A Nuclear Nightmare

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It isn't often that a single Senate subcommittee hearing puts on the table a half-dozen nightmarish scenarios that hardly anyone in Washington is worrying about.

Or, when it does, that hardly anyone pays attention.

But that is what quietly unfolded when former Sen. Sam Nunn, the Georgia Democrat, recently appeared for just over an hour before the Senate Armed Services subcommittee.

Nunn, now 68, left the Senate more than a decade ago and has been largely absent from the Washington scene since. But he returned a couple of weeks ago to brief his former colleagues on the progress the U.S. and Russia have been making on ridding the world of old, obsolete and unneeded nuclear warheads — a project Nunn conceived at the end of the Cold War with Indiana republican Richard Lugar and has in many ways become his life's work. Since then, the Nunn-Lugar program has dismantled and destroyed more nuclear weapons than are in the combined arsenals of China, France and Great Britain.

Still, Nunn's progress report was bleak, and that was only half of it.

He gave the U.S. and Russia a score of 5 out of 10 on making progress in eliminating nuclear materials. He said that as other nations become nuclear capable, the number drops. Progress on rounding up loose, radiological matter — non-weapons-grade material that is the stuff of dirty bombs — is even worse. He said the score drops to 4 out of 10 when it comes to destroying chemical weapons. (He happily noted that Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Belarus all destroyed their stockpiles.)

He said Moscow and Washington were much further behind in jointly working to eliminate biological weapons from their arsenals. The Russians, he explained, are not cooperating on that front and security in other nations is even harder to guarantee. On that score, he said, "I'd say we were about 1 out of 10."

But what seemed to worry Nunn most was not materials at large but procedures on the books — and specifically, the rusty warning mechanisms both nations once kept well-polished and oiled in case of an accidental nuclear launch. Nunn worries that the short time between a launch of a nuclear device from a submarine and its impact — a time span Nunn said was classified but estimated might be as brief as 5 or 10 minutes — might all but guarantee a nuclear exchange. Nunn told the Senators that both Washington and Moscow should work to jointly take their nuclear arsenals off what he called the hair trigger alert. "There is no need, 15 year after the Cold War, [for] both nations to be able [to] destroy each other within an hour or two. And for the president of Russia to have only a few very crucial minutes to decide whether a false warning is in play or whether we are really attacking — and the condition of their satellite and radars have gone down since the cold war. [They're] not as good with warning as they were. That's fundamentally against our interests because we don't want them to make a mistake." Nunn urged the Senators to press the Bush Administration to open talks with Russian to pull back both sides arsenals from their level of alert.

There was one glimmer, literally, of light amidst all the darkness. The Nunn-Lugar program has dismantled and repurposed so much weapons-grade uranium in the last decade that 50% of the fuel currently consumed by U.S. nuclear power plants is now derived from warheads which once sat atop of Warsaw Pact rockets and missiles. Since about one fifth of all electricity in the U.S. comes from nuclear power plants, Nunn added, "One out of 10 of these light bulbs right here in this room, theoretically, comes from missile material that was aimed at us during the Cold War. So we've made some progress."