Belfer Center Director Graham Allison Testifies Before House Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade

July 29, 2008


Graham Allison, director of Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, testified Thursday, July 24 2008 before the House Subcommittee on "Securing the Nuclear Renaissance,"  on the importance of  terrorism, nonproliferation, and trade.

Allison outlined four recomendations to help secure a more stable nuclear future. They were preventing nuclear terrorism, the need to support nonproliferation, safe expansions of nuclear technology, and strengthing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).


Chairman Sherman, Congressman Royce, and members of the Committee, I am honored to appear before you today and congratulate you for your decision to explore the issue of the nonproliferation regime and likely impacts upon it by the nuclear renaissance.

I wish to submit for the record a recent Report by an independent "Commission of Eminent Persons" established by the IAEA Director, Mohamed ElBaradei, entitled "Reinforcing the Global Nuclear Order: The Role of the IAEA." I served as co-Executive Director of this Commission, and as a result of that experience over the past year, have had the opportunity to examine the global nuclear order from the perspective of the IAEA. But in my testimony and in answer to questions, I am speaking not for that Commission, or any other institution with which I am associated, but expressly and entirely for myself.

Director General ElBaradei created the Commission to advise on how the nuclear future might evolve to 2020 and beyond, what the world is likely to demand of the IAEA, and what steps need to be taken to allow the IAEA to fill those needs. The question before us is: what actions must the international community take to maximize the contributions to human well-being from nuclear energy and nuclear technologies, while minimizing their risks?

Given the complexity of the issues you raised in calling this hearing, I think it is appropriate to begin with the big picture. From 30,000 feet, let me offer what I believe are four central truths:

1. Nuclear terrorism. The issues you are addressing have so many dimensions, each of which is so complex, that they threaten overload. I believe these complexities can best be resolved through the lens of nuclear terrorism. If one begins by thinking about al Qaeda exploding just one nuclear bomb and devastating the heart of one American city—a threat that I believe is larger today than it was when al Qaeda killed 3,000 innocent Americans at their desks on the morning of the 11th of September, 2001—one can help bring these complexities into focus. In conjunction with my book, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, we put up a website: You can put in your own zip code there and see what the small (10 kiloton) nuclear bomb that was thought to be in New York City a month after 9/11 would do in your neighborhood. This is, as President Bush and his challenger Senator Kerry agreed in the 2004 Presidential campaign, the "the single most serious threat to American national security." Thus in grappling with questions about the NPT or the IAEA, I suggest it is useful to ask about this bottom line: what impact does this have on the likelihood of a nuclear 9/11

2. Present at the unraveling? Dean Acheson, who was Secretary of State after World War II, helped create the global order that has brought us the longest period of peace and prosperity ever enjoyed by human beings. He entitled his memoir: Present at the Creation. Writing today, one might choose the title: Present at the Unraveling. In my view, there is a substantial chance that we are living through the unraveling of the nonproliferation regime that has held back the spread of nuclear weapons, nuclear wars, and nuclear terrorism, for four decades. I agree with the conclusion of the UN High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change, which warned that the erosion of the nonproliferation regime is reaching a point at which it could "become irreversible, and result in a cascade of proliferation."

As Henry Kissinger has noted, a defining challenge for statesmen is to recognize "a change in the international environment so likely to undermine national security that it must be resisted no matter what form the threat takes or how ostensibly legitimate it appears." An unraveling of the nonproliferation regime would constitute just such a transformation undermining the security of all civilized nations. The question is whether statesmen will act in time to prevent this catastrophe.

3. Risks in the Nuclear Renaissance. The nuclear renaissance that most observers expect to significantly expand the number of nuclear energy plants over the next several decades increases the risk that the nonproliferation regime will unravel. The increased risk comes not from new nuclear energy plants in themselves. Rather, it comes from the prevailing interpretation of the Nonproliferation Treaty that allows states that acquire nuclear energy reactors to also acquire a full fuel cycle. If the expansion of nuclear energy reactors leads to a proliferation of uranium enrichment facilities and reprocessing facilities for separating the spent fuel, this will certainly provide a cover for new nuclear weapons states, significantly increasing risks that nuclear weapons end up in hands of terrorists.

4. Strengthened IAEA. The world needs a strengthened IAEA in a reinforced nonproliferation regime. Unless the current standards and practices for nonproliferation, security, and safety are significantly strengthened, current trend-lines will abort the nuclear renaissance and assist catastrophic attacks upon the United States In IAEA language, the three S's - safeguards (accounting to deter and discover state diversion of peaceful nuclear energy applications to nuclear weapons programs), security (theft of nuclear material by crooks inside or outside a system who could sell this material to terrorists or states for making bombs), and safety (prevention of accidents like Chernobyl) — need to be significantly strengthened.

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Graham Allison, director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

The new global nuclear order required to respond to these challenges will evolve over time. It must, however, be defined by increased international cooperation and partnership; expanded transparency; more effective standards for safety and security worldwide; new nonproliferation measures, and firmly placing nuclear weapons in the background of international affairs.