Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe


"Allison's comprehensive but accessible treatment of this vital subject is a major contribution to public understanding." -The New York Times Book Review

Americans in the twenty-first century are keenly aware of the many forms of terrorism: hijackings, biological attacks, chemical weapons. But the deadliest form is almost too scary to think about-a terrorist group exploding a nuclear device in an American city.

In this urgent call to action, ...

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Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe

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"Allison's comprehensive but accessible treatment of this vital subject is a major contribution to public understanding." -The New York Times Book Review

Americans in the twenty-first century are keenly aware of the many forms of terrorism: hijackings, biological attacks, chemical weapons. But the deadliest form is almost too scary to think about-a terrorist group exploding a nuclear device in an American city.

In this urgent call to action, Graham Allison, one of America's leading experts on nuclear weapons and national security, presents the evidence for two provocative, compelling conclusions. First, if policy makers in Washington keep doing what they are currently doing about the threat, a nuclear terrorist attack on America is inevitable. Second, the surprising and largely unrecognized good news is that nuclear terrorism is, in fact, preventable. In these pages, Allison offers an ambitious but feasible blueprint for eliminating the possibility of nuclear terrorist attacks, if we are willing to face the issue squarely.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“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

"In an era of color-coded terror alerts and rigorous security checks, Allison provides a rare dose of alarmism well informed."

The Boston Globe

"Allison goes beyond the usual hand-wringing about a nuclear-armed Al Qaeda. He presents sharp critiques of White House failures to tackle the problem and proposes concrete solutions."


"Allison applies a long, distinguished career in government and academia to this sobering—indeed frightening—presentation of U.S. vulnerability to a terrorist nuclear attack."

Publishers Weekly

"Addressing general readers, Allison comprehensively discusses the perilous situation. Required for the current affairs shelf."


John Tirman
In Nuclear Terrorism, Allison paints a picture of potential calamity by describing what the detonation of nuclear bombs would do to various cities -- Washington, New York, Chicago -- in a litany that calls to mind a Helen Caldicott speech circa 1980. He points out where and how nuclear weapons and materials are unsatisfactorily safeguarded, and how groups like al Qaeda are working hard to acquire them. So much of what Allison imparts is familiar -- analysts such as Paul Leventhal have been writing about these threats for years -- that it would be easy to overlook a compelling message: We are courting colossal disaster, and we need to take action now.
— The Washington Post
James Hoge
Allison's comprehensive but accessible treatment of this vital subject is a major contribution to public understanding. In turn, an informed public could spur the government to complete the counterterrorism agenda. Only then, as Allison argues, will nuclear terror against America prove preventable.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
A founding dean of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, Allison applies a long, distinguished career in government and academia to this sobering-indeed frightening-presentation of U.S. vulnerability to a terrorist nuclear attack. While he begins by asserting such an attack is preventable, the balance of his text is anything but reassuring. Allison begins by describing the broad spectrum of groups who could intend a nuclear strike against the U.S. They range from an al-Qaeda with its own Manhattan Project to small and determined doomsday cults. Their tools can include a broad spectrum of weapons, either stolen or homemade from raw materials increasingly available worldwide. Once terrorists acquire a nuclear bomb, Allison argues, its delivery to an American target may be almost impossible to stop under current security measures. The Bush administration, correct in waging war against nuclear terrorism, has not, he says, yet developed a comprehensive counter strategy. Arguing that the only way to eliminate nuclear terrorism's threat is to lock down the weapons at the source, Allison recommends nothing less than a new international order based on no insecure nuclear material, no new facilities for processing uranium or enriching plutonium and no new nuclear states. Those policies, Allison believes, do not stretch beyond the achievable, if pursued by a combination of quid pro quos and intimidation in an international context of negotiation and a U.S. foreign policy he describes as "humble." A humble policy in turn will facilitate building a world alliance against nuclear terrorism and acquiring the intelligence necessary for success against prospective nuclear terrorists. It will also require time, money and effort. Like the Cold War, the war on nuclear terrorism will probably be a long struggle in the twilight. But no student of the fact, Allison asserts, doubts that another major terrorist attack is in the offing. "We do not have the luxury," he declares, "of hoping the beast will simply go away." Agent, John Taylor Williams at Kneerim & Williams. (Aug. 9) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Al Qaeda promises that four million Americans are slated to die in its jihad. Such numbers mean dirty bombs and worse-and, we're warned here, the government is doing too little to deal with the threat. "If the United States and other governments keep doing what they are doing today," writes former assistant secretary of defense Allison (Government/Harvard Univ.), "a nuclear terrorist attack on America is more likely than not in the decade ahead." Never mind those other governments; what is ours doing? Many things, and badly, according to Allison. One is failing to assess the whereabouts and to control the flow of extant stores of nuclear materials; at least 84 suitcase-sized bombs once kept by the KGB, for instance, have gone missing since the fall of the Soviet Union, and American intelligence agencies seem to have no idea where they are, to say nothing of homegrown supplies of uranium and plutonium that seem to have fallen off the truck. This failure is perhaps understandable, Allison acknowledges, but it speaks to systemic weaknesses; after all, Western intelligence as a whole failed as well to put Japan's Aum Shinrikyo cult on its radar, and the group "spent half a decade building weapons of mass destruction without arousing concern." Another failure is that of squashing Third World powers that have acquired the bomb; Allison proposes a "Three No's" program that begins "with an unambiguous bright line: no nuclear North Korea," even if North Korea may now have more than half-a-dozen tactical nuclear weapons in its arsenal. Still another failure is the war on Iraq, which has diverted attention from North Korea, Iran, and Pakistan-and, of course, from al Qaeda and all its terribleambitions, which "can make 9/11 a footnote." And so forth, in a somber but unfailingly attention-getting litany. We can stop the nuclear threat cold, Allison argues-but only by taking it seriously. His criticisms seem eminently well founded and deserving of discussion and debate. Author tour. Agent: Ike Williams/Kneerim & Williams
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805078527
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 8/1/2005
  • Edition description: New Afterword Edition
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 589,445
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.65 (d)

