Our global nuclear nightmare is back in the news, Page 1 and prime time.
And here’s what is most frightening: America’s leading experts, former Sens. Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, the bipartisan partners who led the world’s quarter-century battle to keep loose nukes and nuclear fuel out of terrorist hands — and repeatedly warned us to do more or we’d someday regret it! — have never looked more prophetic.
This week, as the world’s leaders convened in Washington for the final Nuclear Security Summit of Barack Obama’s presidency, they spent days pouring over a literally terrifying choice of news articles and expert reports:
NEWSBREAK: The New York Times reported that “tons of materials that terrorists could use to make small nuclear devices or dirty bombs remain deeply vulnerable to theft” despite U.S.-led efforts to safeguard them.
EXPERT REPORT: “Preventing Dirty Bombs, Fighting Weapons of Mass Disruption.” A report by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a group founded by Nunn and philanthropist Ted Turner in early 2001 to monitor security of the world’s weapons of mass destruction, warned that the probability of terrorists exploding a dirty bomb with those materials was “much higher than that of an improvised nuclear device.” (A dirty bomb is an ordinary explosive, packed with radioactive material that scatters when detonated and contaminates large areas.)
NEWSBREAK: Many news organizations reported Belgian officials’ fears their nuclear plants are vulnerable after terrorists attacked their airport and subway. Worse yet: For years, Belgians knew they had security lapses; yet they guarded their nuclear plants only with private rent-a-cops until this year.
In 2014, a saboteur turned a valve in Belgium’s Doel nuclear plant, draining 65,000 liters of oil; the turbines overheated and shut down for five months. It gets worse: Two years earlier, two workers at the same plant quit, went to Syria and fought in an Islamic State brigade alongside dozens from Belgium, including Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who led the Paris attacks.
There were a number of other nuclear facility security lapses:
—This year, the computer system of the Belgian nuclear agency was hacked and had to briefly shut down.
—In 2015, Belgians raided the apartment of a suspect tied to the Paris terrorists — and discovered videos of a senior official of a Belgian nuclear facility.
—In 2013, at the Belgian research reactor in the city of Mol, two people climbed over facility’s fence, broke into a lab and stole equipment.
It was back in 1991 when Nunn, a Georgia Democrat, discovered the Soviet breakup meant Russia’s nuclear arsenal could be poorly secured, he teamed up with Lugar, the Indiana Republican. Their Comprehensive Threat Reduction Act (best known as the Nunn-Lugar program) funded efforts to secure Soviet nukes and other arsenals around the world so terrorists could not get them. When Nunn and Turner formed their Nuclear Threat Initiative, I called Nunn and said I wanted to write a book and work on a TV documentary about the danger of terrorists getting some of the world’s loose nukes. We figured our big problem would be convincing Americans it can happen here — but after Sept. 11 of that year, that was no longer our problem. “Avoiding Armageddon,” the book and PBS documentary series (I was managing editor; someone named Walter Cronkite was the narrator) recounted global security tales, beginning with a Russian nuclear thief who got away with stealing nuclear material — until he tried to sell it. It also detailed nuclear facility security problems and how to fix them. I never expected I’d be writing about identical security failures in 2016.
A decade ago, Lugar became a de facto mentor to a young freshman senator from Illinois. That was how Obama became a big believer in the Nunn-Lugar program that’s still safeguarding the world’s most vulnerable nukes. His belief in that program was one factor that seduced the Nobel folks (in a moment of embarrassingly prematurely adulation) to award its prize to Obama in the first year of his presidency.
And that brings up one final point:
Oslo, we have a problem: Nunn and Lugar have never been properly thanked by the world they helped rescue from potential nuclear catastrophe. But this October, at award time, the Nobel Peace Prize committee can finally make things right.
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Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at [email protected]