Co-Founder, Co-Chair, and Strategic Advisor
Last Best Chance featured on ABC’s Nightline.
ABC’s Nightline with Ted Koppel
Regarding Last Best Chance
TED KOPPEL: You don't have to have tens of billions of dollars to be taken seriously on matters of grave, national importance, but it sure doesn't hurt. Warren Buffett, for example. He's got the billions and he's identified what he regards as the matter of gravest importance. But when he and I sat down six years ago at an Omaha Dairy Queen, he wasn't sure how to go about applying the money to the problem.
WARREN BUFFETT: Really, I -the number one problem in mankind, but I don't know how to attack it with money, I think, is the spread of nuclear knowledge.
TED KOPPEL: Now, that was in March of 1999, more than two years before 9/11, before too many people in this country had even focused on the possibility that terrorists might get their hands on a nuclear weapon of some sort and try to explode it here in the United States. Well, in the wake of 9/11, people have focused on the problem.
The acute danger of loose nukes was one of the few points of agreement between President Bush and Senator Kerry during the last presidential campaign. For some curious reason, though, the public at large never embraced the issue. You don't, for example, hear radio talk shows pounding away at the danger of loose nukes. Nor for that matter, and this is even more curious, does the government seem intent on spending whatever money is necessary to address the problem.
Instead, it has become the focus for private institutions, super- wealthy philanthropists, and a couple of very distinguished, but now former US senators. But we're getting a little ahead of ourselves. First, as ABC News correspondent Jake Tapper reports, first, there's this movie. JAKE TAPPER, ABC NEWS: A screening of the movie "Last Best Chance" was held this evening at the Motion Picture Association of America's Washington, DC office. "Last Best Chance" will assuredly be no competition for this week's big premiere, "Star Wars III, Revenge of the Sith," but to a small group of dedicated officials, there is no movie that is more important for the public to see. The drama shows terrorists from al Qaeda obtaining highly enriched uranium rods from a research reactor in Belarus, from which they make nuclear weapons.
[clips from "Last Best Chance"]
JAKE TAPPER: The film points out such materials are not too difficult to obtain in any number of spots throughout the former Soviet Union. Former Tennessee senator, Fred Thompson, now a star of the NBC show "Law & Order," plays the president.
FRED THOMPSON: What do they got?
ACTOR, "LAST BEST CHANCE": Machine tools with HEU residue, drums with nitric acid, and a schematic for a simple but effective nuclear weapon, sir.
FRED THOMPSON: So, al Qaeda's a nuclear power? …. Please excuse the hour of my call.
JAKE TAPPER: Much of the film shows him and the Russian president trying to find the nukes before disaster strikes.
FRED THOMPSON: Together, we started trying to lock it down ten years ago. If we had finished that job, we wouldn't be having this conversation.
JAKE TAPPER: The message of the film is none too subtle — it would be better for superpowers like the US and Russia to secure these materials now rather than after it's too late.
ACTOR: Pick a city. Red is vaporized. Orange is almost completely destroyed. Gray, fallout areas depend on weather conditions.
JAKE TAPPER: What makes "Last Best Chance" more of a message movie than other message movies is the fact that one of the men who put it together is former senator, Sam Nunn, who, as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee during the '90s, recognized the danger as the Soviet Union collapsed. Nunn runs the Washington, DC think tank, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, or NTI, dedicated to nuclear non- proliferation. NTI put up $1 million to make this film to convince the public this threat is real.
ACTOR: I can't guarantee my people will find it before it goes off.
SAM NUNN: If people need a little bit of a fright in order to be motivated, fine. I just think it's very important people realize that we have ways that we can greatly reduce the risk.
JAKE TAPPER: It's not as if the theme hasn't been tackled by Hollywood. In the season's cliffhanger of the Fox television hit "24," an American nuclear warhead has been stolen by terrorists and launched towards an unidentified target.
ACTOR, "THE SUM OF ALL FEARS": They're looking for the warhead in the cities. They have no idea that it's going to be delivered by missile.
