"In my home there are few publications that we actually get hard copies of, but [Arms Control Today] is one and it's the only one my husband and I fight over who gets to read it first."

– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
Can Bush or Kerry Prevent Nuclear Terrorism?

Charles D. Ferguson

If there is any issue on which leaders from all sides of the political spectrum agree, it is the importance of preventing nuclear terrorism. As the independent commission that investigated the September 11 terrorist attacks recently stated, “The greatest danger of another catastrophic attack in the United States will occur if the world’s most dangerous terrorists acquire the world’s most dangerous weapons.”

In their rhetoric and in their actions, both President George W. Bush and his Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, have demonstrated the seriousness with which they treat the issue, calling the possibility of terrorists armed with nuclear weapons the “gravest danger”[1] and “greatest threat”[2] confronting the United States. Both have taken significant steps to curb the threat: Bush has rolled out a number of new programs since the September 11 attacks, and Kerry has offered a detailed and innovative policy blueprint of what he would like to do if elected.

Yet, the differences between the candidates’ perception of the problem and their proposed solutions are profound. Further, neither candidate has given sufficient emphasis to what should be the next president’s top priority: preventing terrorists from getting their hands on highly enriched uranium (HEU), the essential building block for producing the simplest nuclear weapons.

Defining Nuclear Terrorism
Terrorists have essentially four mechanisms by which they can exploit military and civilian nuclear assets around the world to serve their destructive ends:

• The seizure and detonation of an intact nuclear weapon.
• The theft or purchase of HEU or plutonium, leading to the fabrication and detonation of a crude nuclear weapon, or an improvised nuclear device (IND).
• Attacks against and sabotage of nuclear facilities, such as nuclear power plants, to try to cause the release of large amounts of radioactivity.
• The unauthorized acquisition of radioactive materials contributing to the construction and detonation of a radiological dispersion device, popularly known as a “dirty bomb,” or a radiation emission device.[3]

The greatest risk in terms of severity of consequences combined with the likelihood of an attack is that a well-funded and well-organized terrorist organization could seize enough HEU to build and detonate the simplest nuclear bomb, a gun-type weapon. Like a gun, this device shoots a piece of HEU down a gun barrel to combine with another piece of HEU. The two pieces form a supercritical mass needed to sustain an explosive chain reaction. For example, the Hiroshima bomb. used the gun assembly method, and it required no nuclear testing because of the design’s simplicity. Most physicists and nuclear weapons analysts agree that building such a device would pose few technological challenges to reasonably technically competent terrorists. The main barrier remains acquiring a sufficient amount of HEU.

Of course, HEU is not the only material that can fuel a nuclear bomb; plutonium can also be used. Plutonium cannot power a high-yield, gun-type weapon, however, because this method does not allow efficient use of this fissile material. Plutonium would have to employ the more technically challenging implosion-assembly method, which uses conventional explosives to squeeze plutonium into a supercritical mass. If the implosion, or squeezing, of the fissile material does not occur smoothly, the bomb would probably result in a dud or an explosion with a much lower yield thanexpected from a properly designed weapon. Moreover, unlike a gun-type device, an implosion bomb requires high-speed electronics and high-explosive lenses, complex technologies that terrorists would have substantial difficulty acquiring. Because of the relative ease of use of HEU and the large stockpiles of weapons-usable HEU throughout the world, the United States should adopt an HEU-first strategy emphasizing securing; consolidating; and, as much as possible, eliminating HEU.

The Candidates’ Stance
Kerry seems to have a stronger plan than Bush for dealing with this threat. In his policy announcements, the longtime member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has been quite explicit in targeting nuclear terrorism, while Bush has talked more generally of the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction, a term that can also encompass biological and chemical weapons and missiles or other means of delivery.[4] Both leaders have proposed to secure nuclear materials, but the Bush campaign’s rhetoric has emphasized the terrorists as the threat, while Kerry has pointed to the materials themselves: “Remember, no material, no bomb, no nuclear terrorism.”[5] Kerry has pledged to appoint a badly needed presidential coordinator to counter nuclear terrorism and oversee efforts to secure nuclear materials.[6] He has also promised to ramp up spending on securing former Soviet nuclear weapons and materials so that such programs would be completed within four years rather than the administration’s current pace of more than a decade.[7]

The Bush administration, however, has already taken some steps to do what Kerry proposes. The Bush campaign also doubts Kerry’s ability to carry out his ambitious plans, no matter how much money he is willing to allot to it.

