ON THE SIDELINE of this week's G8 Summit at Gleneagles, US President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet one on one. Atop their agenda will be commitments they made four months ago in Bratislava to address an issue even more important to the well-being of Russian and American citizens than African aid and climate change, the issues that will headline the G8.
Recall the first televised presidential debate last fall when the moderator asked both President Bush and Senator John Kerry: ''What is the single most serious threat to American national security?" Both answered: nuclear terrorism. President Bush said: ''I agree with my opponent that the biggest threat facing this country today is weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a terrorist network."
Last February's Bratislava summit put nuclear security at the top of the agenda. For the first time, Bush and Putin accepted personal responsibility for addressing the issue and assuring that their governments act urgently. Recognizing that at the sluggish pace of the last several years, Russian nuclear facilities would not be adequately secured until 2020, they established a target of 2008 for completion. They agreed to share ''best practices" for improving nuclear security and to focus increased attention on the security culture in both countries. They promised to develop new emergency response procedures for missing nuclear materials or dirty bombs. They pledged to convert all US and Russian research reactors that have been provided to developing and transitional countries from weapons-usable high-enriched uranium to harmless low-enriched uranium fuel.
More important than these promises was the establishment of points of accountability in each government. The two presidents named US Secretary of Energy Sam Bodman and Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency Chief Alexander Rumyantsev as chairs of a ''senior interagency group" to organize implementation of these commitments and to report back regularly on their performance.
A former chief executive from the business world who served in the first term of the Bush administration as deputy secretary of commerce and deputy secretary of the treasury, Bodman is known for his low-keyed, unflappable, unstoppable determination. Though he had been on the job less than a week when given this new assignment, he accepted the mantel recognizing, as one of his colleagues observed, that if a nuclear bomb exploded on Bush's watch, Bodman had been identified as the ''stickee."
The prospects of a potential joint hanging did much to concentrate minds not only in the Department of Energy, but in the much more difficult environment of Russia's Atomic Energy Agency. Working groups were actually formed and have been communicating regularly each week. Bodman visited Rumyantsev in Moscow on May 24, and welcomed Rumyantsev for a reciprocal visit at the Department of Energy on June 16 to ratify and sign the Bratislava work-plan and review the progress.
Surprisingly, especially to experts who have been following this issue for many years, the combination of acceptance of personal responsibility, designation of a point of accountability, and development of timetables with milestones and performance measures has begun moving more balls down the field faster than ever before. At Gleneagles, the two presidents will be able to announce that they agreed on a list of specific Russian nuclear sites that need upgrades, are improving their countries' emergency response capabilities to track down missing nuclear material, are conducting a series of workshops in Russia to address nuclear security culture, and are steadily cleaning out research reactors that use high-enriched uranium.
On other issues, like the liability debate that has delayed the elimination of more than 4,000 potential nuclear bombs of plutonium for more than two years, the administration scored a breakthrough. With former undersecretary John Bolton sidelined, Secretary Rice's State Department effectively said yes to Russia's reasonable demands regarding accountability for nuclear accidents on its territory. The ball is now back in Russia's court where Foreign Ministry lawyers are, as usual, finding it difficult to accept ''da" for an answer.
Among the great puzzles about the first term of the Bush administration was the gap between words and deeds in combating nuclear terrorism. Verbally, both the president and the vice president declared this to be the single greatest threat. In contrast, the administration's performance in addressing this threat, from loose nukes in Russia to North Korea's quadrupling its nuclear arsenal, earned barely passing marks. Six months into the second term is surely too early for any final grades. But at this midterm of the first year, on this critical front, the administration's performance has improved significantly and is on a trajectory to good marks that could make America greatly safer.
Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, is the author of ''Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe."