Nuclear Security and Its Few Constituents

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As a graduate student, I once asked a prominent professor for a summary of the philosophical arguments for immortality. He was excited by the request and invited me to his lecture on the topic. While I considered this a great privilege, I could not manage scheduling the required four hours, so I politely declined. "Ah," the professor said, "you asked me a question about immortality, but you do not have the time!"

The United States cannot afford to risk that same mistake on nuclear security. If we are to bring the probability of a nuclear catastrophe to as close to zero as possible, we must make the time. Understanding how nuclear threats have evolved and how to resolve them most effectively is an urgent national priority.

Imagine, for a moment, just one of several scenarios. A terrorist organization collects enough radiological material to set off what is called a "dirty bomb" in the stadium of a major city, triggering widespread harm and panic. A smuggled package on a container ship -- with no need for a sophisticated weapons delivery system -- explodes in a major United States harbor, causing widespread destruction and loss of life. Or worse yet, a reckless nation state actor such as North Korea's autocratic strongman launches a missile attack against Seoul or Los Angeles. Each future scenario is alarmingly feasible. No one enjoys thinking about nuclear dangers, but ignoring them would amplify an ongoing threat to us all.

Americans deserve assurance that our best and brightest minds are fervently engaged in their defense. They should be able to trust that policymakers on both sides of the aisle are working together for innovative and sustainable solutions to nuclear security concerns. In this age of anxiety and sound bite foreign policy, constituents should know that Congress is leading when it matters most.

The leaders who courageously helmed our formidable nuclear enterprise through World War II and the Cold War have passed the baton to a new generation of policymakers and scientists. Now, as our world grows more complex, the challenges of nuclear proliferation have multiplied. The binary concept of mutually assured destruction is no longer as relevant in an increasingly unstable geopolitical environment. Non-state actors play havoc with global treaties and normative rules, seeking to do horrifying harm. Rational responses cannot be guaranteed.

Despite these challenges, of all the important issues that come before Congress, nuclear security seldom surfaces in our national conversation outside highly specialized forums. The problem is real. The United States and our allies face a stark deficiency: nuclear security as a multidimensional issue with no longstanding organic constituency in Congress. That constituency must be built.

Recognizing the problem when I first came to Congress, the Nuclear Security Working Group was founded to advance this discussion and help prevent the unthinkable. While the analytical and tactical expertise rightly remain embedded in the Department of Defense, Department of Energy, the Department of State and other executive branch entities, Congress must create an agile policy environment in this age of globalization and swiftly advancing technology. We also need an awakening of citizen concern -- and there is very little. The need for broader involvement extends in a particular way to millennials, the coming stewards of our nuclear security.

The community of responsible nations has much work ahead to achieve an ideal nuclear security settlement. Advances in reprocessing technology, nuclear power, and weapons infrastructure, once the exclusive domain of the nation state, pose serious ongoing proliferation concerns. Although many countries have altogether renounced pursuit of nuclear weapons, turbulent situations in the Middle East and elsewhere are worsening an already hazardous global nuclear dynamic. A new architecture for nuclear security demands an ongoing effort by the responsible nations of the world.

The fourth and final Nuclear Security Summit hosted by President Obama in Washington at the end of March represented another important step in securing loose nuclear materials and heightening collaboration. We need to sustain these international gatherings and multinational efforts to achieve an effective 21st-century nuclear security strategy, one that prioritizes common ground on important strategic and nonproliferation priorities, in a cooperative campaign to make our world safer.

Looking ahead, I anticipate an augmented role for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as a primary implementing agency of future verification initiatives. A revitalized spirit of unity, common purpose, and renewed dedication is essential to nuclear security in the 21st century. Our challenge is that we cannot react to a nuclear crisis; we must act to prevent one. If we have the time.

The views expressed above are the author's own.

This post is part of a blog series produced by The Huffington Post and Carnegie Corporation of New York about issues related to the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit. World leaders gathered in Washington, D.C., on March 31-April 1 to address the threat of nuclear terrorism and steps toward creating a global nuclear-security system to prevent it. To view posts from the series, visit here. Join the conversation on Twitter at @CarnegieCorp, #NSS2016.

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