- Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center Newsletter

Q&A with Graham Allison: Preventing Nuclear Terrorism

Spring 2004

Graham Allison is the Director of the Belfer Center, "founding Dean" of the Kennedy School, and former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy and Plans with responsibility for developing strategy for Russia, Ukraine, and the former Soviet Union.

As a leading expert on terrorism, foreign policy, and nuclear weapons, he and center colleagues co-authored Avoiding Nuclear Anarchy: Containing the Threat of Loose Russian Nuclear Weapons and Fissile Material (1996), which paints the specter of a world of nuclear plenty where terrorists could easily obtain nuclear weapons and destroy American cities. Under Allison's leadership over the past decade, the Belfer Center has been the nation's leading think-tank for identifying threats of catastrophic terrorism and designing prevention strategies.

Dr. Allison's new book, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, will be published by Times Books this summer.

President Bush has warned of "the world's most dangerous people" attacking us with "the world's most destructive technologies." The threat that Saddam Hussein would arm terrorists with WMD was the main argument put forth for war against Iraq. Hasn't this administration made preventing nuclear terrorism a top priority?

Allison: While the Bush administration has said the right words, they have unfortunately not followed through with actions. Indeed, if the U.S. government and others just keep doing what they are presently doing, nuclear terrorism is not just inevitable, but more likely than not in the decade ahead. While the Bush Administration has been distracted by war with Iraq, in Russia they have left 10,000 nuclear warheads and enough fissile material for 30,000 more weapons vulnerable to theft. No Global Cleanout campaign has been undertaken to remove weapons materials from vulnerable research reactor sites in more than 20 nations. North Korea is believed to have built as many as eight nuclear weapons, while the administration has maintained there is "no crisis."

What policies should the Bush administration, or possibly after the election a Kerry administration, take to measurably reduce the risks of what you term a "nuclear 9/11?"

Allison: The centerpiece of a strategy must be to deny terrorists access to nuclear weapons and the materials needed to make them. Without fissile materials such as highly enriched uranium or plutonium, there can be no nuclear explosion. So, no fissile material, no nuclear explosion, no nuclear terrorism. It is that simple. There is a vast, but not unlimited, amount of highly enriched uranium and weapons-grade plutonium in the world. Technologies for securing valuable or dangerous materials are well developed: the United States does not lose gold from Fort Knox. Moreover, producing new fissile material requires complex, conspicuous, and thus vulnerable facilities. A watchful world can interrupt such efforts. To do this, we must shape a new international security order to enforce a doctrine of the Three No's: No loose nukes, No new nascent nukes, and No new nuclear states.


Is it too late to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons, and to reverse North Korea's suspected acquisition of them?

Allison: No, not if the U.S. would focus on the problem. In Iran's case, a grand bargain can be struck: in return for renouncing all plans to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium, we would sell them nuclear fuel for their civilian reactors at less than half the cost to produce it themselves, and remove the spent nuclear fuel after use. North Korea should be offered a long list of enticing carrots, economic and diplomatic, to convince it to give up its nuclear program. In both cases, stopping further nuclear proliferation must trump all other issues, including regime change. Credible carrots must be offered, and equally credible sticks must be brandished as a last resort.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Q&A with Graham Allison: Preventing Nuclear Terrorism.” Belfer Center Newsletter (Spring 2004).