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This article is from the In-Depth Report Humankind's Enduring Fascination with the Apocalypse
See Inside January 2010

The Nuclear Doomsday Clock Still Ticks

As long as opportunities and excuses for nuclear aggression persist, the world will never be safe from annihilation



Matt Collins

Early last October the Nobel Prize committee announced that it was awarding Barack Obama the Peace Prize for his “vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.” At the same time, in counterpoint to that news, it was reported that the director of India’s 1998 nuclear testing program had called for new tests. That move provoked fears of escalation, in case it motivated Pakistan and China to recommence testing and made it even harder for the U.S. to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Although some 150 countries have ratified the treaty, neither the U.S., China nor India has yet done so.

The chair of India’s Atomic Energy Commission has stated that his nation does not need to carry out any more tests; one can only hope that India’s policy makers agree and that by the time this essay appears, the world will not yet have taken one more step toward the brink.

Such news underscores that nuclear weapons and nuclear proliferation won’t be going away soon. On January 13 and 14 the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is hosting in New York City its first annual Doomsday Clock Symposium, where a decision regarding the setting of the minute hand on its famous Doomsday Clock will be made. The clock has served for nearly 65 years as an international symbol of the level of risk that the world faces from nuclear weapons and, more recently, from all potentially globally destructive technologies.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that I am co-chair, along with physicist Leon Lederman, of the board of sponsors of the Bulletin, a group formed by Albert Einstein in 1946, with J. Robert Oppenheimer as its chair. But my purpose here is not to promote the Bulletin itself but rather what it stands for.

No issue carries more importance to the long-term health and security of humanity than the effort to reduce and, perhaps one day, rid the world of nuclear weapons. The U.S. can and should take a leading role in this effort, but until recently, President Obama’s verbiage aside, our actions have done far too little to encourage this goal, and quite frankly we have too often discouraged it.

We live in a dangerous world, and actions by countries such as Iran and North Korea need to be monitored carefully, but the response should be commensurate with the threat.

President Obama was correct to end the planned installation of a missile defense system in Poland, not merely because Iran does not possess ICBMs capable of carrying nuclear warheads but because the proposed missile defense system, a mirror of the flawed one currently installed in the U.S., does not work and never has. Commissioning an unworkable defense against a nonexistent threat, especially when such a system in Eastern Europe clearly increased other international tensions with Russia, made no strategic sense. The mobile short-range missile defense system proposed as an alternative is more likely to function against any actual threat from Iran.

Still, President Obama’s hopes for a nuclear-free world cannot be met if we continue to act as if the U.S. should have an unfettered monopoly on such weapons. How can we expect other countries to show restraint when we have not yet ratified the CTBT, even though we can verify compliance effectively and our own nuclear arsenal does not need testing? How can we hope for a safer world when the U.S. and Russia have between them more than 10,000 nuclear weapons, with perhaps 1,000 still on trigger alert, despite the absence of any credible, justifying threat?

We have lived in a world where nuclear weapons have not been used against a civilian population in more than 60 years. I am not optimistic that this nuclear truce will last another 60. But until we honestly recognize the threat and minimize the opportunity and motivation for governments or terrorist organizations to carry out such an act, we continue to increase the odds that it will one day happen. As Einstein said 65 years ago, after the explosion of the first nuclear weapon, “Everything has changed, save the way we think.” We need to take his words to heart now more than ever.

This article was originally published with the title "The Doomsday Clock Still Ticks."

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