Atomic Pulse

Sam Nunn on the Urgent Nuclear Security Issues Facing the Next U.S. President

Senator, you and Adm. Mike Mullen, who was the top military adviser to
presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, recently served as co-chairs of a
Council on Foreign Relations-sponsored Independent Task Force on U.S. Policy
Toward North Korea. How would you recommend the new administration handle North
Korea’s clear determination to continue accelerating its nuclear and missile

Unfortunately, multiple U.S. administrations have failed in
their efforts to stop or stall North Korea’s nuclear ambitions – and I think
it’s now likely that our next president will face a North Korea with the
capability to strike the United States with nuclear weapons.

Given that reality, it’s imperative that addressing the
North Korean threat be a ‘front-burner” issue for the United States. We must
involve China, which can help get North Korea back to the negotiating table by
working with the U.S., South Korea, Japan and Russia on diplomatic and economic
approaches that will help restart negotiations.

Our report also recommended that:

  • New and genuine incentives be offered to North
    Korea to participate in substantive talks. Talks would include the possibility
    of a comprehensive deal in which North Korea, South Korea and the United States
    – with support from China – sign a peace agreement that finally and officially
    ends the Korean War and gradually normalizes relations in exchange for complete
    nuclear disarmament and progress on human rights.
  • New multi-national steps to increase economic
    sanctions that more severely restrict North Korea’s funding sources. Unfortunately, current enforcement of the sanctions is far too lax.
  • And finally, we should expand U.S.-South
    Korea-Japan cooperation to strengthen joint deterrence capabilities on the
    Korean Peninsula, enforce the sanctions and impede North Korea’s missile

I think our next president must be clear that we are seeking
to promote peace, not conflict, and that our goal is a stable and nuclear-free
Korean Peninsula. At the same time, our approach to Pyongyang must be sharper.
We should offer greater benefits for cooperation but at the same time promise
greater costs for continue defiance.

What about our deteriorating relationship with Russia? It’s clear that relations
are at their lowest point since the Cold War ended and getting closer to a
crisis point every day.

I think that’s right. We face an increasingly dangerous
situation that the new administration is going to have to confront right away.  The U.S. and Russian military forces are
operating in close proximity in both Syria and Europe without adequate
military-to-military communications.

My view is that we have less danger of an all-out war with
Russia than we did with the Soviet Union, less chance of escalation from a
conflict like the Cuban Missile Crisis. But after years of provocations, the
relationship today is increasingly poisonous, and I believe there’s a greater
danger of some type of accident, miscalculation or false warning that prompts
retaliation, cyber interference, or some other potentially catastrophic event.

I hope our new president will work with Russia to restart
some of the types of communication on nuclear weapons that got us through the
Cold War. The United States and Russia simply cannot afford to treat dialogue
on nuclear security issues as a bargaining chip when together they hold more
than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons and weapons-usable nuclear

Most urgently, I think, the White House and the Kremlin must
recognize that we have a common goal – to ensure that neither the Islamic State
nor any other violent extremist group gets their hands on nuclear, radiological
or other weapons of mass destruction. We simply have to work together to
prevent catastrophic nuclear terrorism
, which obviously poses a threat to both
our countries and to the world. 

Another area that’s getting increased attention is the cyber threat –
both to nuclear facilities and to command and control. Is that something that
should be on the next president’s list of top security priorities?

Absolutely. At this point, I think we’ve all been victimized
at some level by cyber hackers who have gone after companies from Target to
Sony to Blue Cross, as well as banks and credit card companies. But imagine if
there was a cyber attack on a nuclear facility. Imagine if terrorists gained
the cyber skills to facilitate the theft of nuclear bomb-making materials or to
sabotage a plant and cause the release of dangerous levels of radiation. The
consequences could be catastrophic.

Now, a great deal of very good work is being done in
government and industry to evaluate and address this growing threat – but we
need an all-out effort to outpace it. This is a rapidly evolving global threat
and we have to make it a top priority and get out ahead of it.  

At NTI, we’ve got a couple of projects underway to address
the threat both to nuclear power facilities and to weapon command and control
systems. On the nuclear facilities front, we’re working with a diverse group of
international experts to develop some forward-leaning recommendations and we
look forward to releasing them soon. 

North Korea, Russia/Euro-Atlantic security, and cyber threats. That’s
an ambitious and very challenging list for the new president. Anything else you
would add?

Well, I certainly hope the new administration will press
ahead on the progress made in securing weapons-usable nuclear materials through
four Nuclear Security Summits.

I’d also like to see the radiological “dirty bomb” threat
more seriously addressed by global leaders, including in the United States. That’s
another bridge that could be built with Russia. Our intelligence and energy
agencies ought to be working together, sharing information, to make sure no
extremist group gets a hold of radiological material. Some of the most
dangerous material can be found in hospitals, and we have to stop it from being
stolen and used to build a bomb that could spread radiation and contaminate a
section of a city for years or decades to come.

The last issue I’ll mention is getting weapons off what I
call “hair-trigger” alert. This is a vestige of the Cold War, that U.S. and
Russian weapons can be fired with dangerously little time for consideration. The
United States and Russia ought to work together to increase the warning time for
leaders and take as many weapons as possible off of prompt launch – especially
in a new digital age where a false warning of attack could be deliberately
issued by a cyber hacker.

So that’s a long and daunting list for any president – but I
am confident it’s possible to make important progress on these issues. We have
done it before, and I feel sure we can do it today if we give nuclear threats
the priority they deserve.


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