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 programs?

Given that reality, it’s imperative that addressing the North Korean threatbe 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 programs.

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 materials.

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 underwayto 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 materialsthrough 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.

Mimi Hall, Senior Director for Content

The interview was originally published on the website of theNuclear Threat Initiative.