The frustration still comes through when U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry talks about something he saw on Capitol Hill several years ago.
Fortenberry, who represents Nebraska’s 1st District, is a recognized expert in Congress on nuclear security issues. One afternoon, he was rushing between two committee hearings — one on the nuclear weapons threat from North Korea, the other on a potential nuclear threat from Iran. Only a handful of people attended those hearings, but as he hurried down a hallway, he saw another committee hearing that was jam-packed.
What was that hearing’s topic, he asked. It was about satellite radio policy, he was told.
The anecdote, Fortenberry told The World-Herald, illustrates one of the big challenges in trying to deal with nuclear security overseas. Countless issues of immediate interest demand the attention of Congress and push aside a focus on confronting what could be a catastrophic threat to our country and others.
“What are the consequences of a nuclear attack on Tel Aviv or Berlin or New York or London?” he asks. “We’re talking about the future of civilization.”
This is one reason why in 2008 the Nebraska Republican and a California Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff, co-founded the bipartisan Congressional Caucus on Nuclear Security. They wanted to have an ongoing process to focus lawmakers’ attention on improving nuclear security within our shores and overseas.
“We’re facing a fiscal cliff,” Fortenberry says. “But we’re also facing a fissile cliff.” (Fissile meaning capable of undergoing nuclear fission.)
A milestone was just reached on this issue with the 20th anniversary of the Nunn-Lugar Initiative. That farsighted program — sponsored by then-Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., and Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind. — was intended to stabilize control of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons when the Soviet Union began to collapse.
The success has been extraordinary: 7,600 nuclear warheads deactivated and 900 intercontinental ballistic missiles, 500 missile silos, 680 submarine-launched ballistic missiles and 900 nuclear air-to-surface missiles destroyed.
Foreign Policy magazine vividly described the importance of what has been accomplished, as well as the difficulty in achieving it, citing the example from just one Russian chemical weapons site cleaned up under Nunn-Lugar: “It’s no mean feat to destroy an artillery or missile shell filled with a chemical weapon like VX, sarin or soman. Very delicate operations are needed to drain the shell, then destroy the agent without harm to workers or those living nearby. Imagine the challenge of destroying 1.9 million shells in 110 buildings holding 5,400 metric tons of the deadly stuff.”
Fortenberry describes the Nunn-Lugar Initiative as providing a dramatic “paradigm shift” that showed that the world could go beyond fretting about such a daunting problem to tackling it head-on. The congressman expresses frustration that Russia’s government recently said it doesn’t want to renew the Nunn-Lugar program next year but instead go it alone.
The Russian government’s harsh words offered no serious justification for wanting to end bilateral cooperation on nuclear security, Fortenberry says, and appears to be a “power play” by the country’s president, Vladimir Putin. He’s right that it is in the interests of all parties for Russia to maintain its nuclear security through cooperative approaches.
Iran, Fortenberry notes, towers above all as the key factor on nuclear threat concerns. If Iran’s government decides to “flip a switch” and convert its peaceful nuclear production to weaponizing, he says, the threat could spur rival countries to follow suit in that already unstable region.
There is no neat immediate solution to the Iran issue, but Fortenberry stresses the need for energetic international cooperation to convince Iran to structure its nuclear program to minimize its ability to convert it to military use. He expresses exasperation at how China has been unhelpful on this issue despite China’s strong energy-related ties to Iran.
Our leaders need to keep a strong focus on this and other nuclear security issues, regardless of how few people may show up for the congressional hearings. As President Barack Obama said last week in saluting Nunn and Lugar on their initiative, “There are still terrorists and criminal gangs trying to get their hands” on this material. “And make no mistake, if they get it, they will use it.”
All the more reason, as Fortenberry says, for our leaders to keep the focus on what ultimately could be a threat of calamitous proportions.