Nunn vs. nukes 

In the drive to avert nuclear catastrophe, is anybody listening?

Sometimes the grandest things happen over the simplest meals in Atlanta. You can walk into Ted's Montana Grill on Luckie Street and, if you're lucky, you can see Ted Turner himself in a back booth, waving his arms and cooking up some fantastic scheme with a fellow bigwig.

Five years ago, before Turner opened his bison restaurant chain, he invited former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn to breakfast at the CNN Center.

That morning -- a year before 9/11 -- Turner wanted to talk about bankrolling Nunn to try to save the world from nuclear terrorism.

It was in that role that Nunn, former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, screened his new movie last week for an audience of about 200 at the High Museum of Art.

It's a low-budget thriller called Last Best Chance. The Nuclear Threat Initiative, a Washington-based foundation that grew out of the breakfast with Turner, spent about $1 million to produce the movie.

"We didn't have enough money for sex scenes, nor did we want them," Nunn told the audience, which had been invited to the screening by the Atlanta-based Southern Center for International Studies.

It stars former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson as a U.S. president facing the horrifying prospect that terrorists from al-Qaeda have procured nuclear material in three separate operations and are building bombs. The movie shows an SUV carrying a small atomic bomb -- powerful enough to destroy New York -- crossing from Canada into the United States at a bucolic border station.

So far, 48,000 people have ordered free copies of the DVD. No network has run Last Best Chance, but it's been discussed on news programs.

Nunn, who turns 67 on Sept. 8, was introduced at the High by former CNN President Tom Johnson, who said Nunn already ranks as one of the great men in Georgia history. First elected to the Senate in 1972, Nunn served four terms and won universal respect for his devotion to national defense, his integrity and his ability to work well with his colleagues, regardless of party.

But that was merely Nunn's 20th-century career. In the 21st century, Johnson said, Nunn is on a heroic mission that, if successful, will help every person on the planet.

Nunn's concern about nuclear weapons didn't begin over eggs with Turner or even during his Senate years. It goes back to 1962, when he came out of Emory Law School and landed a job with the House Armed Services Committee, which happened to be chaired by his great-uncle, the legendary Georgia Congressman Carl Vinson. Vinson served more than 50 years in the House.

"I was on an Air Force trip to Europe during the Cuban Missile Crisis," Nunn said. "I was briefed every day during the crisis and saw the photos as Kennedy and Khrushchev were struggling to avoid a nuclear war and that had a huge effect on me."

A decade later, as a young senator, he toured American bases in Europe, where he saw that thousands of tactical battlefield nuclear weapons were not very secure. Worse yet, some members of the military were demoralized by Vietnam and weakened by alcohol and drug problems.

Two decades after that, he was visiting Russia when the Soviet Union fell apart. He realized that the Russians had no hope of getting their nuclear weapons under control. With Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., he created the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which helps safeguard Russia's horror trove of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. The program has deactivated or destroyed more than 6,000 nuclear warheads.

What Nunn is trying to prevent today is the sight of a mushroom cloud rising above an American city. And here's the horrifying part: "I think it's likely to happen unless we do a lot more at a faster pace than we are doing now.

"There are still over 40 countries in the world that have enough nuclear materials to make a crude weapon. And al-Queda has declared it is their duty to get nuclear weapons and use them against the United States, among others."

Nunn believes a biological or chemical attack is more likely, but he's most worried about nuclear terrorism because of the devastating effect it would have, beyond the immediate humanitarian disaster.

"A nuclear explosion in an American city would destroy a lot of the confidence of the world," he said. "The economic confidence required to make the economy work -- not just in this country, but around the world -- would be severely eroded."

Nunn, who spends half his time with the foundation as its co-chairman and CEO, and much of the rest serving on corporate boards such as Coca-Cola's, is tackling the single most important problem in the world. But you would never know it from the day-to-day partisan bickering in the American media or from the priorities of our nation's leaders. Nuclear threat reduction clearly isn't on the front burner.

"If we did have a nuclear catastrophe in this country, what is it we would be asking ourselves on every talk show in the nation, radio and TV? What is it the pundits would be pointing out we should have done?" Nunn asked. "And the second question is, 'Why aren't we doing it now?'"

One answer, clearly, is that the nation's attention is focused on the war in non-nuclear Iraq.

I asked Nunn if he was frustrated by what we're spending in Iraq instead of on securing nuclear material. He said a commission reported five years ago that it would cost $30 billion to lock up nuclear material all over the globe.

"Yes, it's frustrating," he said. "We've spent six times that much in Iraq already."

Always the Southern gentleman, Nunn tempers his criticism of current American foreign policy. He credits President Bush for maintaining a good relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin "when a lot of people are urging him to do otherwise."

But Nunn questions the focus on Iraq instead of North Korea, which is believed to now have two or three nuclear weapons. "While we were looking for nuclear weapons in Iraq, North Korea was openly and publicly building them. I found that very curious because I felt, and still feel, North Korea should have been on the front burner."

Iran also is moving forward with nuclear plans.

"There is no good military solution, although if the Iranians continue the way they're going, there may be military activities," Nunn said. Even so, "Iran can cause us all sorts of problems in Iraq."

Worse, the war in Iraq has decreased U.S. military leverage in dealing with North Korea and Iran.

"They're not nearly as frightened of the United States now as they were two years ago. And that's because they know we're tied up militarily. They know we're bogged down. They know that our Army and Guard are under great strain and they are much harder to deal with because of that. Nevertheless, they have to be dealt with."

Nunn clearly enjoys working with the visionary and unpredictable Turner.

"I remember one of the conversations and he said, in his usual entertaining way, 'I'm going to buy one of those things on the black market, buy me a weapon, and then I'll give mine up if everybody else does,'" Nunn recalled with a laugh.

"We haven't really made a grant on that program yet," he added.

You can order a free copy of Last Best Chance at www.lastbestchance.org. You can contact Senior Editor Doug Monroe at doug.monroe@creativeloafing.com.

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