Apocalypse When?

Apocalypse When?

by Author(s): Graham AllisonJoseph CirincioneWilliam C. PotterJohn Mueller

In the previous issue of The National Interest , John Mueller argued that the threats from nuclear proliferation, nuclear terrorism and nuclear war are exaggerated. Rather, we may pose the greatest threat to ourselves: the price we pay for making nuclear weapons the "supreme priority" carries a hefty price in money and in lives. Graham Allison, Joseph Cirincione and William Potter weigh in. Mueller has the last word.

The Three "Nos" Knows

Graham Allison


"RADIOACTIVE HYPE" by John Mueller sharpens the barbs from his recent book, Overblown, in ways that demonstrate that he is, above all, a committed contrarian. One can agree with many points in his article and book. But his central propositions about the danger and appropriate responses to terrorism, nuclear terrorism and the proliferation of nuclear weapons are profoundly mistaken. Specifically, "Radioactive Hype" argues that:

-"Threat-mongers"-for which the 9/11 Commission, my book Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe and presidential candidates of both parties are the poster children-have greatly exaggerated the threat of terrorists exploding a nuclear weapon in one of our cities.

-An "obsessive quest to control nuclear proliferation-particularly since the end of the Cold War-has been substantially counterproductive."

-This "nuclear obsession" drove the United States into "the current disastrous Iraq War" and now threatens war with Iran.

Given the space allotted, my response to each proposition must be abridged but will reference my earlier work on this topic and other analyses from the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, where these issues are addressed in greater depth. 1


How Serious is the Threat of Nuclear Terrorism?

MUELLER IS entitled to his opinion that the threat of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism is "exaggerated" and "overwrought." But analysts of various political persuasions, in and out of government, are virtually unanimous in their judgment to the contrary. As the national-security community learned during the Cold War, risk = likelihood x consequences. Thus, even when the likelihood of nuclear Armageddon was small, the consequences were so catastrophic that prudent policymakers felt a categorical imperative to do everything that feasibly could be done to prevent that war. Today, a single nuclear bomb exploding in just one city would change our world. Given such consequences, differences between a 1 percent and a 20 percent likelihood of such an attack are relatively insignificant when considering how we should respond to the threat.

Richard Garwin, a designer of the hydrogen bomb who Enrico Fermi once called "the only true genius I had ever met", told Congress in March that he estimated a "20 percent per year probability [of a nuclear explosion-not just a contaminated, dirty bomb-a nuclear explosion]  with American cities and European cities included." My Harvard colleague Matthew Bunn has created a model in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science that estimates the probability of a nuclear terrorist attack over a ten-year period to be 29 percent-identical to the average estimate from a poll of security experts commissioned by Senator Richard Lugar in 2005. My book, Nuclear Terrorism , states my own best judgment that, on the current trend line, the chances of a nuclear terrorist attack in the next decade are greater than 50 percent. Former Secretary of Defense William Perry has expressed his own view that my work may even underestimate the risk. Warren Buffet, the world's most successful investor and legendary odds-maker in pricing insurance policies for unlikely but catastrophic events, concluded that nuclear terrorism is "inevitable." He stated, "I don't see any way that it won't happen."

To assess the threat one must answer five core questions: who, what, where, when and how?

Who could be planning a nuclear terrorist attack? Al-Qaeda remains the leading candidate. According to the most recent National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), Al-Qaeda has been substantially reconstituted-but with its leadership having moved from a medieval Afghanistan to Pakistan-a nation that actually has nuclear weapons. As former CIA Director George J. Tenet's memoir reports, Al-Qaeda's leadership has remained "singularly focused on acquiring WMDs" and that "the main threat is the nuclear one." Tenet concluded, "I am convinced that this is where [Osama bin Laden] and his operatives want to go."

What nuclear weapons could terrorists use? A ready-made weapon from the arsenal of one of the nuclear-weapons states or an elementary nuclear bomb constructed from highly enriched uranium made by a state remain most likely. As John Foster, a leading U.S. bomb-maker and former director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, wrote a quarter of a century ago, "If the essential nuclear materials are at hand, it is possible to make an atomic bomb using information that is available in the open literature."

Where could terrorists acquire a nuclear bomb? If a nuclear attack occurs, Russia will be the most likely source of the weapon or material. A close second, however, is North Korea, which now has ten bombs worth of plutonium, or Pakistan with sixty  nuclear bombs. Finally, research reactors in forty developing and transitional countries still hold the essential ingredient for nuclear weapons.

Essay Types: Essay