Blogs > HNN > Richard B. Speed: Review of Graham Allison's Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe (Henry Holt & Co, 2004)

Apr 17, 2005 7:26 pm

Richard B. Speed: Review of Graham Allison's Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe (Henry Holt & Co, 2004)

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During the Cold War’s last decade, as Ronald Reagan rebuilt the nation’s arsenal and backed the Strategic Defense Initiative, most in the American arms control community focused their attention on a nuclear arms race they thought might spiral out of control. Their greatest fear was that a full scale thermonuclear exchange between the superpowers might take place, whether brought on by accident or by design. But that was not their only concern. Some at least, were beginning to take more seriously an old possibility that had long been relegated to second or third place among their hierarchy of worries. That possibility was proliferation.

It was bad enough that a half a dozen nations had nuclear weapons, and that quite a few others were capable of constructing them in relatively short order. So far most of those states—West Germany and Japan were the most obvious candidates--had refrained from building them for a variety of reasons ranging from the expense involved to their impact upon regional stability and internal politics. But as the knowledge of nuclear weapons design and technology spread, and as the costs came down, tyrannical leaders like Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, or the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Iran might try to acquire such weapons. Few specialists expected them to exercise the same sort of restraint the Russians and Americans had demonstrated since they had come so close to nuclear war over Cuba in 1962. Given the seething hatreds of the Middle East, it seemed likely that the first use of nuclear arms since the Second World War would be somewhere in or near the Fertile Crescent or along the frontier between India and Pakistan.

While a number of specialists began to focus their attention on the problem of the proliferation of nuclear weapons to hostile states in unstable regions of the earth, few considered the possibility that terrorists might acquire such weapons. Though costs might have been coming down, they were still well beyond the reach of any band of rag-tag terrorists—or so they thought. Most specialists believed that it took the resources of a state to manufacture a bomb. No state would be crazy enough to sell, or give, a nuclear weapon to a terrorist organization. Nor was there much chance of theft. States which possessed nuclear arms guarded them very tightly. At least such was the case until the fall of the “evil empire.” After that the security of the Soviet nuclear arsenal suddenly became a matter of concern.

Meanwhile, at least as far back as 1972, if not well before, the world was put on notice about the threat of terrorism when Black September slaughtered eleven members of the Israeli Olympic team in Munich. The participants were ruthless fanatics to be sure, but neither they nor anyone like them could get their hands on nuclear weapons. They were just too closely guarded. Fissionable material was too hard to get hold of, and the technical knowledge was just too daunting for a bunch of bloodthirsty fanatics. But by the early 1990s that too began to change. Indeed nuclear terrorism was emerging as a potentially lethal threat to the west, in particular, to the United States. It was certainly a more serious problem for the latter than that posed by the acquisition of such weapons by India and Pakistan, because the U.S. was rapidly emerging as a prime target of Islamic hostility.

The proliferation problem did get some attention however. Senators Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) and Sam Nunn (D-Georgia) sponsored the Soviet Nuclear Threat Reduction Act of 1991 which set money aside to secure tactical nuclear weapons in the old USSR. Some specialists even warned explicitly that the United States might be hit by nuclear armed terrorists. Suspense novel writers certainly dramatized the possibility. But few in government took it very seriously until a handful of terrorists crashed civilian airliners into the Pentagon and New York’s two tallest skyscrapers. At last, the threat of nuclear terrorism had the nation’s attention and Americans recognized their vulnerability.

In his new book Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, Graham Allison reveals that exactly one month after the 9/11 attacks the White House received credible intelligence reports to the effect that Al Qaeda terrorists had secreted a ten-kiloton nuclear weapon, apparently stolen from the Soviet arsenal, in Manhattan. That was only slightly smaller that the bomb which had destroyed Hiroshima over a half century earlier. The twin threats of nuclear proliferation and terrorism which had long been gathering had finally merged into a potential nightmare on American shores.

Allison is a Harvard professor, former Defense Department advisor, and author of numerous works dealing with nuclear issues including the 1971 volume Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis. In a series of chilling chapters, his most recent book surveys the state of the terrorist nuclear threat today: what weapons terrorists might use, how they could acquire and deliver them to an American target, and how much damage they might do.

