Latest Change in the Doomsday Clock

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists recently announced that it was moving the Doomsday Clock two minutes closer to midnight, to 11:55 or five minutes to midnight. Things haven’t been this bad since the Reagan-era defense build-up. It seems the benefits of winning the Cold War have been erased by the events of the last 10-15 years.
Nuclear threats to humanity have always been the core concern of these scientists, carrying on the traditions of the founders of this journal who worked on the Manhattan Project. Some of the contributors to The Bulletin have expressed environmental concerns over the years, but always as an aside to their key theme of Nuclear Holocaust. This time, Climate Change takes a much greater role in The Bulletin, reflecting the growing worldwide consciousness about global warming. These twin threats – the nuclear ambitions of North Korea & Iran and climate change – seem much more daunting than anything the US & Soviet Union posed during the Cold War.
The scale of the nuclear threat is the most striking difference, particularly in prospect. There are tens of thousands of warheads remaining in the declared arsenals of the major nuclear states: America, Russia, China, Britain, France, India and Pakistan. Undeclared weapons are known in Israel. South Africa and Libya have dismantled their undeclared weapons programs. But that is not the disturbing element of this current situation. It is the spread of nuclear know-how and the easy availability of it, mostly publicly on The Internet. Many undergraduate educated technical people throughout the world could build a nuclear weapon. With many, many more civilian reactors now operating than during the Cold War to say nothing of those planned for the foreseeable future, it is easy to imagine how these people could obtain nuclear materials. Iran and North Korea illicitly got their nuclear technology from Pakistan.
Even more worrying is that nuclear power plants are now being widely considered as an alternative to fossil-fuel plants in an attempt to combat climate change. This will most likely increase the proliferation of nuclear materials throughout the world. Jordan, Egypt and the Gulf States have just announced their intention to build nuclear power stations. Globalized value-chains for the mining, enrichment, use and disposal of these materials – the so-called fuel cycle – transports nuclear materials around the world. After fuel has been used in a reactor, it contains weapons-usable nuclear material. Safeguarding the fuel cycle, most importantly in relation to enriched Uranium & Plutonium, will be critical. The Bulletin, citing IAEA sources, is understandably skeptical.
The Second Nuclear Age, as the Bulletin says, therefore rests on the horns of a dilemma, "How to mitigate climate change without increasing the dangers of nuclear materials proliferation". The current and future thirst for energy seems enormous. If you add 3 billion more consumers to present numbers over the next few decades, the dilemma just gets harder and harder to manage. China and India, already nuclear states, will almost certainly use civilian nuclear power going forward in a bigger and bigger way. China already pollutes the air and water heavily as its industrial base grows. India, whilst not as dependent on manufacturing as China, is becoming a large consumer of energy in their knowledge-work economy. These countries especially will need to consider their global responsibilities most seriously.
But US nuclear and environmental responsibility is really the key issue. America is the world’s largest nuclear power & the largest polluter. Their nuclear arsenal is being upgraded and their energy consumption is rising. Climate Change is now firmly on the mainstream political agenda, thanks to the first 100 hours of the newly-elected Democratic-party majority in Congress, but committees and statements are just the beginning. Nuclear disarmament is nowhere to be seen from Ms. Pelosi or her colleagues. President Bush seems much more focused on putting more troops into Iraq so the new Congress can’t abandon them than anything else. Most pressingly, the Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty expires in 2009 and nobody in the US government wants any further reductions.
Another recent development is China’s destruction of one of their aging weather satellites with a ballistic missile. The US and others have reacted to this very quickly. If China gains a "Star Wars" capability, then it will transform the relationship it has with the US. Given China’s position on a range of strategic issues, this threatens to make things worse.
Perhaps if the American people elect Senator Clinton in 2008 then things will change. I can’t imagine them changing significantly on the nuclear or climate change front while President Bush is in office. Perhaps now that North Korea has reengaged in their nuclear talks things will get better in time. Perhaps now that Iran’s Islamic leadership are moderating President Ahmadinejad due to UN sanctions, tensions will abate. The Doomsday Clock is a real measure of how bad things have become; the worst since the Cold War. I’d like to think we’ll all see the clock turned back by a few minutes within a few years but I’m not overly optimistic.

About Fred Pugsley

AI & Quantum guy. Foodie, skier, voracious reader.
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3 Responses to Latest Change in the Doomsday Clock

  1. Fred says:

    As part of a wider trade deal, Russia will build 4 nuclear reactors in India ( Russia also wants to sell them MiG-35 fighter jets. India wants more oil and gas from Russia.

  2. Fred says:

    It seems that illicit trade in nuclear materials is alive and well in Ossetia( The IAEA is set to coment on the more recent cases tomorrow.

  3. Fred says:

    Looks like Russia Plans New ICBMs and Nuclear Subs says the New York Times. "The purchases are part of a weapons modernization program for 2007-2015 worth about $190 billion".

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