For Gov. Jerry Brown, the question isn’t why he spent so much time in Washington this week talking about the growing threat of nuclear annihilation — it’s why everyone else isn’t doing the same.
“Most people are kind of blithely unaware,” Brown said of the issue. “It doesn’t show up in the press. That’s why I say, ‘The end of the world is not news.’ ”
Brown, though, may be ready to launch a visible new effort to change that. His busy schedule in the nation’s capital this week was filled with discussions of disaster relief, transportation and healthcare. But those meetings were scheduled to accommodate time he spent with leaders of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit organization that seeks to reduce the threat of nuclear war.
What the governor took from his Washington visit was an appetite for action, perhaps even a rebirth of his former evangelical fervor for nuclear disarmament.
“I’m looking for ways to generate more activism, to build the awareness and the momentum for more discussion between these hostile powers,” Brown said in an interview. “And I think that may involve more public activity.”
Brown was invited to join the group’s board of directors earlier this year, alongside some of the world’s most distinguished nuclear experts. His own views were shaped amid California protests over nuclear power and weapons research in the late 1970s, an era in which the young governor had tapped in to a broader national discussion.
That discussion, though, faded from the spotlight.
“It’s a hard subject and people don’t like to think about it,” said former Democratic Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn, now chief executive of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
Nunn said that he and Brown have talked about nuclear threats “on a number of occasions” over the years and that he was urged to enlist the governor’s help by former Defense Secretary William J. Perry and former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, who served under President Clinton and President Reagan, respectively.
“Citizens have to be interested” in shrinking the risk of a nuclear incident, Nunn said.
The Washington-based organization prides itself on the network of connections its international experts can tap to take action. Its projects have included a “fuel bank” for countries interested in nuclear energy to receive low-enriched uranium without creating a program that could produce more weapons.
That proactive approach is one Brown supports.
“Nobody seems to be worried about the general trajectory toward disaster,” the governor said in lamenting the tepid reaction the topic inspires in the general public.
Should nuclear tensions spill over into conflict, there would be few politicians as justified as Brown in saying, “I told you so.” The issue was a staple of his platform during three failed races for president, though his earnest approach to the topic often produced ribbing among political writers.
“Vote for Jerry Brown or die,” wrote journalist Roger Simon in a 1980 column published by The Times after Brown railed against nuclear weapons in the run-up to the New Hampshire presidential primary.
Brown’s focus often shifted to other issues during the rebirth of his political career, when he was elected as Oakland mayor in 1998 and attorney general in 2006. Now in the home stretch of a final term as governor, he said he’s ready to again sound the nuclear alarm — a cause that he said has parallels to his efforts on climate change.
“You’ve got to build pressure,” Brown said of the need for public engagement. “And I’m going to be working on that. You’ll hear more.”
This week’s meetings of the Nuclear Threat Initiative seemed to add energy to that effort. The events were closed to the press and public, but broad topics of discussion included cybersecurity at nuclear facilities and the threat of radiological warfare.
Founded by Nunn and media mogul Ted Turner and funded in part by billionaire investor Warren Buffett, the organization chose former Energy Secretary Ernest J. Moniz as its next leader Thursday. A portion of Brown’s travel expenses were paid by the organization.
Nunn said California is a likely partner in a pending effort by the group to eliminate from hospitals the kinds of materials that can be used to make a dirty bomb.
“We are not just a think tank,” he said.
That seems to suit Brown, who said it’s important for someone to stand up and work on more dialogue among the world’s nuclear powers, starting with Russia. He rejected any suggestion that the issues have taken on greater importance with the election of President Trump.
“Trump doesn’t make it any easier because of his unpredictability, that’s for sure,” the governor said Wednesday.
Nor does the presence of North Korea, an isolated nation with unclear motives and a rapidly improving system that could conceivably one day fire a nuclear missile to North America and the United States.
“You send a nuclear missile to L.A., it’s going to be a bad day for everybody,” Brown said. “So you can’t wait for that. You’ve got to start talking.”
The governor broached the subject of nuclear danger in several settings this week in Washington. He said he brought up the issue in brief meetings with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and former Vice President Joe Biden. He also met privately with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
What Brown wants is for the American government to begin actively discussing how to dial down the rhetoric and to acknowledge that a nuclear war would have no winners.
“The whole point is, you’ve got to talk,” he said. “All this chest-beating doesn’t go anywhere.”
The governor said on Thursday that he wants to return to Sacramento and reflect on what role he can best play in creating a broader national discussion. Nunn, who has known Brown for decades, said his political and communication skills are a valuable asset in shining a brighter light on the subject.
“Those are skills that Gov. Brown has in abundance,” Nunn said.