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Stanford University: The Threat of Nuclear Terrorism

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Former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry and a team of international experts explore what can be done about the threat of nuclear terrorism in this free course, for which you can earn a signed Statement of Accomplishment. This is a self-paced version of the original course which ran in Fall 2017.

Welcome to "The Threat of Nuclear Terrorism"

"Today, the danger of some sort of nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the Cold War, and most people are blissfully unaware of this danger."

I wrote these words three years ago, and my concern led me to create my first Stanford Online course, "Living at the Nuclear Brink." Our nuclear peril continues to increase, and therefore I offer the next in our series of free courses on this vital subject: The Threat of Nuclear Terrorism. The topic is frightening, but it is one we must face if we are to have any chance of stopping potential catastrophe.

The Threat of Nuclear Terrorism
5 weeks
1–5 hours per week
Progress at your own speed

About this course

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Is the threat of nuclear terrorism real? Listen to Graham Allison, Martha Crenshaw, David Holloway and Joe Martz as they investigate the evidence with myself and selected Stanford students. What would be the consequences of a nuclear terror attack? The scenario is difficult to imagine, but Alex Wellerstein and Lynn Eden help me and our students understand just what could happen if the worst case occurs, and how we can work to limit the damage. What can we do to prevent or mitigate this risk? Participate as I explore this crucial question with the help of Stephen Flynn, Rachel Bronson, Valerie Plame Wilson, Ellen Tauscher and Jeffrey Lewis.

With the expert help of Stanford Online, we are able to bring to you this unprecedented group of experts from a wide variety of fields, who share a strong commitment to the urgency of educating people on this important topic. In some of the sessions, you will also hear students actively participating in the conversation. You’ll be exposed to a profound and sometimes disturbing body of research and information, and challenged to find a path forward out of this predicament.

We do not have required reading, but under Additional Resources you will find numerous books, articles, web links and videos to enhance your experience. In addition, we offer a "Nukes in the News" section to add topicality. The more you participate, the more you will get out of your experience.

Our course differs from most online courses in a fundamental way: our goal is not just to provide facts, but to inspire you to take action. You have the power to make a difference, and I believe this course will give you knowledge and hopefully motivation to do so. You can read more about the subject, and find ways to become involved, by visiting the website of the William J. Perry Project:

At a glance

  • Institution: StanfordOnline
  • Subject: History
  • Level: Introductory
  • Prerequisites:

    There are no prerequisites other than curiosity and a passion for learning.

  • Language: English
  • Video Transcript: English

What you'll learn

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Course Instructors

Dr. William J. Perry was the 19th Secretary of Defense for the United States, serving from February 1994 to January 1997. He previously served as Deputy Secretary of Defense (1993-1994) and as Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering (1977-1981). Dr. Perry is the Michael and Barbara Berberian Professor (emeritus) at Stanford University. He is a Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute and the Hoover Institution, and he serves as Director of the Preventive Defense Project. In 2013, Dr. Perry founded the William J. Perry Project ( to engage and educate the public on the dangers of nuclear weapons in the 21st century.

Graham Allison is the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at Harvard’s Kennedy School and former Director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He is a leading analyst of U.S. national security and defense policy with a special interest in nuclear weapons, terrorism, and decision-making. His latest book, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?, was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in May 2017 and quickly became a national bestseller. Dr. Allison served as Assistant Secretary of Defense in the first Clinton Administration and as Special Advisor to the Secretary of Defense under President Reagan. He has the sole distinction of having twice been awarded the Department of Defense's highest civilian award, the Distinguished Public Service Medal, first by Secretary Cap Weinberger and second by Secretary Bill Perry.

Dr. Rachel Bronson is the Executive Director and Publisher of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists where she oversees the publishing programs, the management of the Doomsday Clock, and a growing set of activities around nuclear weapons, nuclear energy, climate change and emerging technologies. She is the author of Thicker than Oil: America’s Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia (Oxford Press, 2006). Her writings have appeared in publication such as Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, The National Interest, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Huffington Post, and The Chicago Tribune. Dr. Bronson has testified before the Congressional Anti-Terrorist Finance Task Force, Congress’ Joint Economic Committee, and the 9/11 Commission.

Dr. Martha Crenshaw is a Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation and Freeman Spogli Institute and a Professor of Political Science by courtesy at Stanford. She is a world-renowned expert on political terrorism. In recognition of her work, the National Science Foundation/Department of Defense Minerva Initiative awarded Dr. Crenshaw a grant for a project on "mapping terrorist organizations" (see In 2011, Routledge published Explaining Terrorism, a collection of Dr. Crenshaw's previously published writings. Most recently, she co-authored a book with Gary LaFree titled, Countering Terrorism.

