounds of highly enriched uranium, terrorists conceivably could build a bomb such as the one dropped on Hiroshima.
- Where could terrorists acquire a nuclear bomb? Russia is the most likely source of materials used for a nuclear attack. North Korea is a close second. Kim Jong Il's regime already has displayed recklessness in risk-taking by selling to Syria a plutonium-producing nuclear reactor a thousand times larger than a nuclear weapon. Further, research reactors in 40 developing and transitional countries still hold the essential ingredient for nuclear bombs.
- When could terrorists launch the first nuclear attack? If terrorists bought or stole a nuclear weapon in good working condition, they could explode it today. If the weapon had a lock, detonation would be delayed for several days. If terrorists acquired 100 pounds of HEU, they could have a working elementary nuclear bomb in less than a year.
- How could terrorists deliver a nuclear weapon to its target?
The nuclear weapon that terrorists would use in the first attack on the United States could arrive in a cargo container or along one of the paths used daily to bring illegal drugs across our borders. The sober judgment of the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism is that the threat is "growing, not shrinking."
As former Sen. Sam Nunn testified to that commission, the threat of a nuclear terrorist attack today is greater than it was eight years ago. To see what such an event would mean in your neighborhood, enter your ZIP code at www.nuclearterror.org.
The good news is that this ultimate catastrophe is preventable. Here is a strategy for prevention that could be called a "Doctrine of Three No's":
- No unsecured nuclear weapons and weapons-usable material; secure all nuclear weapons and materials to a "gold standard" within the next four years.
- No new national capabilities to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium.
- No expansion of the nuclear club beyond its current 8.5 members (North Korea is the only self-declared but unrecognized nuclear state).
Faced with the possibility of an American Hiroshima, many Americans are paralyzed by a combination of denial and fatalism. But citizens must press their elected officials to adopt a clear agenda for action and then hold them accountable for following through.
Graham Allison is director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and the author of "Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe." The views expressed in this article are his own.