Preventing Nuclear Catastrophe

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Data from the IAEA Incident and Tracking Database and Nuclear Threat Initiative (Map by Haisam Hussein)

Grantees in this story

The pursuit of peace was of paramount importance to Andrew Carnegie.  Corporation President Vartan Gregorian on what that means today, as the world faces the threat of nuclear terrorism.

Of all the concerns Andrew Carnegie sought to address through his philanthropy, the pursuit of peace was of paramount importance to him, especially as he grew older and the specter of a world war loomed ever larger. After all his advocacy in the name of peace and diplomacy, Mr. Carnegie was devastated by his inability to prevent the outbreak of World War I and the catastrophe that followed. Few could have imagined at the time that the term “The Great War,” as it was known, would a mere two decades later no longer hold true, as World War II erupted with even greater geographic reach and devastation. Most frightening of all, the Second World War saw the introduction of the atomic bomb, placing into the hands of man, for the first time, the ability to wreak instantaneous and total destruction.

Since 1945, when humanity first witnessed the use of nuclear weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Corporation, along with several of its sister institutions, has contributed significant funds to ensure nuclear security and nonproliferation. The Corporation’s trustees, like Mr. Carnegie decades before, have supported a variety of measures to avert global war and atomic disaster, noting that “without peace and the prospect of peace, all other plans are worthless.”

Following World War II, and through the 1960s, the Corporation made a series of grants focused on understanding and managing the twin forces of atomic energy and nuclear weapons. Then, after a hiatus, in 1983 the Corporation revived its efforts in the nuclear realm with the launch of the Avoiding Nuclear War Program. The initiative helped foster understanding of the nuclear threat and the necessity of cooperation with the Soviet Union to avert accidental warfare or preemptive strikes. This included helping to develop relationships of trust between Soviet and American nuclear scientists and paving the way for confidence building between Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, which brought the Cold War to an end, tensions between the United States and Russia abated. But this seminal shift in the international landscape led to new dangers, including the vulnerability of nuclear weapons and materials in former Soviet republics. Since 1991, even as more than a dozen countries have ended their nuclear weapons programs, and in a few cases dismantled their arsenals entirely, the nuclear threat has continued to spread to new regions. Promising steps like the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968 have not prevented India, Pakistan, and North Korea from conducting nuclear tests and joining the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, and Israel as the states that are either known or presumed to possess nuclear weapons.

There is no longer a single proverbial “red phone” in the event of a nuclear crisis.
— Vartan Gregorian

While the United States and Russia account for more than 90 percent of the almost 16,000 nuclear warheads in existence, the once bipolar international system has transformed into a multipolar one characterized by constantly evolving threats. There is no longer a single proverbial “red phone” in the event of a nuclear crisis. In addition, the emergence of new technologies in precision weaponry—including cyber, surveillance, space, and anti-space weapons, to name a few—has further complicated strategic stability. Other technologies, especially the rise of the Internet, which connect the world and provide instant information, have also increased the power of individual terrorists and nonstate groups, some of which will do anything they can—steal, blackmail, or resort to the black market—to obtain nuclear materials. For all of these reasons and more, the world is facing a growing nuclear threat, one that is more complex than at any other time in history.

In response to these changes, in 2009 newly elected U.S. President Barack Obama gave a historic speech in Hradčany Square in Prague. He identified the risk of nuclear terrorism as the most immediate and extreme threat to nuclear security and called for a global effort to secure vulnerable nuclear weapons materials. The growing risk of nuclear terrorism led this year’s Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C., the fourth and final of these events held under President Obama’s administration, to focus on keeping nuclear materials out of the hands of terrorists. For the fifty world leaders in attendance at the Summit, their mandate was clear: the world cannot wait for an act of terrorism before working collectively and collaboratively to improve the global nuclear security culture and raise the world’s standards for nuclear security.

A Critical Moment for Nuclear Security

Explore the Corporation's interactive, The Greatest Threat: Nuclear Security in the Age of Terrorism, highlighting the work being done to offset a nuclear terrorist event.

For its part, from 1983 through today, the Corporation has remained very active in supporting the work of policymakers and nonprofit leaders in the nuclear realm, including work to prevent nuclear terrorism. Indeed, the Corporation’s commitment to analysis and policy outreach on the changing nature of nuclear risks has been unyielding, elevating the foundation to its place as the leading private philanthropic supporter of nongovernmental work on nuclear weapons strategy, security, and nonproliferation.

The most recent Nuclear Security Summit provided the Corporation with an opportunity to partner again with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, another of the leading nuclear security funders, to announce a “gift basket” that committed the two foundations to invest up to $25 million over the next two years toward nuclear security work.

In the past, one of the grantees the two foundations have been especially proud to partner in supporting is the outstanding Nuclear Threat Initiative, known as NTI, an independent, nonpartisan organization that strives to achieve a world without nuclear weapons. Established in 2001 through the generosity of businessman-turned-philanthropist Ted Turner, founder and funder of the United Nations Foundation, and led by national defense expert and former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn, NTI has become a hub of nuclear research and dissemination.

In addition to Senator Nunn, NTI is fortunate to have other great national and international leaders on its board, such as Vice Chairman Des Browne, former Defense Minister of the United Kingdom; General Eugene E. Habiger, former Commander in Chief of the U.S. Strategic Command; Igor S. Ivanov, former Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs; Gideon Frank, former Director General of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission; Liru Cui, former President of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations; and Ambassador Hamad Alkaabi, Permanent Representative of the United Arab Emirates to the International Atomic Energy Agency and Special Representative for International Nuclear Cooperation. NTI’s advisory board is equally distinguished, including investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett and HRH Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan.

As a grantee, but more importantly as a partner, NTI has had many successes over the course of its 15-year history. It has helped to secure vulnerable stockpiles of nuclear materials to prevent their use by terrorists, while working to break down communication barriers to develop more effective standards on nuclear security. NTI has also helped communicate a better public understanding of the urgency of reducing nuclear stockpiles, all with the ultimate goal of eliminating nuclear weapons across the globe.

This year’s Nuclear Security Summit provided an ideal occasion for NTI and the Corporation to issue a joint call to action on reducing nuclear weapons and combating nuclear terrorism. This statement, which appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and across the Internet, garnered signatures from more than 140 prominent government, business, and academic figures from the United States and around the world. It called on global leaders to “accelerate the effort to prevent catastrophic nuclear terrorism and continue their work beyond this last Summit to create global standards, accountability and best practices for securing all nuclear materials.” Those who signed the call to action recognize that what recently took place in Washington may have been the final formal Summit, but the work to secure weapons-usable materials is far from over. They know, as the Corporation does, that the risks are too high and the dangers all too real.

In his speech on the tenth anniversary of NTI, Senator Nunn reminded us of an African proverb that states, “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” The Corporation, together with NTI and the entirety of our partner funders and advocacy groups, will continue to do everything in our power to support policymakers in ensuring that nuclear terrorism and a new arms race never come to pass.