Bill Richardson photo

Speech: Preventing a Nuclear 9-11

March 27, 2007

Thank you for that kind introduction.

In the 20th century, nuclear deterrence worked. In the 21st century, it won't.

Mutually Assured Destruction deterred the Soviet Union, but nothing will stop suicidal Jihadists from using a nuclear bomb if they get their hands on one. If Al Qaeda obtained nuclear weapons, they could smuggle them into American cities - and they would not hesitate to use them with the same ruthlessness that allowed them to fly airplanes filled with people into buildings filled with people.

We know that Al Qaeda wants nuclear weapons. We also know that Pakistan's A.Q. Khan sold nuclear materials to rogue states. We know that parts of the former Soviet nuclear arsenal still are not secure, and that there are poorly-secured nuclear materials around the world.

The proliferation of nuclear weapons to new countries, above all to North Korea and Pakistan, has increased further the opportunities for Jihadists to obtain them, as has the diffusion of nuclear energy technologies that can be converted to weapons programs. Iran, a nation with close ties to the world's most skilled terrorist organization, Hezbollah, may be on the verge of entering the nuclear club.

And Al Qaeda has said that they wish to kill 4 million Americans, including 2 million children. In their madness, they claim that such a slaughter of innocents would "balance the scales of justice," for crimes that they allege we have committed against Muslims. We would be mad not to take them at their word.

You may have heard me speak elsewhere about the need for what I call a "New Realism" in American foreign policy. By this I mean that we need to wake up and see that the greatest threats we face today, from global warming to terrorism, do not face only us - and that this means that unilateral action usually will not work. To defend ourselves in the 21st century, we may occasionally need to act alone, but usually we must work with others. Building and leading strong international coalitions should be our first thought when we face common challenges -- not an afterthought when our unilateral course has failed.

A New Realism for the 21st century also understands that many threats today come not from states, but rather from societies, including our own society. Not from armies massing or nation states targeting us with missiles, but rather from complex social trends - such as our own consumption of fossil fuels. Not so much from hostile states as from hostile individuals, empowered by their willingness to kill and die for fanatical beliefs.

Of course, we must rebuild our military and be prepared to use it when we must -- but we also must reject the unilateralist illusions of recent years. Our remarkable military power gives us the ability to lead. But others follow us not because we intimidate them with the argument of our power, but because we inspire them with the power of our arguments.

Defending ourselves from new dangers requires new thinking, new strategies and new tactics. We need to adapt our ideas about national security to an age in which the nuclear threat come not from a missile, but from a suitcase or a cargo hull. Not from a nation, which can be deterred by the threat of retaliation, but from a shadowy terrorist network with no return address.

That a small group of stateless terrorists could destroy New York or Washington with a black-market nuclear bomb epitomizes just how much the world has changed -- and how urgent it is that we lead other nations with a comprehensive global plan to lock down ALL of the world's fissionable material. Quickly. Before terrorists get their hands on a nuclear bomb.

And I would add another point: meeting the challenge of nuclear terrorism is not just a national security imperative for the United States - it also is a moral imperative. We created the first atomic bombs -- because we feared that Hitler would get them first. We are the only country that ever has used them - to end World War II. During the Cold War, we and the Soviets built enough thermonuclear weapons to destroy all human life on the planet several times over. For six decades, all of humanity has lived with the knowledge that everything we know could end in a flash of light.

America led the world into the age of nuclear fear because we were compelled to do so by totalitarian enemies. We now have the urgent moral duty to lead the world out of the age of nuclear fear -- ironically because we confront a very new and different kind of totalitarian enemy.

I was Energy Secretary under President Clinton. My department was responsible for the design, manufacture and maintenance of our stockpile of nuclear weapons. These weapons are not abstractions to me: to see one of them is to be astounded that millions of deaths can be compressed into such a tiny package. To know intimately our nuclear arsenal is to know intimately how our species could destroy itself.

