Unite against the gravest threat: Nuclear terrorism

The gravest danger in the world today is the threat from nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and terrorists are the people most likely to use these weapons. When the leaders of the Group of Eight nations sit down together next week in Evian, France, and talk for the first time since the war in Iraq bitterly divided them, they must address this danger in a manner they can all support.

Preventing the spread and use of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons should be the central organizing security principle for the 21st century.

Announcements made at the G-8 meeting last year in Canada suggest our leaders understand this. They established the G-8 Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction, pledged $20 billion over 10 years to the task, and declared: "We commit ourselves to prevent terrorists, or those that harbor them, from acquiring or developing nuclear, chemical, radiological and biological weapons." On May 12, the same day 34 people were killed in a terrorist strike targeting Westerners in Saudi Arabia, more than 50 people were killed in a terrorist strike in Chechnya. The massive blast from the bomb in Chechnya destroyed three government buildings and was judged to have the power of one ton of TNT. Even a crude nuclear weapon would be 10,000 times stronger.

So far terrorists have failed to acquire the fissile materials necessary to make nuclear weapons. Yet tons of poorly secured plutonium and highly enriched uranium the raw materials of nuclear terrorism are spread around the world. While much progress has been made over the last decade toward securing this material, we have not yet begun work to secure more than 120 metric tons of plutonium and highly enriched uranium in the former Soviet Union enough to make thousands of nuclear weapons. In addition, there are more than 130 nuclear research reactors in more than 40 countries fueled with highly enriched uranium.

The effort last summer by Yugoslavia, Russia and the United States to remove two and a half bombs worth of at-risk nuclear weapons materials from Belgrade showed the way. The State Department and the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy, which have announced that removing nuclear material is a top priority for both countries, have identified more than 20 other facilities with such material that urgently needs to be removed and secured. Yet in the year since the G-8 meeting in Canada, not a single kilogram of material has been taken from the other unsecured sites. Our leaders must ask why not.

The chain of global security is only as strong as its weakest link. That is why the fight against terrorism must be global and why it must be undertaken with force and speed.

It is urgent that the G-8 leaders announce what countries are committing how much money and by when; appoint a high-level person in each government to be responsible for programs to combat catastrophic terrorism; establish what materials are most vulnerable where and develop a timetable for securing all of them; and agree that the $20 billion pledged over 10 years is a floor, not a ceiling. (If analysts from other planets were to infer our security priorities from our budget priorities, they would conclude that preventing a terrorist strike with weapons of mass destruction was a low priority, not a high one.)

This worldwide task cannot be completed by one nation or eight nations. It needs all nations. If G-8 leaders do not turn their pledges into concrete actions and resources and give real substance to a global partnership to keep weapons of mass destruction out of terrorist hands, history will judge them harshly.

On the other hand, if the nations of the world share intelligence, track terrorists, intercept communications, dry up sources of terrorists' revenue and most importantly secure all weapons and materials everywhere, now, our sons and daughters have a good chance to survive this age of terror and build a better, safer world for their own children.

The writer represented Georgia from 1972 to 1996 in the Senate, where he served as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He is co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a charitable organization working to reducing global threats from nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

May 28, 2003

In an op-ed published in The International Herald Tribune, Sam Nunn urges the G8 leaders to give top priority to preventing the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons when they meet at the summit in Evian, France.

Sam Nunn
Sam Nunn

Co-Chair, NTI