Washington, 6 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Former Democratic Senator Sam Nunn said he didn't want to dwell on predictions of impending doom. But he stressed that the United States and Russia will become vulnerable to nuclear terrorism if they don't focus on securing their arsenals.
"First, the good new is that we are making progress. The bad news is that we are doing too little and moving much too slowly. Less nuclear material was secured in 2004 than in 2003. But on the good news side, a substantial increase is predicted by the [U.S.] Department of Energy in the year 2005," Nunn said.
"If we make a maximum effort, we can really reduce the threat of what for all the world would be a nuclear nightmare. We can't wait any longer. The time to act is now." - Kean
Nunn is probably best-known outside the United States for his collaboration with Republican Senator Richard Lugar in setting up a program that has helped Russia and several other former Soviet states secure and destroy surplus nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.
Also participating in the news conference, through a telephone connection, was Thomas Kean, the co-chairman of the presidential commission that investigated the attacks of 11 September 2001. Kean said his panel is continuing to look at ways to prevent terrorism by foreign militants, especially attacks involving nuclear material. He told the briefing that securing nuclear substances is feasible, as long as Washington and Moscow have the will to do so.
"We know where these materials are. We know how to protect them. If we make a maximum effort, we can really reduce the threat of what for all the world would be a nuclear nightmare. We can't wait any longer. The time to act is now," Kean said.
Also participating were Anthony Wier and Matthew Bunn, who wrote a report for Harvard University's Managing the Atom Project. The document outlines the progress made so far in securing nuclear material and offers recommendations for further efforts.
Like Nunn, Weir said the news isn't all grim, but he noted there are different ways to look at areas of progress, particularly in Russia. "Even though, say, three-quarters of the sites in Russia that contain nuclear material have been put under security upgrades that the U.S. has paid for, only 26 percent of the material has actually been put under those upgrades," he said.
Weir said it is not enough for the Russian government to accept financial aid from the United States under the Nunn-Lugar initiative. Russia itself must follow up, or the money will be meaningless. "We can install the equipment, but even after that equipment is installed in Russia, Russian guards still have to maintain it, they still have to keep that security equipment on, and they still have to do their job afterwards," he said. "And so these measures, even if we got all the way to the end of this, we couldn't fairly say that the job was done. Russia still has to step up and maintain that security. And we have to work with the Russians to make sure that that equipment is maintained."
For his part, Bunn said Bush and Putin hold the keys to accelerating the safeguarding of nuclear material. First, he said, Putin does not need legislative approval to keep Russia's arsenal secure. And he said Bush should take advantage of his close relationship with Putin to urge the Russian leader to do so.
Bunn also said security will be impossible unless the United States elevates the relationships it has with Russia and other nuclear-enabled countries so they don't feel like America's client states -- and become more vulnerable to nuclear theft.
Bunn said Pakistan's arrest of suspected Al-Qaeda operative Abu Farraj al-Libbi, announced on 4 May, highlights that vulnerability. He said two assassination attempts against Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, are believed to have been orchestrated by al-Libbi, with the collaboration of some Pakistani Army officers.
The plotters are believed to have targeted Musharraf because the Pakistani president is seen as a tool of the United States. Bunn said the same line of thought makes Pakistan's nuclear arsenal very attractive to terrorists. "We now have, of course, documented evidence that senior nuclear insiders in Pakistan are willing to sell practically anything to practically anybody," Bunn said.
Former Senator Nunn said the issue can be addressed only if Bush and Putin make it a major priority. Nunn says he hopes the two leaders address the issue when they meet in Russia this weekend.