Preventing the Unthinkable

Graham Allison paints a frightful picture of nuclear terrorism. But all is not yet lost.

Issue: Fall 2005

Graham Allison, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate PreventableCatastrophe (New York: Times/Henry Holt, 2004), 263 pp.,$24.

It is becoming common for government officials, members ofCongress, national security commentators and the media in generalto identify a terrorist attack on an American city with a nuclearweapon as the most serious threat to our national security today.But it has taken some years for this wisdom to become conventional,and that is a little surprising. For 15 years, experts have beenwarning about the huge stockpiles of poorly secured fissilematerial, highly enriched uranium and plutonium in the formerSoviet Union. Over the years, we have gotten the details on howmuch material is located at which facilities, in what form it canbe found, and even the specifics on the inadequacies of internaland external security at each. We also learned that thoseresponsible for securing it were poorly paid, that corruption wasrampant in these societies and that organized crime was thriving.With hundreds of thousands of kilograms of the stuff to worryabout, and only five kilos required to make a Nagasaki-sized bomb,supply seemed to be plausibly available if not assured. Demand, ifour assessments of the intentions of Libya, Iraq, Iran and NorthKorea, to name a few, were at all accurate, also appeared to behigh.

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