With terror groups avowedly seeking to make a bomb, that nightmare scenario is less remote than most people realize, Cold War-era leaders and the current U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense told the women in a two-hour lunch discussion at Stanford's Hoover Institution.
The group of about 40 women, organized by investment manager Alison Davis and retired publishing executive Chris Boskin, included executives, investors, consultants, lawyers and philanthropists.
Former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry urged the women to use their influence to push for Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and for ambitious U.S. goals at next year's international nuclear summit in the Netherlands.
"As a group you could be very powerful and persuasive," Perry told them.
Former Secretary of State George Shultz, who had been scheduled to co-host the meeting along with Perry, was in London Wednesday as co-leader of the U.S. delegation to the funeral of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Perry, who was U.S. Secretary of Defense from 1994 to 1997, recounted several close calls with nuclear weapons he witnessed during his career that convinced him "the danger of a nuclear holocaust is very real.
"It's not academic to me," he said.
And "as nations like Iran and Pakistan get nuclear bombs, the likelihood increases that they will fall into the hands of terrorists," he said.
Perry said the world has slipped backward over the past two years in the quest to safeguard and destroy nuclear materials.
He lauded President Barack Obama's 2009 declaration of commitment to "a world without nuclear weapons" and the 2010 signing of a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the U.S. and Russia.
"But in the last two years all that momentum is gone, and we're perhaps moving backwards, highlighted by events going on in Iran and both Russia and China," he said.
"What's needed is a large-scale education project about the dangers we face today and what steps can be taken to reduce those dangers and working for total elimination of nuclear weapons."
Ashton Carter, currently the Deputy Secretary of Defense, said nuclear security is not high on many people's list of problems but "you can never, ever take your eye off this because it's the single most consequential security problem we face as humankind."
Physicist and arms control expert Sidney Drell, a retired Stanford professor and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, co-hosted the talk, which was moderated by former New York Times writer and editor Philip Taubman, author of the 2012 book, "The Partnership: Five Cold Warriors and Their Quest to Ban the Bomb."
Perry and Shultz, along with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, formed the Nuclear Security Project to generate global momentum among governments, leaders and the public for a vision to reduce the risks posted by nuclear weapons and to address the technical issues involved.
Davis and Boskin asked the women to consider becoming activists in the campaign to reduce nuclear risks and to get their friends to sign a communiqué on the issue for presentation to U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and other members of Congress.
They asked them to spread the word by hosting events in their own homes and showing the film "Nuclear Tipping Point," produced by the Nuclear Security Project in an effort to raise awareness about the threat.