Remarks by Sam Nunn at Nuclear Industry Summit 2016

Thank you, Marv, for that kind introduction and for your dedication to promoting safe and secure nuclear energy for the benefit of mankind for many years. We are grateful for your leadership and certainly hope that you will remain active on these issues in your well-deserved retirement. Based on my personal experience working with you, I know that you will be hard to replace—if you are really going to retire at the end of the year.

Marv asked me to begin today by giving you a political and perhaps even a psychiatric explanation of the race for president and the current political climate. I will make it very brief. Will Rogers captured it many years ago: “Politicians are like diapers. They need to be changed often and for the same reason.” As a reformed politician, I will move on to more rational subjects.

I am delighted to be with Marv, and with our friends, Jack Edlow and Dan Lipman, who have done such extraordinary work bringing this summit together, along with so many leaders in nuclear security. Your parallel Industry Summits have made clear your important commitment to play a leadership role in securing vital – and potentially extremely dangerous – materials as a major contribution to preventing catastrophic terrorism.

You are making a major contribution by:

  • Focusing on the increasing cyber threat; and
  • Sharpening the safety and the security role of the nuclear industry globally.
  • Securing nuclear and radiological materials during use, storage and transport;

We at NTI applaud your leadership. I thank you also for your plans to continue these industry summits in the future.

  • The global environment today looks more challenging than even just two years ago, when you convened in The Netherlands:
  • Relations are badly frayed between the United States and Russia, impacting security across the entire Euro-Atlantic region and elsewhere around the globe;
  • North Korea’s nuclear tests are a sobering reminder of nuclear proliferation dangers and the continued threat from irresponsible and unpredictable states with nuclear weapons;
  • Brutal attacks by ISIS and other organizations are on the rise – as evidenced by the latest tragic assaults in Brussels and Pakistan – raising the specter of catastrophic nuclear terrorism if violent extremists get control of dangerous nuclear or radiological materials.

The stakes are very high. As we all know, when it comes to nuclear security and safety, there is little margin for error, and all links must be strengthened—especially the weak ones.

Summit Accomplishments

All the news is not bleak.

President Obama deserves our thanks and congratulations for launching the summit process in 2009 and for bringing unprecedented global attention to the risks posed by poorly secured nuclear and radiological materials. By any measure, the summits have made an important contribution to global security. Nations around the world deserve credit as well—and we owe particular thanks to past Summit hosts South Korea and The Netherlands for their strong leadership role.

On the plus side:

  • In 1992, 52 countries had weapons-usable nuclear materials.
  • In 2010, the year of the first summit, that number stood at 35.
  • Just six years later, we are down to 24, as eleven more countries have eliminated their stocks of highly enriched uranium and plutonium.
  • In addition, a dozen more countries have decreased their stocks in the last four years.

Those are all very solid steps in the right direction. Each step reduces risk. Each step is important.

Many countries also have made new commitments to security, through voluntary steps like joining international anti-terrorism initiatives. For example, the international convention that mandates physical protection of nuclear facilities against sabotage and protection of nuclear materials in use, storage and during transit is getting closer to entry into force. This will address a significant gap in our global nuclear security architecture and achieve one of the summit’s goals—recognition of dangers and accountability in risk reduction.

This is a long-term and continuing battle. I fear that the pace of our progress does not match the increased threat with terrorism on the rise globally.

In January, we released the third edition of our NTI Nuclear Security Index, an assessment of nuclear security conditions across 176 countries. Our 2016 Index showed progress slowing across a number of trend lines – from the pace at which countries are eliminating their weapons-usable stocks to the steps they’re taking to secure their remaining materials.

The summits are ending but the terrorist risks are growing. We at NTI are taking on additional efforts to address radiological (dirty bomb) and cyber threats and urging governments to focus on these growing dangers.

Addressing the Cyber Threat

The cyber threat, as we all know, has expanded exponentially in recent years, with a series of damaging, high-profile attacks.

I am very pleased that you established a working group on the cyber threat in preparation for the last Industry Summit in the Netherlands and for this Industry Summit as well.  We know that neither nuclear facilities nor weapons complexes are immune from this growing danger, which is dynamic and challenging.

Our NTI Index for the first time this year examined how well governments are working to help assure protection of nuclear facilities against cyber attack. We looked at 47 countries with either weapons-usable nuclear materials or nuclear facilities where an attack could result in a radiological release with serious off-site health consequences—in some cases, on the scale of Fukushima.

We asked several broad, basic questions, including:

  • Is consideration of the cyber threat required in your overall threat assessments?
  • Do you have regulations that require civilian nuclear facilities to take steps to protect against cyber attack?

We found that nearly half of these countries don’t have any of these foundational legal and regulatory requirements in place. This does not mean that there is no protection from the cyber threat. It does, mean however, mean that there is a dangerous gap in the focus on the threat and accountability. To put it mildly, this is an area that needs work.

We at NTI are trying to bring stakeholders together to find solutions, including:

  • Working with global experts in nuclear engineering and cyber security, as well as regulators and technology developers, on an ambitious set of principles that can define “rules of the road” for protecting nuclear facilities;
  • Convening policy and military advisors to consider the implications of vulnerabilities in nuclear command-and-control systems for our nuclear policies and force posture. This is a serious and potentially deadly challenge to all nuclear weapons states. While the details are in most cases highly classified, the imperative need for attention and focus is not.
  • We’re exploring the idea of a team of cyber nuclear experts to provide assistance to nuclear facility operators around the world in the event of a problem. The response, like the threat, must be dynamic and sustainable.

