Sooner or later there will be a nuclear 9/11 in an American city or that of a US ally unless serious program is undertaken to prevent such an occurrence. A terrorist nuclear attack against an American city could take many forms. A worst case scenario would be the detonation of a nuclear device within a city. Depending upon the size and sophistication of the weapon, it could kill hundreds of thousands or even millions of people.

Terrorists could obtain a nuclear device by stealing or purchasing an already created nuclear weapon or by stealing or purchasing weapons-grade nuclear materials and fashioning a crude bomb. While neither of these options would be easy, they cannot be dismissed as beyond the capabilities of a determined terrorist organization.

If terrorists succeeded in obtaining a nuclear weapon, they would also have to bring it into the US, assuming they did not already obtain or create the weapon in this country. While this would not necessarily be easy, many analysts have suggested that it would be within the realm of possibility. An oft-cited example is the possibility of bringing a nuclear device into an American port hidden on a cargo ship.

Another form of terrorist nuclear attack requiring far less sophistication would be the detonation of a radiation weapon or “dirty bomb.” This type of device would not be capable of a nuclear explosion but would use conventional explosives to disperse radioactive materials within a populated area. The detonation of such a device could cause massive panic due to the public’s appropriate fears of radiation sickness and of developing cancers and leukemias in the future.

A bi-partisan task force of the Secretary of Energy’s Advisory Board, headed by former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker and former White House Counsel Lloyd Cutler, called upon the US in 2001 to spend $30 billion over an eight to ten year period to prevent nuclear weapons and materials in the former Soviet Union from getting into the hands of terrorists or so called “rogue” states. The task force called the nuclear dangers in the former USSR “the most urgent unmet national security threat facing the United States today.” At present, the US government is spending only about one-third of the recommended amount, while it pours resources into paying for the invasion, occupation and rebuilding of Iraq as well as programs unlikely to provide effective security to US citizens such as missile defense.

The great difficulty in preventing a nuclear 9/11 is that it will require ending the well-entrenched nuclear double standards that the US and other nuclear weapons states have lived by throughout the Nuclear Age. Preventing nuclear terrorism in the end will not be possible without a serious global program to eliminate nuclear weapons and control nuclear materials that could be converted to weapons. Such a program would require universal agreement in the form of an enforceable treaty providing for the following:

  • full accounting and international safeguarding of all nuclear weapons, weapons-grade nuclear materials and nuclear reactors in all countries, including the nuclear weapons states;
  • international tracking and control of the movement of all nuclear weapons and weapons-grade materials;
  • dismantling and prohibiting all uranium enrichment facilities and all plutonium separation facilities, and the implementation of a plan to expedite the phasing out all nuclear power plants;
  • full recognition and endorsement by the nuclear weapons states of their existing obligation pursuant to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty for an “unequivocal undertaking” to eliminate their nuclear arsenals;
  • rapidly dismantling existing nuclear weapons in an orderly and transparent manner and the transfer of nuclear materials to international control sites;
  • and criminalizing the possession, threat or use of nuclear weapons.

While these steps may appear extreme, they are in actuality the minimum necessary to prevent a nuclear 9/11. If that is among our top priorities as a country, as surely it should be, the US government should begin immediately to lead the world in this direction. Now is the time to act, before one or more US cities are devastated by nuclear terrorism.


David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation ( He is the co-author of Choose Hope, Your Role in Waging Peace in the Nuclear Age.