Sam Nunn put it succinctly: "At the dawn of a new century, we find ourselves in a new arms race. Terrorists are racing to get weapons of mass destruction; we ought to be racing to stop them."

This is an existential problem. It is urgent. We need to free humanity from the threat of nuclear destruction. The United States cannot do this alone. But it certainly cannot be done without American leadership.

I believe that if we give this matter the attention it deserves, we CAN prevent a nuclear 9-11. The reason I am optimistic is because there is a finite amount of fissionable material in the world, and making it is well beyond the capability of terrorist groups. Therefore, if we lock down all the nuclear weapons and bomb-grade material which exist - and also make sure that all future nuclear fuel and spent-fuel is secure -- we CAN prevent what former Assistant Secretary of Defense Graham Allison has called "the ultimate preventable catastrophe."

Securing all the world's nukes will be a huge task -- but not an impossible one. A lot of good things already have been done. The 1992 Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Program has deactivated and destroyed hundreds of missiles and thousands of warheads, and has improved security for much of the former Soviet arsenal. And the Bush administration has done some good things, such as the Proliferation Security Initiative, the Global Threat Initiative, and the 2005 Bratislava accord between Bush and Putin on nuclear security.

When I was Energy Secretary under President Clinton, DOE also did many things to secure Russian nukes. We increased funding - from $85 million to $138 million -- for DOE's Material Protection, Control and Accounting program, to protect Russian nuclear warheads and weapons-grade fissile material from falling into the hands of terrorists or black market dealers. I also signed the implementing agreement for the MPC&ampA program, which put the program on a secure footing with the Russians. And we got an emergency $200 million supplemental to dispose of Russian weapons-usable plutonium. We worked closely with the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy to determine how to use these funds to eliminate 34 tons of Russian plutonium.

But I am sorry to say that the Bush Administration got entangled in delays and conflicts with the Russians -- and still has not spent this $200 million. Those 34 tons of plutonium are still there - and now it even appears that funding is in danger in Congress. I strongly urge Congress to fund this important nonproliferation program.

During my tenure at DOE, our Nuclear Cities Initiative (NCI) actually got the Russians to agree to close down their Avangard nuclear weapons plant, as we funded the transition of displaced weapons workers to non-military jobs. This was money well spent to protect America and the world. We should have expanded this program, but instead the Bush Administration allowed the NCI agreement to lapse when it came up for renewal in 2003.

Indeed, before 9-11 the Bush administration even planned to kill both the plutonium disposition program and the Nuclear Cities Initiative, and to this day they continue to under-fund both programs.

Meanwhile, we are spending $10 billion a month on Iraq. Of the many ways in which Mr. Bush's ill-conceived war has distracted us from our real national security needs, this is the most dangerous.

We must do more -- much more -- to secure Russian nuclear materials. At of the end of FY 2005, U.S.-funded security and accounting upgrades had been completed for barely half of former Soviet at-risk sites - leaving many sites vulnerable even to relatively unsophisticated terrorists or traffickers. And even the upgraded buildings remain vulnerable to well-trained attackers -- of the sort we have seen in action in Russia in recent years. We need more rapid progress in consolidating nuclear weapons and materials into a smaller number of sites, and in making sure that every site is secure.

We and the Russians also should take our nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert status. Not only is this Cold War relic unnecessary today, but it also prevents us from securing all of the Russian arsenal, as they don't want to provide us with total information on their nuclear weapons when we have thousands of our own ready to be launched at them on a minute's notice.

The situation in some other parts of the world is even more dangerous than in Russia. In several countries, civilian nuclear facilities often are less secure than a grocery store, and even weapons-grade nuclear materials are vulnerable to theft. Pakistan's weapons are the most likely to fall into the wrong hands. They could be raided by Al Qaeda groups or sold by insiders. And we cannot exclude the possibility that Jihadists could come to power. We need to work, perhaps quietly, with General Musharraf to insure that, in the event of a coup, Jihadists would not be able to use the Pakistani nuclear arsenal.