The good and bad news – digital innovation moves much more quickly than government regulatory processes. That’s why a broad spectrum of stakeholders must weigh in.  I know that you have done important work in this area, and we hope that you will build on this.

Addressing Radiological Security

Another important area of concern involves radiological materials.

We call radiological a “weapon of mass disruption.” It is, of course, less catastrophic than a terrorist with a nuclear weapon – but it is a higher probability threat and the word “disruption” understates the devastating economic consequences if certain types of radiation is released. Imagine what it would mean to see Wall Street, the Port of Rotterdam or the Singapore airport become a “no-go zone” overnight and for years to come.

The good news is that leaders addressed radiological terrorism for the first time at the 2014 Summit, and 23 countries pledged to secure their most dangerous sources by the end of 2016. These countries deserve our thanks. In a new report NTI released just last week, we found that 22 of those countries have met or are on track to meet their commitment. At the same time, the 23 countries that made the pledge represent only 14 percent of IAEA Member States.

 Thousands of potentially vulnerable sources remain in hospitals, research centers and industry. Just one source in one blood irradiator in one hospital could provide enough cesium to deny access for years and do billions in damage in any major city. 

It’s not enough to add more locks or guards. Where feasible, we must replace this equipment with alternative technology that is safe, reliable and cost-effective. Some alternatives are on the market now, but we need to accelerate the development of new alternative technologies.  Governments must strengthen the regulatory framework, and we must robustly fund the IAEA in this crucial area.

Director General Amano will follow me today, and I suspect that he will agree on  IAEA funding.

NTI recently worked with advisors from a half-dozen countries and a number of international organizations, including the IAEA and the International Irradiation Association, to develop additional recommendations.  You can find them in our new Radiological Security Progress Report.

The private sector provides a vital contribution to our society by supplying essential nuclear technology for the benefit of mankind and to help treat tens of millions of patients each year. We support strengthening the role of the private sector – and very much support your efforts at the Nuclear Industry Summits to raise awareness about these threats and the vital responsibility to secure these materials.

Industry must also take steps to increase security by improving security culture, engaging in ongoing personnel training, developing systems to test security on a regular basis, and advocating best practices. Roger Howsley and the World Institute for Nuclear Security (WINS) can help in this area. In addition, liability and insurance gaps must be carefully reviewed by those possessing radiological sources with exposure to high risk.

I am very pleased that Atlanta’s Emory Hospital will receive an award tomorrow for helping to lead the way on this important work. Emory recently replaced a blood irradiator that contained Cesium-137, a long-lasting radiological source that could be used to build a dirty bomb.

Emory will use an FDA-approved alternative technology that is commercially available and greatly reduces the public security risk and the liability risk to the hospital. Patty Olinger, who is here today, and Emory’s team deserve credit for what I would call a win all the way around – and I encourage more hospitals and research centers to follow Emory’s example.

The 23 countries that signed on to the radiological security commitment in 2014 are to be commended – and all countries must follow suit.

The Need for Global – and U.S.-Russia – Cooperation

Finally, these are global threats.

On a range of issues involving nuclear and radiological security, participation and cooperation among all governments is crucial because a terrorist act involving these materials anywhere in the world will affect us all.

The United States and Russia – which hold the vast majority of nuclear weapons and materials – have a special responsibility to lead. So it is particularly dangerous that relations between our countries have become so negative at a time when terrorist threats are growing.

For more than two decades after the Cold War, the U.S. and Russia partnered to secure and eliminate dangerous nuclear materials – not as a favor to one another but as a common-sense commitment, born of mutual self-interest, to protect against catastrophic nuclear terrorism.

Unfortunately, this common-sense cooperation has become the latest casualty of the spiraling crisis in relations among the United States, Europe and Russia. It is abundantly clear that unless we change course together, we risk leaving behind a more dangerous world for our children and our grandchildren.

I also believe that rebuilding that trust is possible – step-by-step, by solving problems and reducing risks together. There are many challenges ahead, including finding ways to step back from another costly and dangerous arms race. In the immediate future, both the United States and Russia certainly should be able to agree that the threat posed by terrorist organizations affects the core national interests of our two countries.

Although Russia is not participating in this last Nuclear Security Summit, they are here as observers and they deserve praise for cooperating with us on nuclear security over the last 20 years, particularly on securing and eliminating nuclear material globally.

I recently suggested in both Moscow and Washington that President Obama and President Putin should announce a joint working group focusing of the terrorist threat. This group would include our Energy departments, Intelligence agencies, and Defense departments with a clear goal to prevent ISIS, al Qaeda or any other violent extremist group from getting possession of nuclear, radiological, chemical or biological weapons or materials. There is ample authority under UN resolutions for United States-Russia leadership.

No, this does not solve all the problems of Euro-Atlantic security or the Middle East, but it could avoid possible catastrophe while we work on them.

My final point: The progress made through the Nuclear Security Summits and through your Nuclear Industry Summits shows what can be done when governments work together and when they work closely with the private sector.

We are in race between cooperation and catastrophe. We must run faster. I am confident with your help and commitment, we will.

Thank you.


March 30, 2016

NTI CEO and former Senator Sam Nunn delivered remarks at the Nuclear Industry Summit on March 30, 2016. Sen. Nunn spoke on the importance of sustaining the progress made over the last eight years of the Nuclear Security Summits, and called on the United States and Russia to work together to keep nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons out of terrorist hands.

Sam Nunn
Sam Nunn

Co-Chair, NTI