In This Review
Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe

Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe

By Graham Allison

Times Books, 2004, 272 pp.
The Nuclear Tipping Point: Why States Reconsider Their Nuclear Choices

The Nuclear Tipping Point: Why States Reconsider Their Nuclear Choices

Edited by Kurt M. Campbell, Robert Einhorn, and Mitchell Rei

Brookings Institution Press, 2004, 367 pp.
The Future of Arms Control

The Future of Arms Control

By Michael A. Levi, Michael E. O'Hanlon

Brookings Institution Press, 2005, 180 pp.

Not since the early days of the Cold War have proliferation experts and the general public been so attuned to the threat of nuclear weapons--and with good reason. There are more than 28,000 nuclear devices in existence today, more and more countries are acquiring the means to produce them, and there is mounting evidence that al Qaeda has every intention of using a nuclear weapon if only it can get its hands on one. Simply recognizing these dangers, however, is not a strategy for confronting them; workable remedies are sorely needed.

Nuclear threats fall into two basic categories. In the short term, nuclear terrorism poses the most acute risk. Once al Qaeda or another group possesses a weapon, deterring or preventing an attack will be all but impossible. Luck, as much as money and hard work, has helped prevent such an attack to date. A second, more complex danger stems from the proliferation of nuclear capabilities to governments. In the long term, the wider state acquisition of nuclear weapons dramatically increases the odds that one might be used, intentionally or not. This concern applies not only to so-called rogue regimes, but to key U.S. allies as well. Given the global insecurity of much weapons material, state proliferation also contributes to the risk of a nightmarish nuclear terrorism scenario.

The conclusions of the 1965 Gilpatric report on nonproliferation to President Lyndon Johnson noted,

The spread of nuclear weapons poses an increasingly grave threat to the security of the United States. New nuclear capabilities, however primitive and regardless of whether they are held by nations currently friendly to the United States, will add complexity and instability ... aggravate suspicions and hostility among states neighboring new nuclear powers, place a wasteful economic burden on the aspirations of developing nations, impede the vital task of controlling and reducing weapons around the world, and eventually constitute direct military threats to the United States.

Forty years later, this assessment still holds--with the added danger posed by the nexus of nuclear weapons and terrorism.

Fortunately, this dual threat has prompted the publication of several valuable new resources for trying to understand and address them. Graham Allison's Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe describes enough nuclear disaster scenarios to fuel a dozen Hollywood thrillers and lays out an aggressive and, crucially, marketable strategy to keep nuclear weapons out of terrorists' hands. For those focused on the risks of proliferation among states, The Nuclear Tipping Point: Why States Reconsider Their Nuclear Choices should be required reading. Edited by Kurt Campbell, Robert Einhorn, and Mitchell Reiss, it focuses on a new breed of potential proliferators and does a real service by assessing what factors have helped keep most countries from going nuclear--and what factors might tip the balance in the other direction. Meanwhile, the more narrowly focused and expert-oriented The Future of Arms Control, by Michael Levi and Michael O'Hanlon, makes clear that these two threats and possible strategies for confronting them are not as distinct as they first appear. Despite their divergent focuses, all three books come to strikingly similar conclusions on the 800-pound gorilla of nuclear security: the weakness of a system that allows governments, in full compliance with their nonproliferation obligations, to produce and possess enriched uranium or separated plutonium, with few assurances that they will not at some point use the material for less-than-peaceful purposes.


More than 60 percent of Americans say they are are more worried about a nuclear attack than they were ten years ago. They would no doubt be distressed to learn, as Allison compellingly relates in Nuclear Terrorism, that Osama bin Laden is not alone in shopping around for a nuclear bomb. Numerous other subnational groups, from Hezbollah and Jemaah Islamiyah to Chechen separatists and rogue Pakistani elements, have the motive, the ambition, and potentially the means to go nuclear.

But nuclear weapons do not grow on trees, and terrorist groups cannot at the moment produce highly enriched uranium or plutonium--the key ingredients in a nuclear device--which can come only from the existing military or civilian stocks of nations. The bad news, as Allison lays out in great detail, is that the world is losing the race to secure its nuclear material. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has documented close to two dozen cases of nuclear smuggling, raising the terrifying question of what might have gone unnoticed. Although some of his examples are less substantiated than others, Allison provides ample evidence that terrorists have opportunity to buy or steal either a nuclear device or the material to build one. Interspersed with graphic images of recent terrorist attacks in Russia, reports of such opportunities do more than enough to communicate the gravity of the threat.

