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NTI at 20: Ted Turner on Tackling Nuclear Security

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Twenty years ago, media magnate, sportsman, and environmentalist Ted Turner decided he wanted to direct some of his philanthropy toward ridding the world of nuclear weapons. He partnered with former Senator Sam Nunn, and the Nuclear Threat Initiative was born. Today, they continue to serve as co-chairs of NTI, along with CEO Ernest J. Moniz.

Over the course of this year, as NTI marks its 20th anniversary, our experts will share some reflections on two decades of working to build a safer world. Today, we hear from Turner, one of the world’s most ambitious and visionary leaders and a driving force behind NTI’s mission.

You have never shied away from tackling the world’s biggest challenges, from climate change to population growth to global health care. Why nuclear weapons?

I would like to see humanity make it. It’s that simple. I’m concerned that humanity will not make it past the next 50 years. But if we can somehow control weapons of mass destruction and not destroy ourselves and commit global suicide, we will make it.

How did you think an organization like NTI could make a difference?

As I’ve said many times, I advocate the complete elimination of all weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, as quickly as possible. If fewer is better, then zero is best. But I also appreciate Sam’s approach of taking pragmatic and effective steps to reduce the threat of weapons of mass destruction as comprehensively and as urgently as possible. When we started NTI, we didn’t need to develop consensus on weapons elimination to develop a common purpose to make step-by-step progress on diminishing the threat of nuclear weapons.

We’ve worked hard to reduce the nuclear threat by supporting efforts to secure nuclear materials, reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world, and identify strategies to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons, prevent their spread and ultimately end them as a threat to the world. That’s what NTI has been doing – and doing remarkably well – for 20 years now.

What do you see as the greatest nuclear threat today?

The greatest single danger is probably the thousands of nuclear missiles that the U.S. and Russia have on hair trigger alert. Here we are, 30 years after the end of the Cold War, and these weapons are still on hair trigger alert, with only a couple of minutes of response time available to the presidents of the two countries to avert nuclear war. If they get launched accidentally, or if relations between our countries deteriorate to a point where we have a war that goes nuclear, that’s the end of humanity. There is so much fire power in those arsenals, it’s enough to basically set the world on fire. And it could happen at any moment because they’re still on hair trigger alert.

In many ways, though, the threat has become more complex and dangerous, and it’s hard to pinpoint a single most dangerous risk when it comes to nuclear weapons. In addition to the risk of a nuclear exchange, we continue to have serious and urgent concerns about the security of weapons and bomb-making materials. Nuclear terrorism is a major concern. The fact is nuclear deterrence doesn’t work in a world where nuclear terrorism is a greater risk than a nuclear exchange between countries. Terrorism is the game changer for all countries.

Do you think it ever will be possible to eliminate all nuclear weapons from the face of the earth?

Just because something is hard is not a reason to sit on our hands and do nothing.

Nuclear security is something we should all be concerned about because the threat is still very real. We must demand greater attention from our leaders, and our leaders must be bold in taking action.

The bottom line is that we’ve got to start acting globally like civilized, educated, decent, kind-hearted human beings, and we have to trust each other. We have no choice but to trust each other. We can’t live in a world where nobody trusts anybody because then we’ll never make progress with these weapons or with anything else.

Do you feel optimistic?

Always! Progress is being made, but we have more work to do.

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