By Matt Stone
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Monday, October 3, 2005
There was one thing George Bush and John Kerry agreed on in 2004: Nuclear terrorism presents the gravest threat to our national security today. That was during the first presidential debate. They paused a moment, stared quizzically at each other and shrugged off the similarity.
But the probability that Bush and Kerry could see eye to eye on an issue is still overshadowed by the probability that an American city will face a nuclear holocaust in the next decade - not from a psychopathic North Korean dictator or an Iranian fundamentalist, but from someone outside the realm of interstate politics.
It's a possibility that frightened former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Georgia), former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Ted Turner, founder of CNN, enough to inspire action.
In January 2001, with financial backing from Turner and a vision from Nunn, Nuclear Threat Initiative was founded with the sole purpose of combating nuclear, chemical and biological terrorism where governments could not. Since then, NTI has been at the forefront of the nuclear terrorism debate: what to do about it, who should do it and who should pay for it.
The scenarios are mind-numbing: a simple uranium gun-type device (like that used on Hiroshima) smuggled across the border in a sport utility vehicle, shielded by a thin sheet of lead, which effectively diverts any radioactivity from the detectors used at border crossings; a "dirty bomb" in the financial district of New York; a nuclear device smuggled inside a shipping container, detonated on a timer in Los Angeles harbor.
Indeed, there is a more frightening prospect. Fifteen years after the Cold War has ended, American and Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles are still on hair-trigger alert, deliverable within minutes if the order is given. Al-Qaida, deterred by American border security, decides to detonate a device in Moscow. The Russians believe they are being attacked by America and immediately launch a full retaliatory salvo. America responds in kind.
The consequences of these scenarios in human lives, economic devastation and psychological trauma would be unprecedented in the long term, apocalyptic in the short. Governments, think tanks, businesses and non-governmental organizations like NTI are working to prevent this potentiality. Unfortunately, it's the heavy-hitters - the governments - that are neglecting their end of the bargain.
Nunn's philosophy, which is largely accepted as common sense in the Washington, D.C., foreign policy community, is that the United States must work to secure nuclear material at its source. We know how much nuclear material there is in the world and generally where it is stored; we don't know who's trying to get at it. But, once diverted or stolen, finding nuclear material would be akin to finding a needle in the proverbial haystack.
This was the philosophy that led Nunn and Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) to draft the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program in 1991, soon after the fall of the Soviet Union. CTR is the cornerstone of American policy combating nuclear terrorism, which provides financial assistance to Russia and the former Soviet republics for securing and destroying their excess nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. CTR has been an outstanding success, but the work is not done.
At the current rate, nuclear material in Russia will not be 100 percent secure for another 13 years; it is within the United States' capabilities to secure this material in four. As Nunn has said in testimony before Congress, "The terrorists are racing. We are not yet racing to stop them."
Four years removed from Sept. 11, 2001, this is a serious problem. Fifteen years removed from the fall of the Soviet Union, this is a bureaucratic catastrophe.
Oct. 3 through Oct. 7, the NTI Board of Directors will meet in Moscow to push this agenda. The board includes such notables as former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry, Nobel-laureate economist Amartya Sen, Sen. Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico), Susan Eisenhower, Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan and others. Of course, Nunn, Lugar and Ted Turner will be there.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency Mohamed ElBaradei are scheduled to speak with the board. I will be there too, as NTI staff and as an observer to report on the proceedings for the Arizona Daily Wildcat, providing many updates in the next two weeks.
Their message will be an important one. Let us hope - for our sake - the leaders of the world take it to heart.
Matt Stone is a junior majoring in international studies and economics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org