Nonproliferation experts must walk a fine line: scaring people into action but not paralyzing them with fear. A sense of fatalism already pervades the debate about nuclear weapons; what is needed is a sense of what can be done about the threat and how much it will cost, in both money and political capital. It is thus in his detailed recommendations of what Washington and its allies must do to prevent a nuclear attack that Allison makes his real contribution. Distressingly few reporters, policymakers, or average citizens ever find their way to the important but arcane proposals of proliferation specialists. Allison makes the subject clear and accessible; his recommendations come across as not only logical, but also imperative.

Allison credits the Bush administration with rejecting "a status quo that left the terrorists and [weapons of mass destruction] threats to international law" and instead adopting a new, three-pronged strategy: going on the offensive against terrorists, openly confronting "axis of evil" states, and claiming a doctrine of pre-emption. But he indicts President George W. Bush's White House for neglecting "almost entirely the 'supply side'" of the nuclear terrorist threat--that posed by "loose nukes." The United States today spends no more on securing nuclear materials than it did before the attacks of September 11, 2001; the same amount of Russian nuclear material was secured in the two years after the attacks as was in the two years before. Allison reasonably asks why Bush did not include in his post-September 11 address to Congress a request to spend $10 billion in 100 days to secure the entirety of Russia's vulnerable nuclear complex (instead of later pledging to spend that amount over ten years). Money is not the only limiting factor, but such expenditure would at least indicate an appropriate sense of urgency.

Allison makes clear the important link between state arsenals and terrorist ambitions with his "three no's" to prevent nuclear catastrophe: no loose nukes, no new nascent nuclear states, no new nuclear weapons states. The first requires making all nuclear weapons, highly enriched uranium, and plutonium as secure as the gold in Fort Knox (none of which has ever been stolen). The importance of this goal cannot be overstated: cutting off supply means no nuclear terrorism--period. The second goal is the most complex of the three, because it means fundamentally reconsidering the current system under which states can produce weapons-usable material for civilian purposes. The third demands a new line in the sand: under no circumstances will any non-nuclear state be permitted to acquire nuclear weapons. Allison knows these are ambitious objectives, but he makes a strong case for pursuing them.


The Nuclear Tipping Point will likely reach fewer members of the public, but one hopes that experts will take note of its insights about future nonproliferation challenges. Until recently, the global nonproliferation outlook seemed bright. In the past 20 years, more countries have abandoned nuclear programs than have started them or actually gone nuclear (with India and Pakistan as the main counterpoints to this trend). Only one nuclear state emerged when the Soviet Union dissolved: all but Russia voluntarily relinquished their nuclear capabilities. Countries as diverse as Argentina, Brazil, Taiwan, and South Africa have given up nuclear weapons programs, and South Africa actually dismantled its six-weapon nuclear arsenal.

But as the book's first chapter, written by Reiss, lays out, "there is widespread concern that the calculus of [nuclear] incentives and disincentives has shifted during the past decade, with incentives increasing and disincentives declining." Indeed, the outlook for reversing North Korea's nuclear program is bleak, and Iran's long-term ambitions, a recent agreement notwithstanding, appear unchanged. This is not to suggest that a nuclear exchange is imminent, or that Tehran will launch a nuclear-tipped missile at Washington the moment it gains the ability to do so; deterrence is alive and well, despite some claims to the contrary. Still, the nuclear capabilities of Iran and North Korea could very well cause these states' neighbors--Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey, and Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan--to reconsider their own nuclear options, sparking a dangerous wave of proliferation.

Thus, as the book's title implies, the world faces a nuclear tipping point. If the scale tips in one direction, a dozen countries could launch nuclear programs in the next few years. If it tips in the other, states will reaffirm that collective security depends on a shrinking number of states with nuclear capabilities and take strong steps to reinforce the global regime. The world is not, however, confronting one large nuclear iceberg, but dozens of smaller ones--each government with the means and motive to resort to the nuclear option must be approached individually and persuaded to remain non-nuclear.

The Nuclear Tipping Point includes eight case studies, each reviewing why a country decided not to go nuclear and what factors could lead its government to abandon abstinence in the near future. The cases--Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Germany, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan--are geographically and politically diverse, presenting a variety of potential motives for reversal. The analysis goes beyond the knee-jerk predictions--"Egypt might turn radical and then go nuclear"--that often dominate security discussions.

The book describes the chosen states as "canaries in the coal mine": if their nonproliferation commitments die, then everyone will be at risk. To keep the canary singing, Campbell recommends that "the potential factors that could lead to a new round of proliferation among these countries should now be seen as a critical new component of American intelligence collection and analysis, preventative diplomacy, and U.S. decision-making on issues ranging from national strategy to public diplomacy." This task is in many ways more complex when it comes to U.S. allies, when nonproliferation concerns must be balanced with other U.S. policy priorities. Some officials are unconcerned about the potential of a close U.S. ally such as South Korea going nuclear. Yet this misguided view ignores the chains of proliferation that connect many potential nuclear states. With each new government that gets the bomb, curtailing proliferation becomes exponentially more difficult, to say nothing of the increased risk of theft or accidental use.

