Nuclear Terrorism The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe by Graham Allison
263 pp. Times Books/ Henry Holt & Company. $24.

Terrorists are striving to acquire and then use nuclear weapons against the United States. Success, as defined by Osama bin Laden, would be four million dead Americans. Mounting evidence makes this much abundantly clear. Documents discovered in Afghanistan seem to reveal Al Qaeda’s detailed knowledge of nuclear weaponry, while intelligence confirms the terrorists’ attempts to acquire nuclear material on the black market.

In reaction, President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry are giving pride of place to catastrophic terrorism in their foreign policy platforms. Both proclaim it the nation’s No. 1 security challenge. Meanwhile, policy analysts have urgently recommended preventive measures in a flurry of reports, books, journal articles and Congressional testimony.

Now the Harvard scholar Graham Allison is sounding his own warning in ”Nuclear Terrorism” — a well-written report for general readers on the threat and what it will take to reduce it. He addresses all the big questions: who could be planning an attack; how they might acquire and deliver the weapons; when they might launch the first assault. Allison touches on chemical and biological dangers, but he separates out the far more lethal nuclear threat for special attention. Nonnuclear radioactive (”dirty”) bombs and chemical or biological devices would kill in the thousands. A 10-kiloton nuclear bomb, delivered to Times Square by truck and then detonated, could kill up to one million New Yorkers.

Some experts think a terrorist attack with nuclear weapons is already unstoppable. Allison disagrees — up to a point. He argues that prevention is still possible, and he gives the Bush administration some credit for several post-9/11 initiatives meant to tighten the security of nuclear weapons and material. However, he calls for far bolder measures, more money and forceful American leadership to improve what is at present rather lax international cooperation. His bottom line is blunt: anything less will make nuclear terrorism inevitable.

Allison blames both the White House and the Congress for falling short of meeting the challenge. To take one example, since 9/11 the rate of funding has hardly changed for the Nunn-Lugar program, which was established to destroy or secure Russia’s enormous stockpile of fissile material and nuclear weapons. Much remains to be done. Of special concern is Russia’s large supply of suitcase-size nuclear bombs, which terrorists could smuggle into the United States in cargo containers or as airline baggage. The safeguards on these weapons are loose at best. (In 1997, Russia acknowledged that 84 of some 132 such weapons were missing.)

At present, it will take 13 years, in Allison’s estimation, to secure Russia’s fissile material. Allison’s position, adopted by the Kerry campaign, is to spend whatever dollars are necessary to complete the job in four years, though achieving this objective would also require elimination of Congressionally imposed impediments to Nunn-Lugar and overcoming Russian resistance to intrusion into their facilities.

We face many vulnerabilities — limited intelligence of the terrorists’ plans; poorly protected ports, borders and nuclear power plants. But the most urgent danger is that terrorists could acquire the fissile material with which to construct a nuclear weapon in a relatively short period of time. Russia presents the greatest problem; 90 percent of all existing fissile material outside the United States is stored within the former Soviet Union. Still, it’s not the only region we need to focus on. At least 32 countries possess weapons-grade fissile material.

Allison would round up all fissile material and ban the creation of any more. This is a daunting task. Allison himself observes that there are some 200 locations around the world where nuclear weapons or fissile material could be acquired, and he pinpoints the most dangerous — Russia because of its huge supplies, shaky safeguards and extensive corruption; Pakistan because of its indiscriminate spreading of nuclear know-how and equipment; North Korea because of its history of selling missile systems and its apparent nuclear development program; and lastly, the research reactors (some 20-odd) with significant quantities of bomb-grade uranium located in developing countries.

Allison’s other remedies — like imposing intrusive nuclear power plant inspections and sanctioning violators — may also prove difficult to implement in the real world of suspicious governments and corrupt officials. Because the United States is widely viewed with hostility these days, it may not be able to marshal the international support needed to shut down black markets or block the emergence of new nuclear weapons states. And then there is the question of money. Governments are reluctant to spend lavishly on prospective threats when tax-conscious citizens have not yet experienced any consequences.

As a champion of the idea that nuclear terrorism is preventable, Allison emphasizes the elements of an offense — improved intelligence, tighter treaties, more transparency and intrusion. But a stronger homeland defense is also needed in case prevention by offense fails. And currently, homeland security is getting short shrift. For the 2005 budget, Congress has allotted $7.6 billion to improve the security of military bases but only $2.6 billion to protect the nation’s vital infrastructure. Within the Department of Defense, $10 billion is spent annually on missile defense, compared with only a few billion on all other counterproliferation programs.

Homeland security becomes an even higher priority if one broadens one’s thinking about the potential damage from nonnuclear weapons to include more than simply the number who would die. Allison is less concerned with biological and chemical weapons and so-called dirty bombs because they kill in the thousands, not millions. But these unconventional arms can still cause mass disruption; a few anthrax incidents, after all, virtually shut down the Congress. The release of pathogens in a public space, or a biological attack on the food supply system, or a dirty bomb set off in a seaport could have enormous economic consequences. Large-scale government efforts are needed to minimize the danger of such attacks.

What makes the job of prevention all the more difficult is that the threat of nuclear terrorism is growing at the same time as the need for nuclear-generated electricity. Allison points out that all signatories to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty are permitted to enrich uranium and reprocess plutonium to make fuel for peaceful power reactors, provided they declare what they are doing and submit to periodic inspections. In other words, states can come to the brink of nuclear weapons capability without explicitly violating the treaty. Then, without penalty, they can withdraw from the treaty and turn enriched uranium or plutonium into bombs.

This is a loophole that both Iran and North Korea have sought to take advantage of. Allison and other experts argue that the United States should not discard the treaty but take the lead in fixing it. Their preferred solution is to distinguish ”fuel cycle” states from ”user states.” Those states where fuel-producing facilities already exist would provide enriched fuel to other states that wish to generate electricity from nuclear reactors. Coupling this with stiffer inspection provisions and penalties for withdrawal from the treaty would return the nonproliferation treaty to an important (if limited) role in countering proliferation.

Nuclear dangers come in several forms, those that might be mounted by states and those from terrorists that cannot be contained by treaties alone, no matter how strict. Allison covers all the potential eventualities but might have been clearer in setting priorities, since resources are limited. Rogue states, capable of launching nuclear-tipped missiles, may ultimately be a threat. But the evidence indicates that the danger currently lies elsewhere. The urgent threat is nuclear terrorism, and funds need to be freed up to fill the considerable holes remaining in our counterterrorism programs.

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.

James Hoge is the editor of Foreign Affairs magazine.