President George W. Bush has singled out terrorist nuclear attacks on the United States as the defining threat the nation will face in the foreseeable future. In addressing this specter, he has asserted that Americans' "highest priority is to keep terrorists from acquiring weapons of mass destruction." So far, however, his words have not been matched by deeds. The Bush administration has yet to develop a coherent strategy for combating the threat of nuclear terror. Although it has made progress on some fronts, Washington has failed to take scores of specific actions that would measurably reduce the risk to the country. Unless it changes course—and fast—a nuclear terrorist attack on the United States will be more likely than not in the decade ahead.

The administration's inaction is hard to understand. Its behavior demonstrates a failure to grasp a fundamental insight: nuclear terrorism is, in fact, preventable. It is a basic matter of physics: without fissile material, you can't have a nuclear bomb. No nuclear bomb, no nuclear terrorism. Moreover, fissile material can be kept out of the wrong hands. The technology for doing so already exists: Russia does not lose items from the Kremlin Armory, nor does the United States from Fort Knox. Nascent nukes should be kept just as secure. If they are, terrorists could still attempt to create new supplies, but doing so would require large facilities, which would be visible and vulnerable to attack.

Denying terrorists access to nuclear weapons and weapons-grade material is thus a challenge to nations' willpower and determination, not to their technical capabilities. Keeping these items safe will be a mammoth undertaking. But the strategy for doing so is clear. The solution would be to apply a new doctrine of "Three No's": no loose nukes, no new nascent nukes, and no new nuclear states.


A few numbers starkly illustrate the scale of the problem the United States now faces in trying to control the spread of nuclear weapons materials. Just eight countries—China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—are known to have nuclear weapons. In addition, the CIA estimates that North Korea has enough plutonium for one or two nuclear weapons. And two dozen additional states possess research reactors with enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) to build at least one nuclear bomb on their own. According to best estimates, the global nuclear inventory includes more than 30,000 nuclear weapons, and enough HEU and plutonium for 240,000 more.

Hundreds of these weapons are currently stored in conditions that leave them vulnerable to theft by determined criminals, who could then sell them to terrorists. Even more "nascent nukes" (the HEU and plutonium that are the only critical ingredients for making nuclear bombs) are at risk. Almost every month, someone somewhere is apprehended trying to smuggle or steal nuclear materials or weapons. Last August, for example, Alexander Tyulyakov—the deputy director of Atomflot (the organization that carries out repair work for Russian nuclear icebreakers and nuclear submarines)—was arrested in Murmansk for trying to do just that. The situation is so bad that three years ago, Howard Baker, the current U.S. ambassador to Japan and the former Republican leader of the Senate, testified, "It really boggles my mind that there could be 40,000 nuclear weapons, or maybe 80,000 in the former Soviet Union, poorly controlled and poorly stored, and that the world is not in a near-state of hysteria about the danger."

In making his case against Saddam Hussein, President Bush argued, "If the Iraqi regime is able to produce, buy, or steal an amount of uranium a little bigger than a softball, it could have a nuclear weapon in less than a year." What the president failed to mention is that with the same quantity of HEU, al Qaeda, Hezbollah, or Hamas could do the same. Once built, nuclear weapons could be smuggled across U.S. borders with little difficulty. Of the seven million cargo containers that will arrive at U.S. ports this year, for example, only two percent will be opened for inspection. And once on U.S. soil, those weapons would likely be used. Prior to September 11, 2001, many experts argued that terrorists were unlikely to kill large numbers of people, because they sought not to maximize victims but to win publicity and sympathy for their causes. After the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, however, few would disagree with President Bush's warning that if al Qaeda gets nuclear weapons, it will use them against the United States "in a heartbeat." Indeed, Osama bin Laden's press spokesman, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, has announced that the group aspires "to kill 4 million Americans, including 1 million children," in response to casualties supposedly inflicted on Muslims by the United States and Israel.


If a terrorist nuclear attack did occur in the United States, the first questions asked would be who did it, and where did they get the bomb? Bin Laden would top the list of probable perpetrators. But the supplier would be less certain; it could be Russia, Pakistan, or North Korea, but it could also be Ukraine or Ghana. Russia would probably top the list not because of hostile intent but because of the enormity of its arsenal of nuclear material, much of it still vulnerable to insider theft. Pakistan would likely rank second due to the ongoing links between its security services and al Qaeda, and the uncertain chain of command over its nuclear weaponry. North Korea, the most promiscuous weapon proliferator on earth, has already sold missiles to Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia and so would merit suspicion. As would Ukraine and Ghana, which operate Soviet-supplied research reactors with enough HEU for one or more nuclear weapons. Interestingly, Saddam-era Iraq would not have even made the top ten.

