GSPIA Hosts Casey for Film Screening, Q&A on Nuclear Terrorism

Issue Date: 
November 26, 2007

As the film Last Best Chance ended on Tuesday, the audience in William Pitt Union’s Assembly Room sat in complete silence.

It wasn’t because the short (45 minutes) film was poorly received. In fact, it’s well done; Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker called it “entertaining.”

Instead, the audience seemed a little dazed by the film’s brisk (but thankfully fictional) depiction of a successful terrorist plot to obtain nuclear weapons.

And when a girl sitting near the front of the room began to shiver and rub her arms, it wasn’t just because the air conditioning had unexpectedly turned on.

The chill in the room was caused by the frightening plausibility of the filmed scenarios.

“This isn’t some far-off hypothetical situation,” said U.S. Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr., who introduced the film and moderated a question-and-answer session afterward. “It’s all within the realm of possibility. This is Al Qaeda’s objective, and it could be the objective of some other groups as well.”

Casey’s visit was hosted by Pitt’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA), the GSPIA Student Cabinet, and the Matthew B. Ridgway Center for International Security Studies.

Panelists for the Q&A session included William W. Keller, director of the Ridgway Center and Wesley W. Posvar Chair and Professor of International Affairs in GSPIA; Carie Lemack, cofounder of Families of Sept. 11; and Michael Hurley, a counterterrorism advisor to Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI).

NTI is a nonprofit group, headed by CNN founder Ted Turner and former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn, that works with governments and private organizations to stop the proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and improve security procedures on existing weapons stockpiles.

Casey was introduced by Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg, who noted his own long friendship and close working relationship with the Pennsylvania U.S. senator. Casey previously served as the state’s auditor general and treasurer.

After praising the senator’s support of higher education, Nordenberg mentioned that Casey’s great-uncle Jack Harding (CAS ’26) was an outstanding Pitt football player of the 1920s and among the University’s first Varsity Letter Award winners.

“I guess that was enough Pitt exposure for a proper upbringing,” Nordenberg joked, earning an appreciative laugh from Casey and the audience.

The chancellor’s remarks leavened an otherwise serious discussion of what he called “an issue of critical importance.”

Filmed and scripted along the lines of TV dramas like 24 and NCIS, Last Best Chance, produced by NTI in 2005, depicts the theft of weapons-grade nuclear material from a South African university laboratory, a military base in Russia, and a research facility in the former Soviet republic of Belarus.

With little success, U.S. and Russian authorities frantically work to track the material or foil the terrorists who purchased it, but as the film closes, two crude but effective bombs are entering the United States via the Canadian and Mexican borders, and a third is on its way to the United Kingdom.

Keller said the film correctly shows that it’s easier to control weapons-grade nuclear material at the places where it’s stored than to track it once it’s been stolen.

Securing and protecting nuclear facilities inside the former Soviet bloc, North Korea, and other countries does present diplomatic and logistics problems, he said.

But Keller said it would take a financial commitment to create an effective global tracking and security program for nuclear material.

“If we can lock up all the gold in Fort Knox, we can lock up all of the fissile material,” Keller said.

A lack of political will is the problem, Casey said, adding that “neither Democrats nor Republicans” have made nuclear proliferation an issue in the 2008 elections.

The next U.S. president, he said, must exercise leadership by calling for a global inventory of nuclear material, increasing the punishment for people caught smuggling weapons-grade material, and stopping the development of new nuclear weapons.
University students and faculty members can help by leading the discussion and pressuring political leaders to develop programs to control nuclear material, Casey said. “We’ve all got to do a lot more,” he said.

The danger is increasing, Keller said, as developing nations turn to atomic power to fill their needs for more electricity.

Keller, who teaches a course on nuclear proliferation and its links to terrorism, said he’s doing his best to focus students on the need to “get involved” in the problem.

“The bad news should not overshadow the good news,” Casey said. “We have a chance to get it right, and to do what we can.”