JAKE TAPPER: And three years ago in the movie "The Sum of All Fears," in which a motley crew of terrorists detonates a nuclear device in Baltimore, was a box office smash earning nearly $120 million. But that film's director, Phil Alden Robinson, acknowledges even a big blockbuster only has a limited impact on educating the public.
PHIL ALDEN ROBINSON, DIRECTOR: I can't say that we raised a lot of knowledge about loose nukes. I mean, they've been in movies before, they've been in fiction before. I think when a loose nuke is actually detonated somewhere on the planet, then I think a lot of people will, will all of a sudden say, my gosh, this is something we have to concentrate on now.
JAKE TAPPER: Before he left the Senate, Nunn and Indiana Republican Senator Richard Lugar wrote the law that has provided billions to secure nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union. Through the Nunn-Lugar program, more than 6,500 nuclear warheads have been deactivated, and more than 1,500 long range missiles have been destroyed.
SAM NUNN: The good news is we're up to about 50 percent of the Russian stockpile that we're helping them secure up to our levels, about 50 percent, at least to some level of security. The bad news is, 50 percent is not properly secured up to our standards. So, there's a lot more to be done here.
JAKE TAPPER: Bob Kerrey was a member of the 9/11 Commission.
BOB KERREY, 9/11 COMMISSION: When it comes to national security, this is what should keep them up at night. This is the, I would say, if you're trying to assess threats to the United States of America and the lives of people in the United States of America, this should top the list.
JAKE TAPPER: Earlier this month, NTI and Harvard presented their annual report on the state of loose nukes in the former Soviet Union. Their conclusion?
[graphics: report excerpt]
JAKE TAPPER: "On the ground progress in securing, consolidating, and eliminating nuclear stockpiles in the last year remained slow when compared to the urgency of the threat." It added that, "action from the highest levels" of the Bush and Putin administrations, and other governments, "is needed because difficult bureaucratic and political impediments persist." This movie is very much a result of a, sort of, well, desperation may be too strong a word, but certainly frustration with politicians, the press, and, yes, the public.
SAM NUNN: People communicate by visuals now and we're going to find out on this film whether that helps.
BOB KERREY: He shouldn't need to produce a film. People that understand Sam Nunn should say he's afraid of this, we should be afraid of it.
JAKE TAPPER: It's not the first time Nunn and NTI have used unusual tactics. In 2002, the group contributed $5 million as part of the US government's effort to remove 100 pounds of highly-enriched uranium from an insecure facility in Serbia. That's enough for two nuclear weapons.
SAM NUNN: We thought it was so important not only to get that material back to Russia, to get it blended down, and to get it out of the hands of any possible vulnerability with terrorists, but also to set an example for what has to be done around the globe.
JAKE TAPPER: "Last Best Chance" may face an even tougher task; it likely will not be coming soon to a theater near you. As of right now, there is no film distributor or television network signed up to show it, though it is available on DVD.
The film got a bit of a boost a few weeks ago when billionaire investor Warren Buffett, a financial contributor to NTI, told his investors to each get a copy of the film on DVD. Nunn's mission is clear, he wants no president to ever have to find himself in this situation.
FRED THOMPSON: I don't know how many there are, where they are, or what I can do to stop them.
ACTOR: Sir, the horses are out of the barn.
FRED THOMPSON: Because we blew our chance to close the door.
JAKE TAPPER: For now, however, this is a message it's unclear enough people are hearing. This is Jake Tapper for "Nightline" in Washington.
TED KOPPEL: Joining me now, Warren Buffett. He is chairman of the board and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, Incorporated. He is also an adviser to the board of directors of the Nuclear Threat Initiative. Now, two things, Warren, first of all, I've known you for a number of years. I don't know you to be an expert on nuclear matters. And number two, when we have talked about your philanthropic intentions over the years, you've always made the point that you thought you could make more money in the long run and you were going to leave it to philanthropies after you die. Here, however, you are giving some not inconsiderable sums to the quest to stop the spread of loose nukes, nuclear knowledge. What has changed your mind on giving the money away and, and why on this issue?