The Nuclear Tipping Point is refreshingly non-U.S.-centric. Washington can of course have a major influence on another government's nuclear policy. As the editors write, "in the past, fears of alienating Washington were a major inducement to U.S. friends and allies to refrain from the pursuit of a nuclear arsenal." But this influence is diminishing, and in each case study various factors that have little to do with the United States, from technological and economic capacities to domestic political developments, are at work.

The aspect of U.S. policy most often cited as an influence on proliferation is Washington's maintenance of a large and diverse nuclear arsenal (as well as its stated interest in developing new kinds of nuclear weapons). The contributors note that although a "government may declare that it might be compelled to pursue its own nuclear capability if ... the leading nuclear powers do not accept further cuts in their nuclear arsenals," it "may sometimes be inclined to use the opportunity to serve particular policy goals rather than to illuminate what may be actually driving them." Thus, more and more states point to U.S. programs to justify their actions, but few are actually driven by U.S. actions to acquire their own. Nonetheless, by increasing the perceived utility and legitimacy of nuclear weapons, Washington may be adding one more small weight to the wrong side of the scale.

Beyond the eight case studies, the authors also worry about the existing system of treaties and inspections being rendered impotent or anachronistic. "If the nuclear nonproliferation regime is widely seen as eroding, a few of the nuclear abstainers may see this development as ... a long term threat that could lead them over time to begin hedging their bets," the editors write. "Fearing future defections from the regime, even countries that currently have no nuclear ambitions may feel compelled to rethink their nuclear options so as to avoid being the last to join a rapidly enlarging nuclear club." This prospect is eerily reminiscent of the mobilization race that led to World War I, and it must be avoided.

Here the authors affirm Allison's recommendation against "no new nascent nuclear states." The problem, as they see it, is that the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is interpreted as giving all states the right to acquire peaceful nuclear material production facilities, including ones that can produce the exact same materials used in nuclear weapons. Thus, governments often rely on peaceful nuclear production facilities as a cynical nuclear insurance policy: they can walk right up to the nuclear-weapons line by acquiring large stockpiles of weapons-usable uranium or plutonium without running afoul of their commitments. In the current standoff with Iran, for example, it is Tehran's failure to disclose uranium-enrichment activities, not its actual enrichment activities, that has put it at odds with the IAEA inspection system.

In the past, the nonproliferation regime has proved flexible enough to adapt as times change, in part because the alternative--no regime at all--is so dangerous and unpredictable. As the book's final chapter concludes, "the case studies explored in this volume [show] that the global nonproliferation regime may be more durable and less fragile than has sometimes been feared." The proliferation tipping point, in short, has not yet arrived. This does not, however, reduce the urgency of the issue: the conclusion of The Nuclear Tipping Point also emphasizes the importance of preventing Iran and North Korea from going nuclear--prospects that are dim at best.


The Future of Arms Control has a narrower appeal, but it helps codify some of the current, if less compelling, debates in the security field about the future role of formal security and arms agreements. Levi and O'Hanlon reaffirm their counterparts' concern over the dangers of civilian nuclear programs, going so far as to call for an end to the production of highly enriched uranium and a ban on any new uranium-enrichment or plutonium-reprocessing facilities. To help formalize these goals, the authors suggest revisiting what many consider one of the most painful arms-control dialogues ever held: the International Nuclear Fuel Cycle Evaluation (INFCE), a three-year, 46-nation effort to strike a new balance between the development of nuclear energy and the demands of nonproliferation. Many of those involved in that process still cringe at the acronym's mention. Yet the issues targeted by the INFCE remain compelling and confounding, prompting a new generation of experts to consider the need to alter the current civilian nuclear complex.

Taken together, these three useful volumes reaffirm the critical importance of nuclear nonproliferation and reflect the current state of debate over how to counter the nuclear threat. Since September 11, the threat of nuclear terrorism has attracted considerable attention, though much remains to be done to guard against it. And even if the threat of terrorism can be tamed, the growing currency of nuclear weapons and a growing sense of nuclear fatalism could set off the next wave of proliferation. Only a renewed consensus among all states--and a new willingness to redefine what is permissible in the name of peaceful nuclear technology--can hold it back.

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  • Jon B. Wolfsthal is Deputy Director for Non-Proliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the co-author of Universal Compliance: A Strategy for Nuclear Security.
  • More By Jon B. Wolfsthal