The Global Threat Reduction Initiative has accelerated the removal of nuclear materials from sites around the world, but huge security gaps remain. Indeed, two-thirds of U.S.-supplied highly enriched uranium (HEU) still is not covered by the U.S. take-back offer, and there are too many reactors in the world still using bomb-grade fuel.


We CAN do better. We CAN prevent the ultimate preventable catastrophe and end the era of nuclear fear. But we need to really focus on it, and do the hard work that needs to be done. It is a question of commitment, of leadership. Of not taking our eyes off the ball.

As I said, some good things have already been done -- but they have been piecemeal and inadequate. It took a Manhattan project to create the bomb. We need a new Manhattan project to stop the bomb: a comprehensive program to secure all nuclear weapons and all weapons-usable material, worldwide.

The United States must lead a global coalition to establish effective, universal nuclear security standards that reduce the number of nuclear weapons, and make sure that those that exist are safe from theft or diversion. We also must secure all fissionable material associated with nuclear energy and research, with a "global clean-out," which removes all weapons-grade material world-wide from vulnerable sites, and consolidates it into a limited number of highly-secure facilities.

A comprehensive strategy must focus on four key tasks. If we accomplish them all, it is unlikely that terrorists will get a nuclear weapon. If we fail to do them, sooner or later they will. We need to:

  • halt nuclear weapons proliferation
  • halt nuclear weapons production and reduce the size of nuclear arsenals
  • halt or secure civilian programs that require or produce bomb-grade materials
  • consolidate and secure all existing fissile materials and all future production associated with nuclear energy and research worldwide

The first task, halting nuclear weapons proliferation, is urgent and immediate -- because we are on the edge of a precipice with North Korea and Iran. If we don't stop them, several other nations, especially their neighbors, may decide to go nuclear as well. And the more states that have nuclear weapons, the greater the risk that terrorists will acquire them.

In dealing with difficult regimes like Iran and North Korea, we must remember that no nation has ever been forced to renounce nuclear weapons - but that many nations have been convinced to renounce them. If we unite the world behind the right carrots and sticks, and provide the North Koreans and the Iranians with face-saving ways to step back from the nuclear brink, we will prevail. Some good steps have been taken recently, and there are signs that we may succeed. Meaningful sanctions accompanied by positive incentives and security guarantees lessen the paranoia and strengthen the pragmatists. The key is convincing these regimes that they will be more secure without nuclear weapons than with them.

To convince them, we absolutely need Russia and China. To implement the recent agreement with North Korea, and to get them to dismantle the devices they already have, China is the key. To stop Iran from enriching uranium, its Russia. Whenever the UN Security Council is involved, we need both Russia and China. This is why the current administration's allergy to strategic diplomacy has been so destructive. If we had threatened the Iranians and North Koreans less, talked to them more, and built stronger relations with the other great powers, the world would be a safer place today. We need to get back on the diplomatic track, and stay there, if we are to prevent further nuclear proliferation.

We also need to strengthen the NPT regime, which has been weakened in recent years, as India and Pakistan and North Korea have gone nuclear, and as Iran attempts to do so. We need a new global non-proliferation agreement which prevents states from developing nuclear fuel-enrichment capabilities, and then abandoning the NPT as they rush to make bombs. We also need to negotiate a tough universal verification system that gives international inspectors immediate and unfettered access to all sites, worldwide.

Getting all nations to agree to a stronger nonproliferation regime will require skillful diplomacy and new thinking. Which brings me to the second task: the nuclear states must stop making new weapons and must reduce the size of their existing arsenals.

The Non-Proliferation Treaty commits non-nuclear states to forego nuclear weapons, and it also commits the nuclear weapons states to the goal of nuclear disarmament. To get others to take the NPT seriously, we need to take it seriously ourselves. We should re-affirm our commitment to the long-term goal of global nuclear disarmament, and we should invite the Russians to join us in a moratorium on all new nuclear weapons. And we should negotiate further staged reductions in our arsenals, beyond what has already been agreed, over the next decade.

