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Ex-Senator Continues Dogged Pursuit To Rid World of Nuclear Weapons

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During 24 years in the Senate, Sam Nunn earned a reputation as a pragmatic chairman of the Armed Services Committee and co-author of the landmark Nunn-Lugar nonproliferation legislation that helped secure thousands of nuclear weapons in former Soviet states.

The conservative Georgia Democrat retired in 1997 after four terms, explaining that he no longer had “zest and enthusiasm” for the job. But Nunn never lost his enthusiasm for eradicating nuclear weapons from the globe. Since his Senate retirement, he has thrown himself into nuclear policy full time. In 2001, Nunn and Ted Turner, a fellow Georgian and billionaire businessman, co-founded the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a Washington public interest group that works with governments around the world to eradicate nuclear weapons.

In recent Diplomat interviews in Astana, Kazakhstan, and later back in Washington, Nunn described why he believes NTIs unique approach to public policy makes it one of the most important organizations in the world. We also discussed the August launch of a new nuclear fuel bank in Kazakhstan that will be managed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the controversial nuclear deal with Iran that narrowly averted defeat in a skeptical Republican Congress.

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Photo: Bill Adler / Nuclear Threat Initiative
Sam Nunn

Not surprisingly to those who follow nuclear weapons policy, Nunn has spent a good bit of time in Kazakhstan since launching NTI. The former Soviet state voluntarily relinquished its arsenal of some 1,400 nuclear warheads when the Soviet Union broke apart in the early 1990s. In August, Nunn traveled to the Kazakh capital of Astana for a signing ceremony that made official the IAEA’s management of a new low-enriched uranium fuel bank at the Ulba Metallurgical Plant. Kazakhstan — eager to boost its international credibility and experience in the nuclear realm, having handled and stored nuclear material safely and securely for more than 60 years — made good sense as the fuel bank’s location.

Under Nunn’s leadership, NTI spent a decade helping to broker the fuel bank agreement, guided by the belief that providing a safe, secure stockpile of nuclear fuel would help deter nations who want to tap into nuclear power from developing the more highly enriched weapons-grade variety of uranium. Nunn even convinced his friend Warren Buffett, a billionaire American investor and NTI board member, to kick in $50 million to make it happen. The fuel bank is a physical reserve of up to 90 metric tons of low-enriched uranium fuel — enough for a typical light-water reactor, the most common type of nuclear reactor worldwide. These types of reactors can power a large city for three years.

“The fuel bank doesn’t preclude IAEA member states from developing their own nuclear fuel facilities,” Nunn explained. “It enables and encourages countries that want civil, peaceful nuclear power to go forward with their plans without putting in their own indigenous enrichment and not fearing a collapse of the marketplace or a political cutoff.

“It’s a supply of last resort,” he added.

The IAEA, a multinational global nuclear watchdog of sorts that works in tandem with the United Nations, will manage the fuel bank.

“The fact that it is under the IAEA auspices is the closest thing to neutrality that we can get in today’s world,” Nunn said. “It’s like earthquake insurance — even if its never used, it’s still very valuable. It has a huge psychological value.”

Creating international protocols and mechanisms to safeguard nuclear materials is what NTI is all about.

“Some 30-odd countries are in the process of deciding now whether [to develop] nuclear power and if so, how so — and what is their confidence in being able to assure they’ll be able to have an adequate supply,” Nunn said, explaining that’s where the fuel bank in Astana comes in.

“Lets put it this way: If everybody that wants nuclear power in the future decides to put in their own enrichment, this world is going to be a hard place to live.”

So when will this fuel bank — the second in the world (the first is owned and operated by Russia) — come online?

“That’s what Warren Buffett keeps asking,” Nunn said with a laugh.

In seriousness, the long-planned and awaited facility will be operational in 2017.

“This is the first time anything like this has ever been done,” Nunn said, referring to a fuel bank under international management. “IAEA has not had this kind of operational function and you’re dealing with nuclear [material], which has both dangers and perceptions of danger. All of those things make it tedious, but this gives me confidence this is going to be completed.”

Moving beyond the recent news of the fuel bank launch in Kazakhstan, we asked Nunn what makes NTI different than so many other narrowly focused special interest groups or think tanks in Washington.

“Were actually creating pilot projects — and sometimes more — to show the way, and were doing it with transparency with governments, but not as part of governments,” he replied. “We try to keep governments informed around the world, and not just our own.”

Nunn is also quick to point out that NTI gets none of its money from governments, including that of the United States.

“Governments dont support us in terms of our budget,” he said.

“NTI is also unique because we have an international board and influential people on our board who can carry our message or proposal globally, including to Russia and China and the Middle East,” Nunn continued. “There are few other organizations that have Democrats and Republicans, and our board has always had from the very beginning people from both parties and people who have a tremendous amount of experience even in the Departments of Defense and Energy. We think the IAEA is one of the most important organizations in the world.”

And what about the IAEA, which will play such a critical role in the enforcement of the Iran nuclear deal in the years ahead? What makes them so special?

“They have the responsibility of promoting safe nuclear power and energy and they have a unique mission in terms of making sure that countries do not cross the line and go into building nuclear weapons when they are purporting to be trying to pursue the peaceful use of nuclear energy,” Nunn said.

On that note, the former senator has long lamented what he calls a loophole in the 45-year-old Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that encourages even peaceful nations to get into the nuclear power game. Unfortunately, once you learn how to enrich uranium to the low levels required for nuclear power, it isn’t a giant leap to manufacture the more highly enriched uranium needed for a bomb. Nunn says amending the treaty, however, is likely a non-starter.