To be fair, since September 11, the Bush administration has taken steps to reduce the danger of a nuclear attack by terrorists. It has attacked al Qaeda training bases in Afghanistan and around the globe and enlisted more than 100 nations in a global effort to share intelligence, enforce antiterrorism legislation, and curtail the flow of terrorists' money. Bush has repeatedly declared that the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) would be "intolerable," prompting similar declarations from key allies. Recently, he also proposed a UN Security Council resolution that would criminalize WMD proliferation and promoted the Proliferation Security Initiative, an 11-nation group that, stretching existing legal frameworks, will search vehicles suspected of transporting WMD cargo on the high seas. After initial skepticism, the administration has also embraced the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program to secure and eliminate former Soviet nuclear weapons and has enlisted other members of the G-8 group of leading industrialized countries to match Washington's $1 billion annual commitment to the program over the next decade. And the United States has cooperated with Russia to extract three potential nuclear weapons from Serbia and one from Romania.

But the list of actions not taken by the administration remains lengthy and worrisome. Bush has not made nuclear terrorism a personal priority for himself or those who report directly to him. And he has resisted proposals by Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), former Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), and others to assign responsibility for the issue to a single individual, who could then be held accountable. As a result, were the president today to ask his cabinet who is responsible for preventing nuclear terrorism, either a dozen people would raise their hands, or no one would. Bush has also not communicated his sense of urgency about nuclear terrorism to the presidents of Russia or Pakistan. Nor has Bush increased the pace of U.S. cooperation with Russia in securing former Soviet nuclear weapons and materials. As a result, after a decade of effort, half of the Soviet arsenal remains inadequately secured. More generally, the Bush administration has not acted to change the prevailing practice that allows states to decide for themselves how secure weapons and materials on their territories will be. More than 100 potential weapons, such as those extracted from Serbia, still sit in a dozen countries in circumstances that leave them vulnerable to theft.

In this context, it is impossible to avoid mentioning Iraq. The Bush administration used the danger that Saddam might supply WMD to terrorists as its decisive argument for war. The subsequent failure to find evidence of these weapons has compromised the administration's credibility on the general subject of WMD, as well as the perceived competence of the U.S. intelligence community. Moreover, during the year and a half in which the United States sought to get other countries to support its Iraq policy, North Korea and Iran were able to accelerate their own programs. Mounting a serious campaign now to prevent nuclear terrorism will thus be more challenging than it would have been before the Iraq war.


Preventing nuclear terrorism will require a comprehensive strategy: one that denies access to weapons and materials at their source, detects them at borders, defends every route by which a weapon could be delivered, and addresses motives as well as means. Aggressive offense to disrupt and destroy organizations and individuals that could attack the United States must be matched by robust defenses at home. Washington may still sometimes have to act unilaterally. But the United States will not be able to bully other nations into taking all the necessary steps. Successful counterterrorism requires multinational intelligence and local police enforcement. For example, last summer's capture of al Qaeda's Southeast Asia mastermind resulted from a tip from suspicious neighbors, who informed Thai authorities who, in turn, called the CIA. If properly encouraged, foreign nationals and governments can play a huge role in tracking down terrorists. If not, they become a sympathetic sea in which terrorists can swim and hide.

The centerpiece of a serious campaign to prevent nuclear terrorism—a strategy based on the three no's (no loose nukes, no new nascent nukes, and no new nuclear weapons states)—should be denying terrorists access to weapons and their components. After all, no nuclear weapons or material means no nuclear terrorism; it's that simple.

The first part of the strategy—no loose nukes—would require rapidly securing all nuclear weapons or weapons-usable material under a new "International Security Standard" that would ensure that terrorists could not acquire weapons or their components. The United States and Russia should develop such a standard together and act quickly to secure their own weapons and materials in a manner sufficiently transparent to give each other assurance that their stockpiles could not be used by terrorists. Moscow and Washington should then go quickly to other nuclear-weapons states and demand that they too meet this new benchmark for nuclear security and be certified by another member of the club as having done so. If necessary, technical assistance in meeting these standards should be offered. But the United States and Russia should also make clear that this is not a negotiable demand.

Simultaneously, a "Global Cleanout Campaign" should extract all nascent nukes from all other countries within the next 12 months. Since all research reactors in non-nuclear weapons states contain fissile material that came from either the United States or Russia, each has a sufficient legal claim to demand its return. Compensation and wrangling may be required. But the United States and Russia must not take no for an answer.