Richard Falkenrath, a former top Bush administration official working for the president’s re-election campaign, derided Kerry’s plan as “hollow promises and empty rhetoric.” He elaborated that “it’s simply a preposterous claim for anyone to be able to say that the American government could compel the Russian government to transfer its nuclear materials from one facility to another—no amount of bribery or coercion or arm-twisting could ensure that.…We’re making progress where progress is possible.”[8]

On Kerry’s pledge to work immediately with Russia “to develop a strategic plan to secure all these weapons and materials,” some like Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) have said that Russian resistance will be one of many major obstacles.[9] Additional impediments include bureaucratic inertia, Russian fears of U.S. intelligence collection, Russian resentment of NATO nuclear weapons deployed in Europe, and U.S. concerns that “Russia will rise again as the nuclear enemy of the West” and that helping to secure their nuclear forces today will create “a nuclear threat tomorrow.”[10]

But the administration seems to be paying attention to Kerry’s proposal. Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham vowed on July 17, 2004—one month after the publication of the Kerry plan—that his department will finish securing 600 metric tons of weapons-usable material in Russia by 2008, “two years ahead of the schedule we inherited.”[11]

Laudably, the Department of Energy has also stepped up efforts with Russia to secure Soviet-origin fresh and spent nuclear fuel containing HEU residing in more than 20 research facilities in 17 countries. On May 26, 2004, Abraham launched the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, a $450 million program that aims to repatriate all fresh HEU fuel to Russia by the end of 2005. The initiative also calls for returning to Russia all the spent fuel by 2010.

Just as Kerry’s plan might be faulted as too grandiose, however, these goals will remain overly ambitious unless the U.S. government learns from the difficulties encountered in past repatriation operations. Each operation was a complex undertaking, which usually required many months, sometimes years, of planning and generated much controversy among responsible agencies in the U.S. and other governments. Moreover, technical setbacks in developing low-enriched nuclear fuel not usable in weapons, and a paucity of economic and political incentives for HEU research reactors to convert to these fuels will continue to delay achievement of these goals unless the U.S. government places a higher priority on this endeavor.[12]

In addition, Kerry would like to expand the decade-old Cooperative Threat Reduction program “where necessary for countries to meet” an international standard for “the safe custody of nuclear weapons and materials.”[13] Such an expansion should urgently target Pakistan, a nation where a volatile mix of al Qaeda and Taliban operatives co-exists with a nascent nuclear command and control system. Consistent with the requirements of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the United States should share unclassified technology to help Pakistan secure its nuclear weapons and materials. The Bush administration has reportedly provided some assistance along these lines,[14] but it should also develop contingency plans, if it has not already done so, involving the use of nuclear recovery teams or specialized military forces to recover Pakistani nuclear assets soon after diversion is detected.

The administration also deserves credit for forming the Group of Eight (G-8) Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction, even if this 2002 initiative is still about $3 billion short of achieving its pledge goal of $20 billion and much of the pledged money has not yet been directed toward accomplishing projects. By the same token, though, Kerry is right to point to a fairly simple step the Bush administration has failed to take that might have aided efforts to halt nuclear terrorism. Bilateral U.S. and Russian presidential summits have come and gone without Bush making a high-priority push to President Vladimir Putin to accelerate securing potentially vulnerable nuclear weapons and materials.

Moreover, in negotiating the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) with Russia, also known as the Moscow Treaty, the Bush administration left a loophole that terrorists might be able to exploit. Although fewer strategic nuclear warheads will be deployed and therefore transported under the treaty, there is no requirement to dismantle any warheads. Each side is permitted to keep as many nondeployed warheads in storage as it wants, thereby potentially increasing the risk of terrorist acquisition of portable strategic warheads kept in reserve. Although the Bush administration appears reluctant to press for verifiable and irreversible nuclear arms reductions, the Kerry strategy proposes to “work with the Russians to accelerate the timetable of planned and agreed consolidation and reductions in U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.”[15]

Putting HEU First
Despite important strides, neither candidate can be said to have given sufficient emphasis to what should be their most important priority: securing HEU. The Bush administration has moved to protect fissile materials abroad, but it has not explicitly recognized the unique dangers of HEU. It still spends considerable political capital on ginning up a plutonium disposition program in which the United States and Russia have each pledged to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium. That program remains mired in disputes over liability coverage and in finding enough donor support to pay for the Russian part of the program. Moreover, over the next four years, the United States intends to place 25 tons of plutonium retrieved from disarmed Russian weapons in the recently opened Mayak Fissile Material Storage Facility. This facility was originally designed to accept HEU, however, and a better allocation of resources would be to place 200 tons of weapons-usable HEU into this high-security facility.

