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Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe

| August 9, 2004

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 material, they could build a crude but working nuclear bomb within a year.

--In Russia, 10,000 nuclear warheads and fissile material for 30,000 additional weapons remain vulnerable to theft.

--Pakistan's black marketers, led by the country's leading nuclear scientist, A. Q. Khan, have sold comprehensive "nuclear starter kits" that included advanced centrifuge components, blueprints for nuclear warheads, uranium samples in quantities sufficient to make a small bomb, and even provided personal consulting services to assist nuclear development.

Given the number of countries with serious intent, the accessibility of weapons or nuclear materials from which elementary weapons could be constructed, and the myriad ways by which terrorists could smuggle a weapon through American borders, Graham Allison argues that a nuclear strike is inevitable.  And yet, Allison is not a pessimist.  He contends that the big and underreported news is that nuclear terrorism is preventable. “As a simple matter of physics, without fissile material, there can be no nuclear explosion.  There is a vast, but not unlimited amount of this in the world, and it is within our power to keep it secure,” Allison writes. “Thus all the United States has to do to prevent nuclear terrorism is to prevent terrorists from acquiring a weapon or nuclear material.”  Although this seems an incredible undertaking, it is nonetheless a finite one that can be accomplished by a finite effort.   “It is,” writes Allison, “a challenge to our will, our conviction, and our courage, but not to technical capacity.”

Allison provides in plain and accessible terms the “who, what, where, when and how” of impending terrorist strikes and thus delineates the challenge we face.  He also sets out an ambitious but feasible agenda to prevent this terrible threat. 

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Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe

Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe
For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham. Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe. New York, NY: Henry Holt & Company, August 9, 2004.