Scientists Move Doomsday Clock Back One Minute


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Jun 29, 2009
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NTI: Global Security Newswire - Scientists Move Doomsday Clock Back One Minute

WASHINGTON -- The world today moved approximately one minute further away from the brink of nuclear holocaust, according to a group of international scientists (see GSN, Jan. 12).

"It is six minutes to midnight. We are poised to bend the arc of history toward a world free of nuclear weapons," the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced in a statement. The declaration states that for the first time since the United States dropped its atomic bombs in 1945 "leaders of nuclear weapons states are cooperating to vastly reduce their arsenal and secure all nuclear bomb-making material."

Today's change marks the sole instance in the 63-year history of the Doomsday Clock that it has been turned back just one minute, according to Larry Krauss, a member of the Bulletin's Board of Sponsors.

The famed timepiece is meant to symbolize humankind's flirtation with Armageddon. Moving its hand away from midnight indicates the world has taken positive steps toward nuclear disarmament, Krauss said this morning at an event in New York.

"The time to begin to free ourselves from the terror of nuclear weapons and to slow drastic changes to our shared global environment is now," he said. "Even though we are encouraged by recent developments, we are mindful of the fact that the clock is ticking."

He later added: "We can't blow it."

The Bulletin was formed in 1945 by Manhattan Project physicists concerned about the destructive power of nuclear weapons. The magazine led to the creation of the clock in 1947, setting the minute hand at seven minutes to midnight to illustrate the danger of a nuclear-armed age.

The factors that determine the world's nearness to destruction are nuclear proliferation and climate change.

Before today, the publication's Board of Directors, in consultation with its Board of Sponsors, had shifted the minute hand on 18 occasions.

The symbolic clock was moved closest to midnight in 1953 when the minute hand was stopped at 11:58 because the United States and the Soviet Union had both tested hydrogen bombs in a nine-month period.

The last shift occurred in January 2007. The clock went from seven minutes to five minutes to midnight, reflecting the continued threat of nuclear weapons and the growing concerns posed by global climate change.

In order to shove the clock's minute hand even further from midnight, world leaders must develop new nuclear doctrines that "disavow" the use of existing weapons; complete the next review of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty this May with commitments on weapons reduction and nonproliferation from nuclear and non-nuclear states; and urge more countries to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, among other actions, according to Krauss.

The United States and Russia must complete negotiations for a follow-on agreement to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and begin laying the groundwork for additional nuclear cutbacks, he said. The former Cold War adversaries must also reduce the launch readiness of their nuclear forces and remove the warheads from their militaries.

"We must remind ourselves that the summer of hope is no substitute for the hard reality of achievement," said Jayantha Dhanapala, a member of the Bulletin's Board of Sponsors and president of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, alluding to the challenges that lie ahead. "Perhaps, in a year, we may have cause to be more optimistic."

In its statement, the Bulletin credited the "new era of cooperation" among world leaders to U.S. President Barack Obama, who has called for eventual global nuclear disarmament.

"With a more pragmatic, problem-solving approach, not only has Obama initiated new arms reduction talks with Russia, he has started negotiations with Iran to close its nuclear enrichment program, and directed the U.S. government to lead a global effort to secure loose fissile materials in four years," the Bulletin said.

The publication also commended the president for chairing a U.N. Security Council meeting on nuclear disarmament last September. That summit produced a resolution designed to deter proliferation through means such as discouraging withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and increasing CTBT membership.

Still, Kennette Benedict, the Bulletin's executive director, provided a note of caution.

"A handful of government officials, no matter how bold their vision, will not be able, on their own, to deal with the threats to civilization that we now face," she said during this morning's event. "Leaders and citizens around the world will need to summon the courage to overcome obstacles to nuclear security and climate protection."

The populations of countries around the world, particularly those in Europe, who no longer "buy into" the notion that nuclear weapons are essential, deserve praise as well, according to Pervez Hoodbhoy, head of the physics department at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan.

In a "very perverse way" Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda terrorist network deserve credit for contributing to the new trend of cooperation because "they have shown the irrelevance of nuclear weapons," said Hoodbhoy, who serves on the Bulletin's Board of Sponsors. He added that nuclear deterrence "means nothing to them."

Today's move was met with cautious optimism by those in the arms control community.

"The movement of the Doomsday clock away from zero is appropriate in light of developments in 2009, and could have been moved even further if the decision were based only on nuclear weapons issues" and did not include climate change, according to John Isaacs, executive director of Council for a Livable World.

"After little official focus on Cold War-aftermath issues by the previous two presidents, the U.S. government has now renewed a focus on the 23,000 nuclear weapons remaining across the globe and the danger that some of these weapons could get in the hands of terrorists," he said in a statement to Global Security Newswire.

Isaacs noted that where the clock ends up at the end of this year depends mostly on the "successful" wrapping up of the president's nuclear arms control agenda and a "productive" Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference.

"The fact that the Obama administration and others are seeking to jump-start action to reduce nuclear weapons roles and numbers and to permanently ban nuclear testing is a sign of progress and has shifted the terms of the debate, but the threat posed by nuclear weapons use and proliferation is still unacceptably high," Arms Control Association head Daryl Kimball said in a statement.

The administration and Congress must move on the goals laid out by the president before shifting the clock away from midnight again, he told GSN.

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