The Kerry strategy calls for substantially accelerating the down-blending of HEU to non-weapons-usable low-enriched form. One way to assuage concerns over Kerry’s apparently ambitious nuclear security schedule could be by ensuring that the elimination of HEU receives the first crack at any resources, so that any cuts would affect less urgent plutonium disposition.

Whether Bush is re-elected or Kerry becomes president, either man will have to quicken efforts to secure nuclear weapons and materials before terrorists seize them. Shrugging off bureaucratic inertia will require mobilizing a bipartisan coalition within Congress and sustaining a multinational partnership to accomplish the most urgent nuclear security tasks confronting the United States and the world community. Both men should build on the cooperative endeavor launched by Lugar and former Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) 13 years ago. As Nunn is fond of saying, “We are in a race between cooperation and catastrophe.” A primary way to gain a competitive and cooperative advantage in that race is to concentrate first on denying weapons-usable HEU to terrorists.


1. The National Security Strategy of the United States, White House, September 2002.

2. Kerry campaign “Fact Sheet: New Strategies to Defeat New Threats,” August 2004.

3. Charles D. Ferguson and William C. Potter, with Amy Sands, Leonard S. Spector, and Fred L. Wehling, The Four Faces of Nuclear Terrorism (Monterey, CA: Institute of International Studies and the Nuclear Threat Initiative, 2004), p. 3.

4. A search, conducted on July 16, 2004, of the Bush campaign’s Web site for “nuclear terrorism” found no instances of this exact expression. More significantly, this site does not include any policy document that is solely focused on nuclear terrorism prevention. In contrast, a similar search of the Kerry campaign’s Web site found six policy documents containing this phrase.

5. Jodi Wilgren, “Kerry Promises Speedier Efforts to Secure Nuclear Arms,” The New York Times, June 2, 2004, p. A17.

6. For an earlier recommendation for such a coordinator, see Matthew Bunn and Anthony Wier, “Keeping Nukes Out of Terrorist Hands,” The Boston Globe, September 3, 2002.

7. Although the Kerry campaign has not published an official cost estimate of its proposal, Graham Allison, a campaign adviser, director of the Belfer Center at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and author of the recently published Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, has estimated that accelerating efforts to secure nuclear materials under Kerry’s plan could cost $5-6 billion annually. In contrast, the United States presently spends about $1 billion a year on efforts to safeguard or eliminate dangerous materials and weapons abroad.

8. Wilgren, The New York Times.

9. Senator Richard G. Lugar, “Eliminating the Obstacles to Nunn-Lugar,” Arms Control Today, March 2004, p. 3.

10. Harold P. Smith Jr., “Consolidating Threat Reduction,” Arms Control Today, November 2003, pp. 19-20.

11. Spencer Abraham, “How to Stop Nuclear Terror,” The Washington Post, July 17, 2004, p. A19.

12. U.S. Government Accountability Office, “Nuclear Nonproliferation: DOE Needs to Take Action to Further Reduce the Use of Weapons-Usable Uranium in Civilian Research Reactors,” GAO-04-807, July 2004.

13. Kerry Fact Sheet.

14. NBC Nightly News, NBC, February 6, 2004; Carol Giacomo, “U.S. Helps Pakistan Safeguard Nuclear Material,” Reuters, February 6, 2004.

15. Kerry Fact Sheet.

While drafting this article, Charles D. Ferguson was a scientist-in-residence at the Monterey Institute’s Center for Nonproliferation Studies. He is presently the science and technology fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He also co-authored The Four Faces of Nuclear Terrorism (Monterey Institute of International Studies and the Nuclear Threat Initiative, 2004), which among other threats examines the catastrophic danger of nuclear terrorism resulting from terrorists obtaining highly enriched uranium.