A huge gathering of world leaders begins today in Washington with one item on the agenda, securing nuclear materials.
Those can be found in scrap yards, military stockpiles, nuclear power plants and hospitals where radioactive materials are used for medical procedures. And there are plenty of bad actors who want them, perhaps even the terrorists who carried out last week's attacks in Belgium. Authorities say two of them had been spying on a Belgian nuclear scientist. Former Georgia Senator Sam Nunn has been one of the leading voices on nuclear security for decades. He's now CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
SAM NUNN: Morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: One of the things that will be discussed at this summit is the possibility of ISIS getting their hands on radiological material, perhaps to create a dirty bomb. How big of a threat do you deem that?
NUNN: Well, in terms of the overall nuclear threat, the dirty bomb is much more probable than a nuclear detonation. A dirty bomb would be radiological material wrapped in a conventional explosion. And it would be dispersed in an area, and it depends on the kind of material. But if it was, for instance, cesium 137, it would possibly deny access to an area for some time. So it's not the immediate explosion that causes the most devastating blow, but it's the economic repercussions. If it was set off downtown financial area anywhere in the world and you couldn't use that area for sometimes years to come because certain types of radiological material penetrate both wood and concrete, it would be extremely difficult to remove.
MONTAGNE: And cesium 137, it's very dangerous, but it is used in blood irradiators. So it's not uncommon.
NUNN: Yes, that's right. It's in blood irradiators — very legitimate, very important purpose for many hospitals. Now there is alternate technology. And my organization's encouraging hospitals to swap that technology and get rid of the radiological and substitute the technology to still get the job done. So wherever that can be done, we need to secure all radiological material, as well as all nuclear-weapon usable material and get rid of it where ever possible and substitute where possible, too, with new technology.
MONTAGNE: Have we entered an era where reducing stockpiles of nuclear weapons is actually not as important as securing nuclear materials?
NUNN: I worry more about the dangers of nuclear materials being made into a dirty bomb or even a weapon, if it's the right kind of material, than I do about a deliberate nuclear attack. A deliberate nuclear attack by a nation would be an act of suicide. And even the United States and Russia, with over 90 percent of the weapons, any attack by either of our countries would result in devastation to both countries. But in the hands of terrorists that have no return address, I think it's much more dangerous.
MONTAGNE: Russia is not attending this summit. Senator Nunn, can there be a meaningful attempt to secure nuclear material without Russia's involvement?
NUNN: Well, the good news is Russia has been involved for the last 20 years. And U.S. and Russia have worked together very carefully on an awful lot of this, including helping Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine get rid of all their nuclear weapons and most of their nuclear materials. So it would be much better if Russia were attending this summit. The strains between the United States and Russia are dangerous, not only to our own countries, but also to the globe.
MONTAGNE: Do you think governments are doing enough to make this a priority?
NUNN: Well, it's never enough to satisfy me because I see the threat pretty clearly. But all of us have a huge stake in this. I call it a race between cooperation and catastrophe. It's a race that doesn't end, and we've got to run faster.
MONTAGNE: Former Senator Sam Nunn is the CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative. Thank you for joining us.
NUNN: Thank you, Renee.