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former IAEA Director-General

In Memoriam: George Bunn (1925-2013)
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Roland Timerbaev

With the passing on April 21 of George Bunn, a U.S. arms control negotiator and legal scholar, the world has lost an indefatigable activist in the struggle to save the world from nuclear disaster.

Bunn joined the U.S. Navy during World War II, going to sea at the very end of the war. He was convinced that the atomic bomb saved his life, yet he devoted most of the rest of his life to the effort to bring the terrifying power of nuclear weapons under international control.

Bunn was pursuing a graduate degree in physics at the University of Wisconsin when his father, a lawyer at the Department of State, showed him a copy of the 1946 Acheson-Lilienthal report on the control of nuclear arms. This led him to pursue a law degree at Columbia University to be able to work on arms control negotiations.

As Bunn told the Stanford Report in June 2004, “The whole point was not to practice law but to control nuclear weapons. I got involved in nuclear arms control because I perceived that my life was saved by the bomb.” After law school, he worked for the Atomic Energy Commission and the law firm now known as Arnold and Porter.

Bunn became one of the most prominent and influential figures in the early days of nuclear arms control. During the Kennedy administration, he drafted the legislation that created the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) and became the agency’s first general counsel.

At ACDA from 1964 to 1968, he was a key advocate for and negotiator of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which has become the foundation for global efforts to stem the spread of nuclear weapons and pave the way for building a world free of nuclear weapons.

I first met him in the mid-1960s, when our respective governments chose us to be the day-to-day negotiators of the NPT. Fortunately, we did not turn into “opposite numbers” representing two rival “superpowers” of the Cold War era, which was typical for that time. Very soon, we realized we were like-minded people. We deeply believed in the vital need to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and we did our utmost to achieve that goal. This was the inherent basis of our close personal friendship that lasted for more than 50 years.

This common understanding and deep mutual trust between the two main negotiating parties—the United States and the Soviet Union—helped to overcome the innumerable problems that we encountered during NPT negotiations. Bunn and his ACDA colleagues were essential to securing agreement on language clearly banning the transfer of nuclear weapons, which was for a time in question because of the interest of some parties in a NATO multilateral nuclear force. One of the other major stumbling blocks was reaching agreement on the scope of international inspections to ensure the reliable execution of the treaty. The key issue was whether the inspections would be implemented on a universal basis by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) or by regional bodies such as Euratom. The Europeans, backed by the United States, wanted to stick with only Euratom inspections, while the Soviet Union was opposed to having Germany and other NATO allies inspecting one another.

After many unsuccessful attempts to solve this issue, in the summer of 1967, we decided to make yet another try during a hike in the mountains above Lake Geneva. As Bunn wrote in his engaging 1992 book, Arms Control by Committee: Managing Negotiations With the Russians, the Soviet participants, Vladimir Shustov and I, suggested a compromise: autonomous bodies may negotiate safeguards agreements with the IAEA on the condition that the overall responsibility for verification would remain with the agency.

Although originally instructed not to compromise on the verification provisions, Bunn and his colleague, Culver Gleysteen, felt that the risk was worth the reward: a mutually acceptable compromise with their Soviet counterparts. The creative process of finding the middle-ground formula began on a hike in the mountains, continued as we wrote down our agreed ideas on the text while riding the cable car back down, and eventually brought about results endorsed by both sides.

The compromise opened the way for the IAEA to inspect nuclear facilities on the basis of universality. That spirit of compromise helped to finalize the entire treaty in a relatively short period of time and secure its support by a vast majority of states.

In 1968, Bunn was named U.S. ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, the year the NPT was opened for signature. As Bunn wrote 35 years later in the December 2003 issue of Arms Control Today, “The NPT nonproliferation norm…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.”

After his government service, Bunn moved to Madison, Wisconsin, where he taught law and became dean of the law school at the University of Wisconsin. He greatly expanded the law school, established its first clinical program, and helped found the first interdisciplinary program in energy and the environment at the university. That energy and environment program now has a fellowship established in his honor.

In the 1980s, Bunn returned to arms control work, teaching first at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, and later at Stanford University, where he spent the final part of his career at the Center for International Security and Cooperation and mentored the next generation of arms control students, scholars, and practitioners.

Through his published essays, articles, and books, as well as his frequent travels, Bunn continued to play a major role in debates over nuclear arms reductions, a comprehensive ban on nuclear testing, a treaty to ban further production of nuclear materials for weapons, and the security of nuclear materials and facilities, among other topics.

Bunn was in high demand as an expert on arms control. He traveled extensively to speak before large audiences and help establish nongovernmental organizations devoted to arms control. In the early 1990s, he and I were invited to The Hague to provide advice for the newly established Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

His creative thinking and persistence helped advance the goals and objectives of the NPT. In the lead-up to the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, Bunn argued in Arms Control Today and elsewhere that “the indefinite and unconditional extension of the NPT is clearly the most effective way of validating and preserving an international norm of non-proliferation.” He and I collaborated on an analysis of the legal options available to the parties at the 1995 conference, and on a number of other papers interpreting aspects of the NPT.

Following the 1998 nuclear test explosions by India and Pakistan, Bunn made the case that the NPT and UN Security Council resolutions make it clear that “not only does the non-proliferation/no-testing norm apply to India and Pakistan, but that the no-testing norm should apply to the five nuclear-weapon states even though the CTBT [Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty] has not yet formally entered into force.” After the U.S. Senate rejected the CTBT in 1999, Bunn continued to provide ideas and insights on how supporters of the CTBT can accelerate its entry into force and overcome the 1999 setback to the nonproliferation and disarmament regime.

Well before the September 11 terrorist attacks, Bunn was focusing attention on the importance of strengthening the physical protection and security of nuclear materials and nuclear facilities against theft and terrorist attack. As far back as 1986, he published a paper that called for a new effort to strengthen the global regime for nuclear security, a topic to which he returned again and again in the years after the September 11 attacks. Next month, IAEA member states will meet in Vienna to address that topic.

To mark Bunn’s retirement in 2004, Stanford University held a forum to recognize his career accomplishments. His friend and frequent co-author, John Rhinelander, who was one of the negotiators of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the first Strategic Arms Limitation Talks agreement (SALT I), said that Bunn “is the single-greatest resource we have in terms of American lawyers in arms control.”

In 2009, Bunn received a lifetime achievement award from the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies for his work to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and to promote global understanding of and support for nuclear arms control and disarmament.

Until his last days, George Bunn deeply felt the overpowering necessity of a global effort to bring about far-reaching nuclear arms control leading to the world free of nuclear weapons. He was a believer in the idea that negotiated agreements, common norms, and cooperative approaches are essential to the security of all. He will be affectionately remembered and missed by his friends, colleagues, students, and negotiating partners the world over.


Roland Timerbaev spent more than 40 years as a Soviet and Russian diplomat. He participated in the drafting of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and documents establishing the International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards system. He currently is a member of the advisory board of the Russian Center for Policy Studies in Moscow.

Posted: June 3, 2013