The Andrew Carnegie Distinguished Lecture on Conflict Prevention in Honor of David Hamburg

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Senator Nunn has been a longtime champion for increased safety and security measures when it comes to nuclear materials.

In 1991, Senator Sam Nunn and Republican Senate colleague, Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), co-authored the 1991 Comprehensive Nuclear Threat Reduction Act – more commonly known as the Nunn-Lugar act. In doing so, they helped to fund and secure the destruction of surplus weapons and materials from the defunct Soviet nuclear arsenal. This joint effort between the United States and Russia successfully prevented any of the 35,000 Soviet nuclear warheads from falling into terrorist hands, diminished the total amount of nuclear warheads in each countries arsenal, and aided in the transfer of remnants of the USSR’s arsenal back to Russia from Soviet successor states Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine.

Since that time, Senator Nunn has been a loud voice leading the charge for increased safety and security measures when it comes to nuclear materials. Nunn recently appeared at the Hearst Tower as the Andrew Carnegie Distinguished Lecture on Conflict Prevention speaker, where he lauded the work of those who have continued to pursue nuclear arms control and safety issues, but expressed worry that the pace of progress does not match the urgency of the threat posed by nuclear terrorism.

The fourth and final Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) is already underway this week in Washington D.C. Leaders from 50 countries across the globe will convene to discuss such issues, but Nunn is dubious as to how much progress can be made. He hails the NSS initiative, but reiterates that the progress does not match the threat. Even after efforts led by the Obama administration’s NSS initiative, which successfully reduced the number of countries housing weapons-useable plutonium and uranium from 50 to 24, “too many still have weapons useable nuclear material, which is what terrorists would like to have in order to build a crude weapon to destroy a city.” Too much nuclear material is stored haphazardly in an age when the global terrorist threat is very acute.

“We are in a new and dangerous nuclear era with outdated nuclear policies and increasing risk of nuclear use”
— Sam Nunn

The lack of significant reduction in nuclear risks and proliferation also pose a problem. “We are in a new and dangerous nuclear era with outdated nuclear policies and increasing risk of nuclear use,” he said. “In this new era of nine armed nuclear nations and others aspiring to that ambition, reliance on nuclear weapons for security is becoming increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective as a deterrent to prevent war.”

This isn’t to say that no successes have arisen out of the Obama administration’s efforts. Nunn acknowledged the securing of nuclear stockpiles around the globe, the new START arms reduction agreement with Russia, and the nuclear deal signed by the so-called P5+1 and Iran as positive steps in the right direction, and though he noted that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as “the Iran deal,” remains to be fully enforced, overall, he was optimistic.

“It is certainly not a permanent guarantee,” he said, “…but it buys time, and time is an essential ingredient in this area.”

Nunn’s focus remains squarely on the road ahead. Everything from Nuclear terrorism to the management of US and Russian nuclear weapons must be taken into account. He disagrees with the decision by both the U.S. and Russia (which still deploy over 90 percent of all nuclear weapons) to keep so many of them on a hair trigger footing, likening the situation to a recipe for a “catastrophic accident or a miscalculation based on false warning,” and implored that, “in a cyber-world, false warning becomes far more likely.”

However, despite his criticism, he sees value in the NSS initiative and the conversations its prompted. To this end, he hopes it will survive the end of the Obama administration in January 2017, if, for no other reason than to give voice to an issue that desperately needs addressing.

 “There’s a huge job ahead. The terror threat is getting worse. Sustaining that progress is vital for our country and the world.”