Doomsday Clock Ticking Faster

The Chicago-based Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS) has moved the minute hand of the legendary Doomsday Clock forward by two minutes to show that the world is now only five minutes away from the ultimate catastrophe, or the end of civilization, symbolically represented by the midnight hour.

The decision to change the Clock’s setting was made by the Bulletin‘s board of directors in consultation with its board of sponsors, which includes 18 Nobel laureates. The new position of the minute hand signifies a call upon world leaders to take urgent action in favor of nuclear disarmament.

This advancing of the Clock highlights the perilous state of the world after a year which saw yet another nuclear explosion after an eight-year gap (in North Korea), aggravation of the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program, and a further buildup in the nuclear weapons-states (NWSs).

The Clock carries a great deal of credibility as a serious warning by peace-oriented scientists. The BAS was launched in 1945 by University of Chicago scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project, which developed the nuclear bomb. The Bulletin has consistently advocated the complete abolition of nuclear weapons.

The Doomsday Clock, created in 1947, has become a widely recognized indicator of the world’s vulnerability to the danger of nuclear war.

The last time the Clock was reset was five years ago, following the crumbling of arms control treaties, the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, and the buildup to the Iraq crisis, which led to its invasion. Last Wednesday was the 18th time the Clock was reset.

At five minutes to "midnight" the warning is a reminder that the world may be edging close to the danger of a nuclear holocaust. The 5-minute interval is not the worst-ever warning delivered by the BAS. The most alarming situation was in 1953 when both the U.S. and the USSR tested hydrogen bombs. The Clock was then reset at two minutes to midnight.

"However, what makes the present moment ominous is the fact that we are approaching the danger levels that marked the hair-raising crises of the Cold War in the early 1980s," says Satyajit Rath, a biologist at the National Institute of Immunology in Delhi, and an activist with India’s Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace.

Adds Rath: "The world is facing the gravest nuclear threat in two decades. The threat is especially serious in Asia."

The Asian Continent, stretching from the Persian Gulf in the West, to the Pacific in the East, has indeed been the center of gravity of menacing global nuclear developments in recent years.

North Korea walked out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 2003 and last October tested a nuclear weapon. In West Asia, Iran’s nuclear program, and the West’s pressure on Tehran to dismantle it, have produced a dangerous standoff.

Israel has added to the danger by declaring that it regards Iran’s nuclear activities as an "existential" threat to itself, comparable to the Holocaust. To meet the threat, Israel has reportedly drawn up plans to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, possibly with nuclear weapons.

Between the two flanks of the continent lie long-standing adversaries India and Pakistan, both armed with nuclear weapons. Although they have been engaged in a dialogue for three years, they have refused to negotiate nuclear or missile restraint measures. India is negotiating a special deal with the U.S. that would allow it to expand its nuclear arsenal as well as obtain access to civilian nuclear materials on the global market.

India and Pakistan will soon sign a token agreement to reduce the risks of accidental or unauthorized nuclear attacks. But so long as they amass and induct nuclear weapons, the possibility of Armageddon cannot be dismissed.

Any military confrontation between them – and there has been three wars in 60 years – is likely to escalate to the nuclear level according to countless war-gaming scenarios by strategists, including those in the CIA.

However, the nuclear danger is by no means Asia-specific. As the BAS board of directors says: "We stand at the brink of a Second Nuclear Age. Not since the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has the world faced such perilous choices."

The statement highlights not only North Korea and Iran, but also a generally renewed emphasis on "the military utility of nuclear weapons, the failure to adequately secure nuclear materials, and the continued presence of some 27,000 nuclear weapons worldwide," 2,000 of them ready to launch "within minutes."

The new heightened danger level shown by the Doomsday Clock has a non-nuclear dimension too, for the first time: the grave threats posed by climate change, "which are nearly as dire as those posed by nuclear weapons," although less dramatic in the short term.

Perhaps the most distressing aspect of today’s nuclear scenario pertains less to the "second-generation" or aspiring NWSs like Iran than to the established first-rung NWSs.

The U.S. and Russia alone between them have some 26,000 nuclear weapons. And the five NWSs recognized by the NPT have 95 percent of the world’s stocks of these mass-destruction devices.

"Shamefully, 16 years after the Cold War ended, the NWSs refuse to undertake deep cuts in their arsenals," argues Achin Vanaik, political scientist at Delhi University. "Even worse, the U.S. is aggressively pursuing plans to develop a new nuclear warhead [the first in nearly two decades], find new uses for existing weapons, and most ominously, build ‘Star Wars’-style ballistic missile defenses."

Russia and China too are developing and test-flying new missiles and building more of them. China has just tested an attack system which can shoot down a satellite orbiting in space.

"Besides underscoring the vulnerability of U.S. satellites, this could contribute to intensifying the militarization of outer space," says Rath. "This is dangerous."

Britain is renovating its submarine-based "Trident" nuclear program. France has been testing long-range missiles.

All five NWSs refused any commitment to disarm nuclear weapons in the 2005 NPT Review Conference, which ended without a resolution.

The BAS emphasizes three other nuclear-related dangers. First, "the Second Nuclear Era, unlike the dawn of the first nuclear age in 1945, is characterized by a world of porous national borders, rapid communications that facilitate the spread of technical knowledge, and expanded commerce in potentially dangerous dual-use technologies and materials."

Second, "more than 1,400 metric tons of highly enriched uranium and approximately 500 tons of plutonium are distributed worldwide at some 140 sites, in unguarded civilian power plants and university research reactors, as well as in military facilities."

Only a few kilograms are needed to build a bomb.

And third, growing interest in "civilian nuclear power development in countries around the world raises further concerns about the availability of nuclear materials … expansion of nuclear power increases the risks of nuclear proliferation."

In the short term, the single gravest nuclear threat to the world may come from possible attacks by Israel and/or the U.S. on Iran’s nuclear installations along with key military facilities to prevent retaliation.

"This will unleash a conflagration in the entire Middle East, of a kind the world hasn’t even imagined before," says Vanaik. "Iran will certainly firm up its resolve to develop nuclear weapons. A likely confrontation would have the deadliest global consequences."

Nothing could be worse for global security than a breaking of the taboo against the use of nuclear weapons, which has held since 1945.

[The writer is a founder of the Movement in India for Nuclear Disarmament and a member of the International Network of Engineers and Scientists against Proliferation.]

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political analyst and peace activist, a columnist with twenty-five Indian newspapers and co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament. He shared the International Peace Bureau's Sean MacBride International Peace Prize for 2000 with Vanaik.