At 79, arms-control maven still working for a safer world

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George Bunn

In 1945, Ensign George Bunn was a shy 20-year-old preparing to join the crew of the USS Logan, a Navy troop transport ship bound for the invasion of Japan. Kamikaze suicide pilots had already sunk similar ships, killing hundreds of Allied troops, and Bunn was convinced he might encounter a similar fate.

But on Aug. 6 and 9, the U.S. government dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. World War II ended. Bunn's ship instead ferried U.S. troops home.

"I got involved in nuclear arms control because I perceived that my life was saved by the bomb," says Bunn, a consulting professor since 1986 at the Stanford Institute for International Studies (SIIS). He is best known for helping to draft the 1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the landmark agreement responsible for curtailing the spread of nuclear weapons worldwide.

On June 1, the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) at SIIS hosted a three-hour workshop to celebrate Bunn's 79th birthday and recognize his accomplishments in the arms control field.

John Rhinelander, one of the negotiators of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) and a longtime leader in the field, said Bunn's contributions have made the world a safer place. "He is the single greatest resource we have in terms of American lawyers on arms control," Rhinelander said.

The aftermath of the bomb

After the atomic bomb ended the war, politically active scientists began organizing to contain what they had created. Bunn was a graduate student in physics at the University of Wisconsin when his father, a lawyer in the State Department, gave him a copy of the 1946 Acheson-Lillienthal Report, a document that proposed to give the United Nations complete control over atomic weaponry. Bunn decided to quit physics and pursue law at Columbia University to be able to work in arms negotiation. "The whole point was not to practice law but to control nuclear weapons," he said.

Bunn was an effective lawyer. He worked for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Arnold, Fortas and Porter, a major Washington, D.C., law firm. Bunn wrote and pushed through Congress the legislation that created the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. In 1961, he became its first general counsel, and from 1962 onward he helped negotiate the NPT. In 1968, Bunn was named U.S. ambassador to the Geneva Disarmament Conference, where the treaty was signed. The NPT, which entered into force in 1970 and was permanently extended in 1995, remains an important obstacle - despite serious strains - for preventing global nuclear weapons proliferation.

In an article on the treaty's history published last December in Arms Control Today, the journal of record, Bunn wrote, "The NPT nonproliferation norm, the long-term effort of the United States and others to gain acceptance of it, and the international inspections the NPT produced deserve significant credit for the fact that the world does not now have 30 or more countries with nuclear weapons."

During the workshop, Thomas Graham Jr., who later became general counsel and then a special arms control ambassador for the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, reiterated the longstanding significance of the NPT. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) estimates that 60 to 70 nations today possess the capability to build nuclear weapons but do not do so because of their commitment to the NPT.

"That could have created a nightmarish world, one in which every conflict would run the risk of going nuclear and where it would be impossible to keep these weapons out of the hands of terrorists, because they would be so widespread," Graham said. "The NPT converted what had been an act of national pride - the acquisition of nuclear weapons - into an act considered contrary to practices of the civilized world."

Today, nine countries, including North Korea but not Iran, possess nuclear weapons.

Despite the NPT's accomplishments, efforts to stop illicit nuclear proliferation continue, said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the nonpartisan Arms Control Association, which publishes Arms Control Today. During the workshop, Kimball discussed prospects for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which he described as a "sensible, practical and effective response to the nuclear threat." Despite widespread international support, he said, the U.S. Senate failed to ratify the treaty in 1999 and the Bush administration opposes it. Nevertheless, Kimball said he remains an optimist because Bunn has shown by example the importance of patience and perseverance.

"As George knows better than anyone else, good things don't often come easily or quickly," Kimball said. "It has now been just over 50 years since the enormous March 1954 'Bravo' test series in the Marshall Islands led to widespread fallout and increasing international concern ... and really triggered the anti-nuclear movement. Through it all, [Bunn] has been someone who has sensible and insightful guidance and, perhaps more importantly, someone who has even under difficult conditions always pressed forward so that ideas like the CTBT might survive and thrive at some future point."

The workshop included a presentation by Matthew Bunn, Bunn's son, who is an arms control expert in his own right at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Matthew Bunn entered the field with a technological, rather than legal, background, but the Bunns have collaborated on several articles dealing with nuclear security.

Long before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Matthew Bunn said his father was concerned with security. The NPT did not address nuclear terrorism because the era of major international terrorist attacks began just as the treaty was completed.

"George has said if he knew then what he knows now he would have included security for nuclear material," Matthew Bunn said. In a 1986 paper prepared for the International Task Force on Prevention of Nuclear Terrorism, George Bunn wrote that a new effort beyond IAEA safeguards was needed to contain weapons-usable materials. He also called for "an IAEA experts' conference on the physical protection of nuclear material from terrorists," Matthew Bunn said. "It could help educate many nuclear operators on the dangers of terrorist sabotage, theft or attack on nuclear facilities." Furthermore, Bunn said his father called for "a new antiterrorist nuclear treaty dealing with standards for the domestic protection of reactors, spent fuel storage facilities and local transport of nuclear materials."

George Bunn continues his quest to secure nuclear weapons from a small office in Encina Hall. After teaching and serving as dean at the University of Wisconsin Law School, and teaching at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I., Bunn came to Stanford to write the book Arms Control by Committee: Managing Negotiations with the Russians.

Currently, Bunn is collaborating on a classified NATO report on the danger of terrorists attacking nuclear power reactors and the risks involved in transporting spent fuel. "I have a chapter on existing laws and regulations and how inadequate they are," he said. Bunn also is writing a chapter on nuclear non-proliferation as part of a study on current U.S. nuclear weapons policies.

As Bunn focuses on his present-day commitments, his office reflects the past. A wall is decorated with memorabilia related to the historic signing of the NPT - a telegram naming Bunn an ambassador, a photograph taken with President Lyndon Johnson and a letter from Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Bunn, once 6-feet-4-inches tall but now slightly stooped, still works at a 5-foot-tall stand-up wooden desk - the type once used by draftsmen and accountants. "It helps keep me awake," he said, laughing.

Matthew Bunn said his father remains motivated by a purpose larger than himself. "He has always believed that he was placed on this earth for a reason - to make the world a better and safer place," Bunn said. "He has devoted his life to that."