President George W. Bush called it his "ultimate nightmare." Sen. John Kerry, running for president in 2004, said that it was "the greatest threat that we face." They were both talking about the terrifying possibility that a terrorist group could acquire a nuclear weapon and attack the United States. Yet this year, over the course of three presidential debates, the issue barely surfaced. That is dangerous: Nuclear terrorism remains one of the very few vital risks to America, and the next president, whoever he is, will need to work vigilantly to prevent it.
Fears about the prospect of nuclear-armed terrorists date to the 1970s, and more recently to the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, when strategists feared that a crumbling Soviet empire might be unable to protect its vast stocks of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium. Over the next decade, though, many people's concerns subsided as their attention turned to a series of crises of the day.
They were jolted out of that slumber on Sept. 11, 2001, when al-Qaeda revealed an appetite for mass destruction and demolished the old dictum that terrorists wanted "a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead."