Senator Nunn Testifies Before House Committee on Foreign Affairs on Nuclear Weapons Policy

Senator Nunn Testifies Before House Committee on Foreign Affairs on Nuclear Weapons Policy

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Former Senator Sam Nunn
Co-Chairman, Nuclear Threat Initiative
Statement on Nuclear Weapons Policy
House Committee on Foreign Affairs

Chairman Lantos, it is a mark of America’s good fortune that you now chair this important committee. Through your personal experience and your policy knowledge, you know personally what it means to face dire threats. I commend you, Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen and the Committee for your efforts to reduce nuclear threats to our nation and the world.

I thank the Committee for the opportunity to discuss U.S. nuclear weapons policy with you today.

In 1948, at the dawn of the nuclear age, General Omar Bradley said, “The world has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living.”

If he were alive today, it might surprise General Bradley to know that we have made it 62 years since Hiroshima and Nagasaki without the use of a nuclear weapon. But that fact should not give us a false sense of confidence that we will make it the next 62, or even the next 20 years.

We do have important preventive efforts underway — including the Nunn-Lugar threat reduction programs, the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, the G8 Global Partnership, the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, the Proliferation Security Initiative, the rollback of Libya’s nuclear program and UN Resolution 1540.

President Bush has said we should do “everything in our power” to keep nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons out of terrorist hands. The 9/11 Commission called for a “maximum effort” to prevent terrorists from acquiring weapons of mass destruction.

I welcome these urgent words, but by any threat-based measure, our words far exceed our actions.

In my view, the risk of a nuclear weapon being used today is growing, not receding.

  • Countries like North Korea and Iran have defied international will by developing nuclear weapons technology and – in the case of North Korea – nuclear weapons.
  • A number of additional countries are considering developing the capacity to enrich uranium to use as fuel for nuclear energy – giving them greater capacity to move quickly to a nuclear weapons program if they choose to do so.
  • Stockpiles of loosely guarded nuclear weapons materials are scattered around the world, offering inviting targets for theft or sale. We are working on this, but I believe that the threat is outrunning our response.
  • Because of an explosion of knowledge and information throughout the world, the know-how and expertise to build nuclear weapons is far more available.
  • Terrorists are seeking nuclear weapons for the same reasons terrorists seized airplanes on 9/11 – to use them to inflict on the world the greatest possible human suffering, economic loss, and geopolitical chaos.
  • Some nations that have had nuclear weapons since the signing of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) are increasing their reliance on nuclear weapons.
  • Some nations that have gained nuclear weapons outside of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty seek to legitimize their nuclear status.
  • Both the United States and Russia still deploy thousands of nuclear warheads on ballistic missiles that can hit their targets in less than 30 minutes – a "hair-trigger" prompt launch capability that increases the risk of an accidental, mistaken or unauthorized nuclear missile launch. We have no transparency or accountability for tactical, battlefield nuclear weapons – a terrorist’s dream.

In light of these rising threats, and with eroding confidence in deterrence as we have known it, George Shultz, Bill Perry, Henry Kissinger and I published an article in January in The Wall Street Journal. We called on the United States to lead the world in a new direction: reversing reliance on nuclear weapons globally, preventing the spread of these weapons, and ultimately ending them as a threat to the world.

Those of us who wrote and endorsed The Wall Street Journal piece believe that in order to deal effectively with this new and dangerous era, the United States and the international community must reaffirm the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons enshrined in the NPT and pursue crucial actions toward achieving that goal and reducing nuclear dangers. We believe that without the bold vision, the actions will not be perceived as fair or urgent. Without the actions, the vision will not be perceived as realistic or possible. This is a step-by-step process. It is not unilateral, but it must have leadership, and it must begin.

Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, we recommend the following specific steps:

  1. We must secure nuclear weapons and materials around the world to the highest standards.
  2. We should eliminate short-range “tactical” nuclear weapons, the bombs most likely to be targeted for theft or purchase by terrorists. In my view, we should start with transparency and accountability of these weapons between the United States and Russia.
  3. Nuclear weapons, deployed and stockpiled, should be reduced substantially in all states that possess them.
  4. We must redouble efforts to resolve regional confrontations and conflicts. This will not be easy, but it is essential if we are to reduce incentives for acquiring nuclear weapons in places like the Middle East, southwest Asia and the Korean peninsula.
  5. We should work to bring the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty into force – in the United States and in other key states. I believe that we should use the report by former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Shalikashvili and the safeguards that he recommends as a roadmap to ratification here at home. To the world, this would be a positive sign and would help restore America’s credibility in this arena.
  6. The United States and Russia should move to change the Cold War posture of their deployed nuclear weapons to greatly increase warning time in both countries and ease our fingers away from the nuclear trigger.

    1. I would note that former President Gorbachev, who has recently published his own essay in support of our Wall Street Journal piece, has also advocated these two steps I just mentioned: ratification of the CTBT and removing nuclear weapons from hair-trigger alert. I believe that the world should take up President Gorbachev’s challenge.
    2. To remove our nuclear weapons from hair-trigger alert, I urge the two Presidents to order the military and defense officials of each country to present to them a set of options to increase warning time on both sides.
    3. These officials should jointly determine which threats might justify keeping thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger status, and then recommend steps to eliminate those threats and thus end the justification. The Presidents, in close consultation with the Congress and the Duma, should then jointly adopt an approach and a timetable to get the job done, and challenge other nuclear nations to follow this lead.
    4. Each day we should ask ourselves: “Is it in the United States’ national security interest for the President of Russia to have only a few minutes to decide whether to fire his nuclear weapons or lose them in response to what could be a false warning?” I would hope that this question would be asked in reverse in Russia and that we would begin to ask it together.
  7. We must enhance our verification policies and technology, once again restoring and elevating President Reagan’s maxim of “trust but verify” as an essential component of our national security policy. In my view, we should put at least as much effort into verification as we do into missile defense.
  8. Finally, we must get control of the uranium enrichment process for civil nuclear fuel production, halt the production of fissile material for weapons and phase out the use of highly enriched uranium in civil commerce.

Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, as you know, today — around the world – there is a rising interest in using nuclear power to generate electricity. Experts have predicted that energy demand will grow by 50 percent in the next 20 years, even more in developing countries. As energy needs rise, as the pace of global warming increases, nations will look more and more to nuclear power.

Right now, there are 435 nuclear power plants operating in 30 countries. An additional 28 are under construction, and more than 200 are planned or proposed. I am a strong supporter of nuclear power, but we cannot ignore the security challenge: how can we spread nuclear power without also spreading nuclear weapons capabilities? This is a pivotal question of global security in the 21st century.

As this Committee knows, the process by which one can enrich uranium to make nuclear fuel is the same process by which one can enrich uranium to make weapons-usable nuclear material. The more uranium enrichment and reprocessing facilities there are in the world – and the more countries that house these facilities – the more likely it is that the number of nuclear weapons states will increase, and the more likely it is that weapons-usable material will find its way into the hands of terrorists.

It is therefore profoundly in our national security interests to give countries every incentive to import low-enriched nuclear fuel from one of the current global suppliers, rather than to build their own fuel cycle facilities. A country’s decision to rely on imported fuel may pivot on one point: whether there is a mechanism that guarantees an assured international supply of nuclear fuel on a non-discriminatory, nonpolitical basis to states that are meeting their nonproliferation obligations.

That is why, last September in Vienna, on behalf of the Nuclear Threat Initiative and with the financial backing of Warren Buffett, I advanced a proposal for establishing an international fuel bank – as a last-resort fuel reserve for nations that choose to develop their nuclear energy based on foreign sources of fuel supply services. This NTI proposal is contingent on other countries matching our $50 million pledge with an additional $100 million for start-up costs.

Mr. Chairman, you have sponsored legislation here in the House that commits the United States to a lead role in establishing this fuel reserve. I commend you for your vision and your actions.

As you know, the NTI-Buffett fuel bank is one of several proposals now being made to discourage the building of more enrichment facilities by assuring the supply of nuclear fuel. The good news: these approaches do not compete with each other; they complement each other. Together, they amount to a progressively phased approach. The first tier, of course, is the international market for nuclear fuel services.

As a second tier, the six major international fuel suppliers – the United Kingdom, the United States, Russia, Germany, France, and the Netherlands – have a plan to provide reinforcing fuel supply assurances and to create national enriched uranium reserves. As a companion initiative, Russia has also proposed the establishment of a series of international fuel centers, the first of which is to be located at Angarsk, Siberia. Kazakhstan has announced its intention to participate in the creation of this International Uranium Enrichment Center.

The international fuel bank that NTI has proposed would be a final tier, backing up and reinforcing these other mechanisms. It will not be managed by the United States or Russia or any of the six supplier states, but by the International Atomic Energy Agency. To provide the greatest assurance, we suggest that the stockpile be housed outside the six supplier countries.

Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, I have been gratified that since I announced the NTI offer last September in Vienna, the subject of fuel assurances and avoiding the spread of enrichment has moved to the front burner. IAEA Director General ElBaradei and his team are working these issues with energy and enthusiasm, and they will make a report to the IAEA in June, with decisions expected this September. We at NTI believe that our proposal – which is designed to be the last-resort assurance—has the best opportunity of being the first tier to become a reality. If that proves to be the case, it will hopefully serve as a catalyst for the other assurance tiers.

There are obvious risks and sensitivities and possible roadblocks to this and other proposals actually being put in place. Global cooperation on nuclear security is being strained and seriously tested today by mounting tensions over the three areas of consensus and commitment that created the NPT and have held it together for nearly 40 years.

1. The commitment of nuclear weapons states to make progress toward nuclear disarmament.

2. The commitment of non-nuclear weapons states to forego nuclear weapons.

3. The commitment of all nations to ensure NPT compliant member states access to nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.

All three of these “legs of the stool” are being eroded. Many countries – including a number of our key friends and allies – are adamant that they will not approve or participate in any international program that divides the world de jure into have and have-not enrichers, as the NPT divides the world into have and have-not weapons states. The theory of the NPT was that this nuclear weapons divide would go away, but it has not, and many around the globe believe that it will not.

We do not see an IAEA fuel bank as abridging sovereign rights or requiring a potential user to forswear or forsake their future ability to enrich uranium. We must make it clear that access to the fuel reserve does not require beneficiaries to limit or abridge their sovereign rights to technology under Article IV of the NPT. On the other hand, we must not lose touch with our fundamental assumption and essential objective in establishing such a reserve. A nation choosing to develop its own enrichment capacity would not need to depend on a fuel bank, and it would be inconsistent with our purpose for enriching nations to become the beneficiaries of this proposal. The IAEA will have to work this out carefully and sensitively. To me, the bottom line is that eligibility for the fuel bank should be judged by current capabilities, rather than a forswearing of sovereign rights. This bank is also not intended to offer a substitute to the generally reliable international fuel market or to compete with current fuel service suppliers.

Rather, we see this fuel bank as an incentive to bolster national decisions to rely on international fuel markets in pursuing nuclear energy. The IAEA will need to design decision-making techniques that reinforce the transparent and nondiscriminatory character this bank will require. The IAEA fuel bank will need to be small enough to reflect the anticipated rarity of its use but large enough to provide reliable back-up assurance for potential users. The diversity of potential users argues against storing actual fabricated fuel, which is reactor-specific, in favor of storing low enriched uranium in the most flexible form of uranium hexafluoride.

The NTI version is a last-resort fuel bank, but Mr. Chairman, by moving it to reality, as you propose to do by sponsoring this legislation, I believe that you will generate the action and momentum that will move the other assurances into place as well. These assurance tiers are mutually compatible and complementary, but we believe none of the tiers will be fully credible without the final tier of an IAEA-custody reserve.

The idea of an international framework for enrichment services has been circulating since the 1970s, but for decades nothing has been done. Sometimes people and nations need to see action, before they take action. Mr. Chairman, I hope that you can find a way to pass this legislation out of the House this summer – to show U.S. leadership to slow the spread of fuel cycle facilities in the world.

One more important point on this legislation, if I may, Mr. Chairman. I understand the urge in Congress to place conditions on this legislation, so that we’re sure that we are enabling the right countries with this initiative. However, I urge you to give the President and the Secretaries of Energy and State latitude to negotiate terms and conditions acceptable to the international community. The U.S. can and must lead. But, if the legislation places too many constraints on the IAEA fuel bank, it will not become a reality – and the goal of giving nations a more secure alternative to indigenous fuel cycle facilities will be lost.

Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, this fuel bank initiative – and the effort to gain control of the uranium enrichment process – is one of the key steps we authors of the Wall Street Journal piece endorse in order to make the world safer in the short and long-term.

But these steps must go together with a parallel vision.

We cannot defend America without taking these actions; we cannot take these actions without the cooperation of other nations; we cannot get the cooperation of other nations without embracing the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons – which every president from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush has reaffirmed through our nation’s commitment to Article VI of the Nonproliferation Treaty.

This cannot happen overnight. It will be a long process, done in stages. The United States must have its nuclear weapons as long as any other nations do. But we will be safer, and the world will be safer, if we are working toward the goal of deemphasizing nuclear weapons and ultimately ridding our world of them.

To me, the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons is like the peak of a very tall mountain. It’s tempting and easy to say: “We can’t get there from here.” Today, we can’t see the top of the mountain, but we can see that we’re headed down instead of up. We can see that more countries enriching and reprocessing creates great dangers. We can see that unsecured nuclear materials around the globe are an invitation for catastrophic terrorism. We can see that our current policy is not working well. We can see that we must change direction and find trails and pathways that lead upward. We can see that we must seek higher ground. We can see that we can’t do it all at once and that we can’t do it alone. We can see that we have to build confidence and set an example if others are going to move with us to higher ground.

This is a pivotal moment for our country and the world. It’s time to turn around, change direction, and head for the mountaintop. We owe it to our children and grandchildren.


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The 2023 NTI Nuclear Security Index


The 2023 NTI Nuclear Security Index

“The bottom line is that the countries and areas with the greatest responsibility for protecting the world from a catastrophic act of nuclear terrorism are derelict in their duty,” the 2023 NTI Index reports.


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