Meet the Author

Graham Allison, founding dean of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, is the director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government. He served as assistant secretary of defense for policy and plans and is the author of Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis. He lives in Belmont, Massachusetts.

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Read an Excerpt

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.

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Table of Contents

1 Who could be planning a nuclear terrorist attack? 19
2 What nuclear weapons could terrorists use? 43
3 Where could terrorists acquire a nuclear bomb? 61
4 When could terrorists launch the first nuclear attack? 87
5 How could terrorists deliver a nuclear weapon to its target? 104
6 Through the prism of 9/11 123
7 Where we need to be : a world of three no's 140
8 Getting from here to there : a road map of seven yeses 176
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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 1, 2007

    Extremely urgent danger, leisurely response

    Although most people assume that the nuclear danger to America lessened with the end of the Cold War, the threat of nuclear terrorism is actually increasing. In this book, Graham Allison carefully explains the threats we face, and outlines a realistic strategy to cope with them. The book is extraordinarily frightening, a nightmare that one cannot wake up from. And yet, Dr. Allison recounts how some of the worst dangers materialized when the Soviet Union dissolved, and how a combination of iron will, patience, and enlightened self-interest of American and Russian leaders resolved those specific dangers. Let's hope that our leaders and citizens begin giving nuclear terrorism the attention it deserves.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 23, 2005

    First Rate

    If you are on the fence about whether or not the Jihadists will use a nuclear device, or if there is a good probability of them attaining, or having already attained such a device, this book will push you over it. Succinct and backed up with pure facts, it's a compelling read and very a convincing presentation.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 29, 2005

    Informative and very interesting

    This book was fascinating, even to someone with no previous knowledge of the subject. The theme of each chapter is simple and logically follows the last one. Graham Allison's only bias is in favor of this great nation's survival, and he talks about threats most people assumed were gone with the fall of the Soviet Union. I finished this book in less than a week and it was very informative and interesting.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 24, 2005

    Is nuclear terrorism our greatest fear?

    Rich detail paints a terrifying picture. But other weapons of terrorism, especially biological weapons, are easier to come by and easier to deliver than nuclear weapons and cannot be overlooked.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 6, 2004


    A great Book!! The Author, Allison details the scary world of nuclear weapons. he lists the threats, and what steps can be done to prevent a nuclear terrorist attack.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 4, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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