In the September/October 2006 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Harvard University professor Graham Allison discusses a “nuclear 9/11” and concludes that “a nuclear terrorist attack on the United States is more likely than not in the decade ahead.” Allison underlines this assessment by pointing out that former US Defense Secretary William Perry thinks that he (Allison) underestimates the risk, and that former Senator Sam Nunn, currently chair of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, thinks that the risk of a nuclear detonation by terrorists on US soil is higher today than the risk of nuclear war at the height of the Cold War. It is the failure by the majority of US policymakers to recognize and adequately respond to this threat that Allison refers to in the title of his article, “The ongoing failure of imagination.”

Allison then argues that all is not lost because this “ultimate catastrophe” is preventable by what he calls the “Doctrine of Three Nos.” These are: No loose Nukes; No new nascent nukes; and No new nuclear weapons states. The first requires securing all nuclear weapons and weapons-usable nuclear material throughout the world. The second requires no new domestic capabilities to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium. And the third requires holding the line at the current eight nuclear weapons states (he describes North Korea as being only “three-quarters of the way across that line”).

To win the war against nuclear terrorism, Allison calls for the creation of a new Global Alliance Against Nuclear Terrorism with five common goals. First, members of the alliance would give personal assurances that nuclear weapons and materials on their territory are adequately secured from terrorists or thieves. Second, the creation of a global consensus on the Three Nos described above. Third, the establishment of a more robust non-proliferation regime to control nuclear materials and technology transfers. Fourth, development of an infrastructure to apply “lessons learned” in the fight against nuclear terrorism. Fifth and finally, Allison calls for the alliance being “not just a signed document but a living institution committed to its mission.”

Allison’s prescription is good as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. In certain respects Allison, like those he criticizes, also suffers from a failure of imagination. He fails to imagine the necessity and possibility of a world without nuclear weapons as the key to foreclosing the prospects of nuclear terrorism. In general, Allison, like many others in the US nuclear policy field, seems committed to trying to prevent nuclear terrorism while maintaining the two-tier structure of nuclear weapons “haves” and “have-nots.” He wants to hold the line at eight nuclear weapons states, and to assure that there are no new domestic capabilities to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium. He makes no mention of the failure of the nuclear weapons states to fulfill their Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations for good faith negotiations for nuclear disarmament, or of the benefits that such efforts would have on reducing the risks of nuclear terrorism.

By continuing to rely upon nuclear weapons for their own security, the current nuclear weapons states demonstrate the usefulness of these weapons for other states. The more states that have these weapons and the more nuclear weapons there are in the world, the more likely it is that the weapons will end up in the hands of terrorists. If the current nuclear weapons states want to prevent nuclear terrorism, they must do more than try to effectively guard their own weapons and weapons-grade materials and to convince others to do the same. They must become serious about their obligations for nuclear disarmament, commence good faith negotiations toward this end, and move as rapidly as possible to reduce their nuclear arsenals and bring remaining stocks of weapons, weapons-grade materials and the technologies to create such materials under strict and effective international control.

In my view, the greatest failure of imagination on the part of leaders in the nuclear weapons states is their belief that they can continue with nuclear business as usual, brandishing their own nuclear weapons, while expecting that these weapons will not eventually end up in the hands of terrorists. In fact, it is a failure of imagination for policymakers in the nuclear weapons states not to view their own possession of nuclear weapons as a form of nuclear terrorism. In the end, the only way to assure against the threat of nuclear terrorism is to eliminate nuclear weapons. Anything short of that is only a partial measure, leaving the door open to nuclear terrorism.

David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation ( He is a leader in the global effort for a world free of nuclear weapons.