In a world in which nuclear terrorism rather than war with Russia is the main threat, reducing all nuclear arsenals, in a careful, orderly way, makes everyone safer.

Negotiations to reduce our arsenal also are our diplomatic ace-in-the-hole. We can leverage our own proposed reductions to get the other nuclear powers to do the same -- and simultaneously get the non-nuclear powers to forego both weapons and nuclear fuel enrichment, and to agree to rigorous global safeguards and verification procedures.

The United States also should ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, not only because it is good policy, but also to send a signal to the world that America has turned a corner, and once again will be a global leader, not a unilateralist loner.

Our third task is to put the lid on the most dangerous civilian technologies. Currently, there are over 50 tons of HEU in civilian power and research programs in over 50 nations. It takes as little as 25 kg to produce a nuclear weapon. There are no fewer than 272 operational research reactors, in 56 countries. Some 128 of these have 20 kg or more of HEU stocks. Many are poorly secured.

Civilian plutonium is even more worrisome. Commercial reprocessing plants in Britain, France, and Russia separate about 20 tons of civilian plutonium from spent fuel each year, but most of it is not used as civilian reactor fuel. Rather, it accumulates -- as do the risks of it falling into the wrong hands. Today there are well over 200 tons of separated plutonium in civilian stockpiles around the world.

This is a catastrophe waiting to happen. We need to close down or phase out as many of these facilities as we can, and rapidly secure all materials of potential interest to terrorists. Negotiations to accomplish this will be very difficult, but a comprehensive strategy to stop nuclear terrorism must, at a minimum, stop the construction of new facilities that use bomb-grade fuel, and establish rigorous international security standards and monitoring procedures for those facilities that already exist.

Our fourth task is to consolidate all existing fissile materials, and all future uranium enrichment and spent-fuel disposal in a limited number of highly secure facilities in the nuclear states. Uranium enrichment for nuclear energy is inherently dangerous. It is too easy to convert into a weapons program, and the more places it happens, the more opportunities there are for terrorists to acquire fissile material.

Accordingly, the nuclear weapons states should agree to an international program that provides non-nuclear weapons states with LEU nuclear fuel at stable prices, and which then receives all spent fuel for disposal in a limited number of highly secure facilities in the nuclear states. Such a program would eliminate the economic rationale for non-nuclear weapons states to enrich their own uranium.

The obstacles to accomplishing these multiply goals are many and intertwined. To prevent nuclear terrorism we will need to overcome vested interests, old suspicions and habits, ideological rigidities, religious and ethnic rivalries, bureaucratic inertia and national pride.

The only way to cut this nuclear Gordian Knot, in my view, will be through a focused global effort led by a United States government fully committed to solving this problem, and willing to listen as well as to talk. And this will require American leaders who recognize that the nuclear postures and policies which worked in the last century will not work in this new century.

Some have said that nuclear terrorism is just inevitable - that we can never put the lid back on the Pandora's Box of nuclear technology. They are right that we cannot turn back the clock. But we can greatly reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism, just as the 1925 the Geneva Protocol greatly reduced the use of chemical and biological weapons, and Cold War arms talks reduced the threat of war between the US and the USSR. We can prevent the ultimate preventable catastrophe if we have the courage to recognize and embrace the challenge.

This is what the New Realism is all about. It's about not denying dangers, but rather moving forward to meet them. It's about recognizing that times have changed, that we live in a different world than our parents did -- and that we must act decisively if we wish to leave this world intact to our children. We need to look at the world through cool eyes and see it for what it really is. But we also must have the vision and the optimism and the courage to do what we can to make it a safer place."

Bill Richardson, Speech: Preventing a Nuclear 9-11 Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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