Dr. Lynn Eden is a Senior Research Scholar Emerita. She was a Senior Research Scholar at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation until January 2016, as well as the Associate Director for Research. Dr. Eden's book, Whole World on Fire: Organizations, Knowledge, and Nuclear Weapons Devastation, explores how and why the U.S. government--from World War II to the present--has greatly underestimated the damage caused by nuclear weapons by failing to predict damage from firestorms. Whole World on Fire won the American Sociological Association's 2004 Robert K. Merton Award for the Best Book in Science, Knowledge, and Technology.

Dr. Stephen Flynn is Founding Director of the Global Resilience Institute at Northeastern University ( where he leads a university-wide research enterprise to inform and advance societal resilience. At Northeastern, he is also a Professor of Political Science with affiliated faculty appointments in the College of Engineering and the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs. Dr. Flynn is recognized as one of the world’s leading experts on both critical infrastructure and supply chain security and resilience. Among his most influential publications are the critically acclaimed The Edge of Disaster: Rebuilding a Resilient Nation and the national bestseller America the Vulnerable: How Government is Failing to Protect Us From Terrorism.

Dr. David Holloway is the Raymond A. Spruance Professor of International History, a Professor of Political Science, and a Freeman Spogli Institute Senior Fellow at Stanford University. He is an expert on the development of the Soviet nuclear program and has published widely on this subject. His book, Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy, 1939-1956 (Yale University Press, 1994), was chosen by the New York Times Book Review as one of the eleven best books of 1994, and it won the Vucinich and Shulman prizes of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies.

Dr. Jeffrey Lewis is the Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Previously, Dr. Lewis served as the Executive Director of the Managing the Atom Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Executive Director of the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs, a Visiting Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and a desk officer in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy. He is also a Research Scholar at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy (CISSM).

Dr. Joseph Martz is a physicist and 35-year employee of Los Alamos National Laboratory, who has focused on issues surrounding nuclear security, nuclear weapons, and stockpile stewardship. His early work led to a nationwide evaluation and repackaging of stored nuclear materials, and he was a co-developer of the ARIES system, a means to dismantle and safely recover plutonium from excess nuclear weapons. In addition to his research at Los Alamos, Dr. Martz has led national project teams, including the recent reliable-replacement warhead design competition and several complex nuclear material experiments.

Ellen O’Kane Tauscher represented California’s 10th Congressional District in the East Bay of San Francisco for seven terms from 1997-2009. She served on the House Armed Services Committee and was Chair of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee, overseeing the nuclear weapons stockpile and complex, among other forces, from 2006-2009. In 2009, Tauscher was nominated by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the United States Senate as Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs. As Under Secretary of State, Tauscher was responsible for successfully closing negotiations of the New Start Treaty with the Russian Federation in March 2010 in Geneva and representing the United States at the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference at the United Nations in May 2010.

Dr. Alex Wellerstein is an Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies (STS) in the College of Arts and Letters at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. Dr. Wellerstein has been an Associate Historian (a postdoctoral position) at the Center for the History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics, as well as a postdoctoral fellow at the Managing the Atom Project (MTA) and the International Security Program at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

Valerie Plame Wilson : As a former career covert CIA operations officer, Valerie Plame Wilson worked to protect America’s national security and prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, in particular nuclear weapons. During her career with the CIA, Valerie managed top-secret covert programs designed to keep terrorists and rogue nation states from acquiring nuclear weapons. Her position involved decision-making at senior levels, recruiting foreign assets, deploying resources around the world, managing multi-million dollar budgets, briefing U.S. policymakers, and demonstrating consistently solid judgment in a field where mistakes could prove disastrous to national security.

Week 1: Who Are the Terrorists? What Do They Want?

Dr. William J. Perry, Dr. Graham Allison, Dr. Martha Crenshaw

Week 2: What Are the Historical and Contemporary Security Issues with Nuclear Weapons and Materials?

Dr. William J. Perry, Dr. Graham Allison, Dr. David Holloway, Valerie Plame Wilson

Week 3: Could a Terrorist Group Make a Nuclear Bomb? If a Terrorist Group Made an Improvised Nuclear Device, Could They Deliver It to One of Our Cities?

Dr. William J. Perry, Dr. Stephen Flynn, Dr. Joseph Martz

Week 4: What Would Be the Consequences of an Improvised Nuclear Device's Detonation in a U.S. City?

Dr. William J. Perry, Dr. Lynn Eden, Dr. Alex Wellerstein

Week 5: What Has Been Done to Lower the Likelihood of a Nuclear Terror Event, or to Mitigate the Damage if We Experience One?

Dr. William J. Perry, Dr. Graham Allison, Dr. Rachel Bronson, Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, Rep. Ellen Tauscher

Frequently Asked Questions

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The course has already started! Is it too late to join?

No worries! You can start whenever you join the course, since it is self-paced.

Is there a textbook for the class?

No, but there will be suggested readings for each unit.

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