A "no new nascent nukes" approach will require ensuring that all nuclear aspirants, especially Iran and North Korea, stop producing HEU and plutonium. This effort should begin under the auspices of inspections mandated by the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), including the NPT's Additional Protocol that allows more intrusive inspections of suspected nuclear sites. But two other elements must also be added to the current system: a prohibition on the production of fissile material, and actual enforcement mechanisms. Enforcement should begin with political and economic sanctions for recalcitrant states but should also include threats and the use of military force if necessary, whether covert or overt. Enhanced export controls and greatly strengthened intelligence capabilities (especially human agents) should focus on preventing the work of nuclear aspirants and stopping sales from potential suppliers. Ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (which the Bush administration has rejected, despite support from four former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, including Secretary of State Colin Powell) and the negotiation of a cutoff in production of fissile material in current nuclear-weapon states would reinforce this principle.

Iran will be a decisive test of this strand of the new strategy. The administration has declared that the United States "will not tolerate the construction of a nuclear weapon" by Iran and has elicited similar threats from its allies. American assertiveness has galvanized the IAEA to demand that Iran prove a full account of past and present nuclear activity. Unless Iran complies, the IAEA will refer the case to the UN Security Council.

Note the differences between the administration's current approach and the "no new nascent nukes" approach proposed. The administration has named Iran a member of the "axis of evil" and threatened it with regime change. It has tried to persuade Russia to halt construction of Iran's Bushehr light-water nuclear power plant. And it has accepted verbal declarations of support from Iran's trading partners in Europe. The proposed strategy, in contrast, would focus on one objective only: denying Iran material from which nuclear weapons can be made. This would mean preventing Iranian enrichment of uranium or reprocessing of spent fuel to produce plutonium. With Russian President Vladimir Putin as his partner, Bush would remind Iran that in signing the NPT, it forswore nuclear weapons, and he would demand that Iran verifiably dismantle any emerging capability for enrichment or reprocessing.

To win Moscow's support, Washington should accept Russian completion of the Bushehr reactor, confirm Russia's role as fuel supplier to the reactor, initiate joint Russian-American research on new proliferation-resistant nuclear power plants, and agree that Russia become the secure depository for international spent fuel. Fuel supplied at favorable prices to Bushehr would be owned and managed by Russia and withdrawn at the end of the fuel cycle. (Russia's minister of atomic energy has even expressed a readiness to form a joint U.S.-Russian venture to supply this fuel.) To force Iran's hand, the United States and Russia would show Tehran that they are ready to do whatever is necessary to prevent it from acquiring the ability to produce its own fissile material.

The "no new nuclear weapons states" part of the strategy would draw a bright line under the current eight nuclear powers and say unambiguously, "no more." Four decades ago, President John F. Kennedy predicted that by the end of the 1970s, 25 countries would have nuclear weapons. His pessimistic forecast reflected a presumption then generally accepted: that as states acquired the scientific and technical ability to build nuclear weapons, they would do so. Thanks to far-sighted international efforts, however, including treaties, security assurances, and overt and covert threats, most nations have renounced nuclear weapons instead. Through the NPT, first signed in 1968 and extended indefinitely in 1995, 184 nations agreed to eschew such weapons, and existing nuclear weapons states pledged, in effect, to sharply diminish the role of nuclear weapons in international politics. But as with the nascent nukes, the problem has been enforcement.

During the Cold War, rival superpowers served as the enforcers, preventing nuclear proliferation within their spheres of control. Thus the United States scotched South Korean and Taiwanese aspirations, and the Soviet Union dissuaded North Korea. When the Soviet Union disappeared in December 1991, leaving weapons in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus, intense U.S.-Russian cooperation was able to eliminate these, too. All 4,000 nuclear warheads were returned to Russia for dismantlement, and the newly independent states were compensated with nuclear fuel for their civilian reactors. But the United States and Russia then failed to devise a common strategy for dealing with nuclear weapons elsewhere. As a result, Pakistan and India both tested nuclear weapons during the 1990s and declared themselves members of the nuclear-weapons club.

The test case for a "no new nuclear weapons states" policy will be North Korea. That country remains, as former Secretary of Defense William Perry called it, "the most dangerous spot on earth." If it follows its current course, North Korea will soon be able to produce dozens of such weapons annually. Should it achieve this, South Korea and Japan will likely also go nuclear before the end of the decade. Taiwan could follow suit, risking war with China. And Pyongyang, already the world's leading supplier of missiles, could become a sort of Nukes"R"Us, supplying weapons to whoever could pay—including terrorists. Should that happen, future historians will justifiably condemn today's leaders for their negligence.

Already, the challenge from Pyongyang has become less manageable and much more dangerous than it was when President Bush took office. Indeed, some members of his administration have reportedly concluded that the problem is beyond the point of no return and have started focusing on how to accommodate North Korea and avoid blame. The proposed strategy, by contrast, would begin with an unambiguous stance on this question: no nuclear North Korea. It would focus solely on this objective and subordinate all others, especially regime change. However despicable North Korea's regime, the United States has higher priorities than getting rid of it. The administration should start to recognize the urgency of this threat. Its mantra of "no crisis," evidently chosen to avoid distraction from Iraq, has served U.S. interests poorly. Bush must also get Putin and President Hu Jintao of China to contemplate the consequences of a nuclear North Korea for their own countries. Active cooperation in stopping Pyongyang should be a major test of their security relationships with Washington. That said, the administration should drop its objections and immediately accept North Korea's proposal for bilateral negotiations. North Korea is correct when it claims that only the United States can address its security concerns.

Direct talks will allow Washington to test its presumption that, above all else, Kim Jong Il is committed to his own survival. The United States should offer him a deal: survival in exchange for nuclear disarmament. This deal would offer big carrots and threaten a big stick. If North Korea is prepared to visibly and verifiably forgo nuclear weapons and dismantle its nuclear weapons production facilities, the United States should publicly pledge to abandon any attempt to change North Korea's regime by force. It should also arrange for generous economic assistance from South Korea and Japan, which they stand ready to provide if North Korea forgoes its nukes. If, however, North Korea refuses to verifiably relinquish nuclear weapons and persists in its current efforts, the United States should threaten to use all means, including military force, to stop it. Horrific as the consequences of a preemptive attack on North Korean nuclear facilities would be, the prospect of a nuclear North Korea willing to sell its weapons to al Qaeda and other terrorists would be worse.


As the preceding discussion suggests, the United States cannot undertake or sustain its war on nuclear terrorism unilaterally. Fortunately, it need not try. All of today's great powers share an interest in the proposed campaign. Each has sufficient reasons to fear nuclear weapons in terrorists' hands, whether they are al Qaeda, Chechens, or Chinese separatists. All great powers can therefore be mobilized in a new global alliance against nuclear terrorism, aimed at minimizing this risk by taking every action that is physically, technically, and diplomatically possible to prevent nuclear weapons or materials from being acquired by terrorists.

Construction of this alliance should begin with Russia, where the close personal relationship between Presidents Bush and Putin will be a major asset. Russia will be flattered by the prospect of standing shoulder to shoulder with the United States—especially on the one issue on which it can still claim to be a superpower. Americans and Russians should also recognize that they have a special obligation to address this problem, since they created it—and since they still own 95 percent of all nuclear weapons and material. If they demonstrate a new seriousness about reducing this threat, the United States and Russia will also be able to credibly demand that China likewise secure its weapons and materials. China could sign up Pakistan. And the rest of the nuclear club would quickly follow.

Objections will surely be raised about the unfairness of a world in which some states are allowed to possess nuclear weapons while others are not. But that distinction is already embedded in the NPT, to which all non-nuclear weapons states except North Korea are signatories. Although the treaty also nominally commits nuclear weapons states to eventually eliminate their own weapons, it never set a timetable, and no one realistically expects that to happen in the foreseeable future.

The United States and its allies already have the power to define and enforce new global constraints on nuclear weapons. To make this order acceptable, however, they should undertake a concerted effort to eliminate nuclear weapons and nuclear threats from international affairs. The United States and Russia should accelerate current programs to reduce their arsenals. Moreover, the Bush administration should drop its current plans to conduct research for the production of new "mini-nukes."

Is the course of action outlined above conceivable? For perspective, consider the leap beyond the conventional box that the American president took in enunciating the "Bush Doctrine." With that strategy, the administration unilaterally revoked the sovereignty of states that provide sanctuary to terrorists. Declaring that "those who harbor terrorists are as guilty as the terrorists themselves," the president ordered American military forces to topple the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Of course, this new principle has yet to be enshrined in international law. It has, nonetheless, already become a de facto rule of international relations. Any government that knowingly hosts al Qaeda or its equivalent knows that it is inviting attack. True, the move beyond the current war on terrorism to a serious war on nuclear terrorism based on the three no's would be ambitious. But the leap involved would be no greater than the distance already traveled since September 11.

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  • Graham Allison is Douglas Dillon Professor of Government and Director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. From 1993 to 1994 he was Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy and Plans.
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