In May 1997 General Alexander Lebed, Boris Yeltsin’s national security advisor informed members of Congress that the Russian government had lost track of eighty-four suitcase sized nuclear weapons each with a yield of one-kiloton. Four months later he told the television show “Sixty Minutes” that over one hundred of these weapons could not be accounted for. His claim has been controversial ever since and has never been satisfactorily resolved. Some have questioned whether the Soviets ever developed such weapons, but Allison contends that they almost certainly did. The United States itself, he explains, had in its arsenal a number of Special Atomic Demolition Munitions (SADMs), each of which could be carried in a backpack. If any such Soviet weapons are loose, it is at least possible that one or more of them have fallen into the hands of terrorists.

The Soviet tactical nuclear arsenal constructed during the Cold War included much more than a handful of backpack weapons however. Allison explains that the Soviet armed forces deployed some 22,000 nuclear devices ranging from atomic land mines weighing 200 pounds to 120 pound artillery shells. If even one of these fell into the wrong hands, the consequences could be devastating. But even if much of this arsenal has been dismantled, secured or otherwise rendered impotent, there are other ways terrorists might acquire nuclear weapons. They could for example build one.

It would take some technical expertise, but this is not in short supply. The one element that is crucial for the construction of a bomb is fissionable material: thirty-five pounds of highly enriched uranium (HEU) or nine pounds of plutonium. Unfortunately, according to Allison, there is plenty of it around. He reports an estimate that there are over two million pounds of weapons grade material in Russia alone—enough he explains to make more than eighty thousand bombs! Furthermore, he reports that there have been numerous cases of nuclear smuggling—much of it from poorly guarded Russian weapons laboratories and other nuclear facilities. What’s more, Russia is not the only, or necessarily the most dangerous source of fissionable material. Physicists like Abdul Qadeer Khan the head of the Pakistani nuclear project, ran a freelance nuclear supply outlet until it was shut down recently. And North Korea is as Allison puts it, a “nuclear black hole.” The potential danger is, in short, staggering. Allison concludes that “If we continue along our present course, nuclear terrorism is inevitable.”

All is not lost however. This is after all, a “preventable catastrophe,” as the subtitle of the book suggests. The second half of the book explains how to thwart nuclear terrorism. Allison’s strategy centers on one incontrovertible fact. A nuclear chain reaction can only take place within a critical mass of highly enriched uranium or plutonium. “No fissile material, no nuclear explosion, no nuclear terrorism. It is that simple.” As Allison goes on to say, “All that the United States and its allies have to do to prevent nuclear terrorism is to prevent terrorists from acquiring highly enriched uranium or weapons-grade plutonium.” That of course is not so easy. Nevertheless, Allison argues that the world needs to move toward a condition of “Three No’s.” These he summarizes as, “No Loose Nukes, No New Nascent Nukes,” and “No New Nuclear Weapons States.” If these are implemented, he argues that the catastrophe can be avoided.

Allison contends that in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks the response of the Bush Administration was about half right. First the administration recognized that the “gravest danger” to the nation was posed by terrorists with nuclear weapons. The administration was right to reject the traditional law enforcement model and turn to the use of military might in dealing with terrorists. Furthermore Bush and his associates rightly recognized that deterrence which had served the nation well during the Cold War could only deter states which were vulnerable to American retaliation, but not “non-state terrorists” who could not be held hostage to a nuclear counterstrike. “And yet,” he argues that the administration “missed almost entirely the ‘supply side’ of this challenge: neutralizing the means by which terrorists might mount” an attack. He believes the administration should have dramatically increased funding for the Nunn-Lugar program and increased the “lethargic” pace of its implementation. It is hard to disagree with Allison’s conclusion on this point. But while George W. Bush comes in for a great deal of criticism on this point, Allison has relatively little so say about the performance of his predecessor who presided over eight lethargic years during which much more could have been accomplished. The Bush Administration has failed according to Allison to declare war on nuclear terrorism and the primary reason he contends is the war in Iraq. The latter was “at best a strategic diversion and at worst a strategic blunder.”

Regardless of whether one agrees with Allison’s critique of the war in Iraq, this is an important book which sketches the dimensions of a terrifying problem which has been neglected for too long by several administrations. One can only hope that whoever holds office heeds this timely warning and takes effective action to safeguard the nation and the world against this most grave threat.

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Edward Siegler - 4/18/2005

That's a depressing article. I've always held the opinion that the odds of a nuclear attack went up significantly AFTER the Soviet Union fell. Knowing that the only real solution, according to the author of a book that says nuclear catastrophe is "preventable", is to somehow buy all the fisionable material available in the world is not all that comforting. I just wonder how the U.S. and the world will react to this nightmare if (and more probably when) it occurs. Until then it looks like we'll just be waiting around for the big one.