The world didn’t end last month with the “Mayan apocalypse.” But we still need to think about how close total annihilation caused by nuclear weapons could be.
Each year, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists considers resetting the Doomsday Clock, which gauges the state of existential global threats to civilization. (Disclosure: I must admit to being co-chair of the bulletin’s Board of Sponsors.) The setting of the clock is, of course, a somewhat subjective activity, and one can argue with the choices made. When it was first released in 1947 to graphically publicize the threat nuclear weapons and a nuclear arms race pose to humankind, the clock was set to seven minutes to midnight. The closest it’s ever been to predicting annihilation came in 1953, at two minutes to midnight. In 1991, it was set to its furthest point so far, 17 minutes to midnight.
A major change in the procedure for setting the clock took place in 2007 (coincidentally, when I took my current position on the bulletin’s board). No longer were nuclear weapons the only threat we would monitor: We would also take into account the growth of potentially destructive biotechnology and the threat of climate change. Exactly what time the clock is set to is less important than the trends we can observe—whether we are moving toward or away from disaster. Last January, the clock was moved forward one minute closer to midnight, in part because, while there was progress in several key areas, hopes that that Barack Obama would drive progress in climate change and nuclear proliferation were not met. This year, in large part because of continued lack of progress, the clock remains at five minutes to midnight—which is not good.
For many, nuclear weapons have fallen off the political radar entirely, except for the ongoing worry about terrorists or rogue states gaining access to nuclear materials and delivery systems.
But the fact remains that the governments of the world already possess perhaps 20,000 nuclear weapons—enough to destroy the world several times over—and we’ve seen little progress in the quest to rein in this danger. So nukes remain the Doomsday Clock’s primary focus. As such, whether the clock moves in 2014, and in which direction, could depend in part on a policy battle now heating up in Congress.
The current nuclear states have made a commitment to reduce their stockpiles, and the Obama administration has made some progress in that vein—for instance, early in his administration, by ratifying the START treaty, which calls for reductions in arsenals in both the United States and Russia. But the heart of encouraging nonproliferation is for nuclear states to behave as though they don’t view these weapons as a long-term strategic resource. If they continue to do so, how can we convince states that do not yet have nuclear weapons to resist pursuing them? It is a tragedy and a travesty that the United States, four years after Obama’s first election, has still not ratified a Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, for example. Doing so would signal that we do not intend to develop new nuclear weapons technologies that might make their use somehow more palatable.
But now a looming crisis may finally force renewed public discussion on our nuclear weapons arsenal, and on the role it plays in our national security infrastructure.
In 1946, the very scientists who first founded the bulletin lobbied successfully to have atomic energy (including weapons) placed under civilian, rather than military, control. They were worried that the military would not only be more inclined to use these weapons, as they had against Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but what little transparency and public accountability remained in this area would evaporate. As a result, the Atomic Energy Agency was formed.