“You would have to amend the whole treaty in order to get it closed,” he said. “Talk about a hard task; it would take decades in my view. The one big loophole is that you have an interpreted right — some people quarrel with us — but most countries say they have the right to nuclear technology including their own, and if you have that right, then the same technology used for peaceful purposes can also be used to make a bomb.

“Therefore, what is legal can also be very dangerous, so that’s a loophole and I dont think it was anticipated when the policy was put into effect.”

The dangers of that loophole have been brought into sharp relief by the longstanding dispute with Iran over the dimensions of its nuclear program. For years, Tehran insisted that as an NPT signatory, it had the right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes (while the U.S. has countered that it surrendered that right once it violated terms of the agreement).

Under the nuclear deal that the Obama administration and five other nations struck with Iran over the summer, Tehran has agreed to severe constraints on its nuclear program in return for sanctions relief and maintaining some enrichment capacity.

Nunn is supportive of the controversial pact — not Congress’s effort to derail it.

“This president has negotiated it and if America, having led that effort, turns against it and rejects it, I think it goes far beyond Iran,” Nunn said. “I think it weakens our leadership in the world. What are the consequences if we turn this agreement down having led the charge?

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Photo: Kaveh Sardari / Nuclear Threat Initiative
From left, Nuclear Threat Initiative co-founders Ted Turner and Sam Nunn, along with actor Michael Douglas, attend a 2014 NTI board members' meeting.

“Other countries are not going to salute and say, ‘Well, Uncle Sam doesn’t like the agreement they negotiated in red and now Uncle Sam wants us to continue the embargo.’ They just aren’t going to do it anymore,” Nunn said. “I don’t think even our friends in Europe were going to continue economic sanctions if this was rejected. Iran was going to end up having increased its strength via the economic sanctions and they will not have the restrictions of the agreement and so forth.

“This agreement has a pretty good chance of preventing Iran from getting a weapon over the next 15 years, and we have much stronger verification with the agreement than without it,” Nunn continued. “So, I look at what the alternative is and to me it’s clear. You’re buying time and you’re reducing the risk dramatically that they could get a weapon in the next 10 or 15 years and you’re also preserving America’s leadership in the world.”

Nunn conceded that money will begin flowing to Iran that had previously been choked off by international sanctions — which could allow its government to foment more terrorism in the region.

“I think it’s a risk that Iran may use it to promote things in the Middle East that we are very much opposed to, and we’ll have to oppose, but we have all the options we have now to take action — economic or other action, even militarily, to stop that,” Nunn said. “But if you block this agreement, are you really going to be able to deny Iran the resources to create mischief or play games in the Middle East? [The answer] to that pretty clearly is no.”

Nunn, like many other experts in the field, has concluded that the agreement is the world’s best hope for preventing a nuclear-armed Iran — at least in the short term. Anything longer than that will be up to the international community and committed groups like NTI to stop down the road.

“When you get right down to it, what we’re doing is we’re buying time,” Nunn said of the agreement. “We’re not getting an insurance policy that they’ll never have a weapon.”

Meanwhile, plenty of other countries are quietly angling for more nuclear capability.

“You’ve got this psychology around the globe of [nuclear] haves and have-nots,” Nunn said. “There is deep resentment about that because the three-legged part of the Non-Proliferation Treaty was that countries that didn’t have nuclear weapons weren’t going to get them. Countries that had nuclear weapons would step by step get rid of them, and the third was that everybody had the right to this technology.”

According to the Ploughshares Fund, nine countries in the world possess a total of 15,695 nuclear weapons and the United States and Russia account for 93 percent of them. Nunn said American leadership on the nuclear issue is critical. President Obama has called for a nuclear-free world but his most recent budget actually boosts nuclear spending.

“Having the United States as a nuclear power with the long-term vision of ultimately getting rid of nuclear weapons is enormously important,” Nunn said. “Everybody knows how hard that is going to be. It’s going to take a long time.”

The end of the Cold War menace of the U.S and Russia staring each other down with nuclear arsenals has passed, and in a sense so has the public’s fear of nuclear Armageddon.

“I don’t think we are nearly as alert to the nuclear threat as we were because people don’t see the United States and the former Soviet Union are at each other’s throats,” Nunn said.

When the Soviet Union disintegrated, however, Nunn and his Senate colleague, Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), were quick to recognize that the threat of nuclear annihilation was far from over. Their landmark piece of legislation in 1991, which ushered in the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program, continues to be a key bulwark against nuclear proliferation. CTR is housed within the U.S. Defense Department and continues to safeguard nuclear weapons technology and infrastructure in the former Soviet Union. Among other things, the program has dismantled hundreds of missiles and silos, removed fissile material from unsafe areas, secured nuclear storage sites and created jobs for thousands of scientists who used to work on weapons research.

While Nunn laments the nuclear ambitions of countries such as North Korea and Iran, he is grateful that through the work of CTR, NTI and international leaders, large stockpiles of nuclear materials have been secured.

“We have made progress in reducing the supply of nuclear weapons-grade material around the globe,” he said “Twenty years ago there were 50 countries that had weapons-grade nuclear material and now there are 25, so you can say we’ve made progress, but you can also say we have a long, long way to go.

“During that time, we’ve had India and Pakistan and Iran and North Korea basically develop a nuclear arsenal, or a program in the case of Iran,” he said. “The dangers in some sense have come down and in other ways have gone up. It’s a balance.”


About the Author

Michael Coleman (@michaelcoleman) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat

Last Edited on October 1, 2015