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, I've always felt this is the number one issue of, of mankind and I believe it will be throughout the lifetime of your viewers. So, the real problem has been trying to figure out how money could do something about alleviating the problem in some way. And when Sam Nunn committed his time and energy and brains to NTI, I simply wanted to support him -any way that I thought money would be useful in reducing the probability of any weapons of mass destruction being used en masse against our population or other populations.
TED KOPPEL: Why do you think that is such a real problem? I have a feeling that many, if not most people in the country, think that this is an unlikely proposition at best.
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, I don't think it's that unlikely. I hope it's unlikely and I hope that we can reduce the likelihood by taking wise actions. But, but throughout man's history, there have always been people that have intended harm to their neighbors for one reason or another. They may have been psychopaths. They may have been religious fanatics. They may have megalomaniacs. They may have been Hitler in the last days or whatever. But there have always been people with the intent. Many years ago, the most they could do was throw stones and then they could use bow and arrows, but since 1945, the ability to inflict harm has increased exponentially and it's been held in check, to some degree, by the lack of knowledge of how to put these weapons together, to some extent by material problems, and some extent by deliverability. But all those things are going against us. And the world has to deal with the fact that there are, there are literally millions of people that are willing to inflict enormous harm on others and the weapons they potentially have to, to carry out those desires have, have changed by orders of magnitude since 1945.
TED KOPPEL: The issue, though, is one of accessibility. Do you believe that these terrorist organizations, for example, can gain access to nuclear weapons?
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, we hope they can't and we should do everything possible to make sure they can't. They certainly have the knowledge in many cases of what to do with the materials if they get them, although it's not easy. But they have the knowledge. And the materials are probably the critical factor. And we, and every other government in the world, should be doing everything possible to make sure that, that terrorist organizations or fanatics simply just can't put their hands on the materials because they do have the knowledge now or in certain cases they have the knowledge to translate those materials into something that can kill hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people.
TED KOPPEL: I mentioned earlier on, Warren, that during the debates, the presidential debates, this was one of the very few areas on which Senator Kerry and President Bush agreed, the danger of loose nukes. I find it almost beyond comprehension that we are, you know, spending $200 to $300 billion in Iraq, but cannot find the necessary money to do what you and, and other private citizens are attempting to do. I mean, I'm, I'm not criticizing you for doing it, it's nice that you're doing it, but why should anybody have to dip into Warren Buffet's billions, or Ted Turner's, for that matter, to do, what it would seem is in the best interests of the nation?
WARREN BUFFETT: Oh, it's a governmental function and it would be best done by government with, in cooperation with other governments, and we are spending a pittance now on the problem. You know, mankind is supposed to have the ability to think ahead and -if there's any, if there's any matter that should be thought out carefully ahead and action taken where appropriate, it's the question of loose nukes and, and the problem of more countries, for that matter, acquiring weapons. I mean, this is a more dangerous world than it was during the cold war in my view.
TED KOPPEL: I suspect if Warren Buffett picked up the phone and called the White House someone would take your call. Why, why do you think this is not being done adequately by this administration and, and quite frankly, previous administrations? I'm not singling out this one.
WARREN BUFFETT: No, I'm not singling it out, either. And, you know, I think, I think within all administrations there's a full awareness, even, of the problem, but other things are more pressing and, and, you know, it wasn't, it wasn't raining when Noah built the ark. But, and he didn't even look that smart for 39 days. But there's some things you have to think ahead on, and prevention, in this case, is, is enormously important. I mean, when you, when you think of 9/11, 3,000 people, lots of, lots of material damage, but 3,000 people, that would be a rounding error, in terms of the damage that could be done by, say, a 10 kiloton bomb in midtown Manhattan. It just, it screams for attention. But the nature of it is that other things have this day-to-day pressing demand for attention and, and this gets put aside.
TED KOPPEL: Well, business certainly, big business certainly knows how to approach subjects like this, and I'll explain what I mean in a moment when I return with Warren Buffett.
