Analysis & Opinions - Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Seattle Vulnerable to Nuclear Terrorism

| September 21, 2004

Seattle was baptized into the era of terrorism in December 1999 when a customs agent became suspicious of a driver disembarking from a ferry at Port Angeles. Her gut reaction proved correct: Ahmed Ressam was smuggling more than 100 pounds of explosives for al-Qaida's millennium plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport.

Seattle moved into the center of the cross hairs when the mastermind of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, put the Northwest's tallest building on his top 10 target list. Later, U.S. forces found photos of the Space Needle in an al-Qaida hideout in Afghanistan.

Osama bin Laden has challenged the greater al-Qaida movement to trump 9/11. The list of terrorist actions reaching that bar is short. A clue to the preferred method comes from bin Laden: He declared obtaining nuclear weapons "a religious duty."

Seattle is particularly vulnerable to nuclear terrorism because of its location and economic significance. Not only is it the headquarters for U.S. icons Microsoft, Amazon and Starbucks, it is the third-largest port. According to CIA estimates, a terrorist nuclear weapon is far more likely to arrive in a cargo container than on the tip of a missile.

A 10-kiloton nuclear bomb detonated at the Pike Place Market would destroy Seattle. Everything within a third of a mile would vaporize. Buildings from the Washington State Convention and Trade Center to the edge of Pioneer Square would look like the Murrah Federal Office Building in Oklahoma City. Fires and fallout would ravage an area stretching from the Space Needle to Safeco Field.

The Bush administration's lackadaisical approach to this threat is baffling. But brute facts are undeniable: In the two years after 9/11, fewer potential weapons in Russia were secured than in the two years prior to the attack. Underlying this lack of urgency is a failure to grasp a fundamental insight: Nuclear terrorism is preventable.

A serious campaign to prevent nuclear terrorism would be organized under a doctrine of Three No's: no loose nukes, no new nascent nukes, and no new nuclear weapons states.

  • "No loose nukes" requires securing all nuclear weapons and weapons-usable material, on the fastest possible timetable, to a new "gold standard." The United States does not lose gold from Fort Knox, or Russia treasures from the Kremlin Armory.
  • "No new nascent nukes" means no new national capabilities to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium. This effort should begin with intrusive inspections of suspected nuclear sites, then work toward the prohibition fissile material production and actual enforcement mechanisms. Iran today poses a crucial test for this principle.
  • "No new nuclear-weapons states" draws a line under the current eight nuclear powers and says unambiguously: "No more." The immediate test of this principle is North Korea. Kim Jong-Il must be required to freeze and dismantle his nuclear program.

Nuclear terrorism is the greatest threat facing the United States today. We need a president who will push our government and others to take every technically feasible action to shield the Emerald City from the nightmare of a terrorist's nuclear bomb.

Graham Allison is director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. His new book is "Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe." For more information, see:

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham.“Seattle Vulnerable to Nuclear Terrorism.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 21, 2004.