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<em>Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe</em>

Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe

Book, Henry Holt & Company

August 9, 2004

Author: Graham Allison, Director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Ordering Information for this publication

Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security; Managing the Atom; Nuclear Nonproliferation and Nonproliferation Dialogues; Terrorism and Weapons of Mass Destruction


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. 


Praise for the Nuclear Terrorism:

"Graham Allison's Nuclear Terrorism is absolutely first-rate. Our survival as a civilization may well depend more than anything else on our heeding the recommendations of this chilling and superbly crafted book."
--R. James Woolsey, former Director of Central Intelligence

"Graham Allison is a latter day Paul Revere, calling citizens to arms against the real and rising threat of nuclear terrorism. In clear, readable words of wisdom, Allison tells us 'everything we ever wanted to know about nuclear terrorism,' but he also tells us what we must do to prevent nuclear terrorism. For everyone from national security specialists trying to define a strategy to parents who want to leave their children a world worth living in, Graham Allison's book is essential reading."
--Sam Nunn, former U.S. Senator and co-chairman, Nuclear Threat Initiative

"Graham Allison has produced a book that it is truly alarming about the danger of nuclear terror -- yet optimistic about our prospects if we do all that we could and should. One only hopes it is read and heeded."
--Richard Haass, president, Council on Foreign Relations


For more information about this publication please contact the Lauren Protentis at 617 495 1408.

Full text of this publication is available at:

For Academic Citation:

Allison, Graham. Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe. New York: Henry Holt & Company, August 9, 2004.

Document Length: 272 pp.

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Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe

Graham Allison, founding dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, a former top official at the Pentagon, and one of America’s leading scholars of nuclear strategy and national security, presents the evidence and argument that led him to two provocative conclusions: a nuclear terrorist attack on an American city is inevitable on our current course and speed, but preventable if we act now.