TED KOPPEL: And I'm back, once again, with Warren Buffett. Your holding company, Berkshire Hathaway, owns a number of major insurance companies. The reason I raise the insurance companies is because all of your insurance companies have very clearly stated that they're not going to insure any of us anymore, against damage at the hands of weapons of mass destruction. In other words, no bio-chemical weapons, no nuclear weapons, those just aren't even covered by the policies anymore. Am I correct?
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, we have a lot of money but we do not have enough money to pay the claims that could result from a couple of 10 kiloton bombs or, for that matter, some of the chemical or biological damage that could take place. I mean, it would not be a credible promise for us to agree to compensate for that damage because it would go beyond anything the world has ever seen.
TED KOPPEL: You are, you are well-known for your common-sense approach to complex problems and I'd like to hear then, I mean, you're not at this point donating a huge amount of money, by your terms, a few million dollars a year, I guess, but what is it you want to see happen? What, what, what, what can private citizens do? What do you think the government needs to do?
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, private citizens have to insist on their government putting this at the top of the list. And the reason I contribute to NTI is, I think that Sam Nunn, there's no one more credible, knowledgeable than Sam Nunn. But his, what he, what needs to be done is for our government, the Russian government, many other governments to take this on as the most serious problem of mankind and to listen to people like Sam Nunn. So to the extent that I can help him have a platform of sorts, I'm, I'm delighted to do it. But in the end, it's going to take governmental action.
TED KOPPEL: Warren, that's kind of begging the question, what, what can citizens do? You need to write to your congressman? To your senator?
WARREN BUFFETT: You, you certainly begin with that. You, you, if you believe, as I do, that it's the most important problem that mankind faces, you simply let the elected officials, or potential officials, know that that's your view and that you're going to judge them more on that issue than any other issue.
TED KOPPEL: There is no one here in Washington that Sam Nunn cannot reach. I mean, he was the former chairman of the Armed Services Committee, one of the – as you have said, one of the most respected men in Washington while he was here and after he left. What kind of answers is he getting when, when he – tries to make that argument to his colleagues? His former colleagues on the Hill and to folks at the White House?
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, I think, you know, I think Sam is listened to and I think that Senator Lugar, for example, is listened to, who worked with Sam on many problems. But this is not something that we want to look back on someday and say, why didn't we do this or that? Now, we can't eliminate the probabilities at all, Ted, but, but if the probability now of something really catastrophic happening is 10 percent per year, that means that in a 50 year period, it has a 99 and a half percent chance of occurring. And that's, you know, in the lifetime of, of roughly half of Americans. And 99 and a half percent chance is – is something we should work at reducing. If we can get that down to 1 percent a year, then the chances of getting through 50 years get up to 60 percent. It makes an enormous difference if we could just simply reduce the probabilities that terrorists get their hands on this, that rogue states achieve nuclear capability, that, that we protect our borders. It just has to be the top priority.
TED KOPPEL: How much money would be needed, for example, to buy up all the loose nukes that still exist in the former Soviet states?
WARREN BUFFETT: Well, I've thought about that. And, you know, we have this, under Nunn-Lugar, we have this, this program to secure and reduce the loose nukes that exist in the former Soviet Union. That would be a matter of negotiation, but I would say it would be the best money the United States government ever spent.
TED KOPPEL: Well, are we talking about, you know, tens of billions? Hundreds of billions?
WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, probably. And measure $10 or 20 or 30 billion against simply the cost of something like the World Trade Center, which, like I say, was, you know, 3,000 people against a 10 kiloton bomb taking care of, you know, maybe 500,000 people. So, it would be the bargain of all-time. It would make the Louisiana Purchase, you know, look like we overpaid.
TED KOPPEL: Warren Buffett, thanks very much, indeed. It's always a pleasure to talk to you.
WARREN BUFFETT: Thank you, Ted.
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Since the third edition of the 2016 NTI Nuclear Security Index, many countries have taken positive steps to improve their nuclear security conditions. NTI is tracking these improvements, which will be reflected in the next edition of the NTI Index.