Thursday, January 18, 2007

Five Minutes to Midnight

The Doomsday Clock was moved forward two minutes earlier this week. According to the Chicago-based Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the time is now 11.55pm – barely five minutes to nuclear annihilation. The Bulletin cited North Korean nuclear tests, Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the US’s recent use of "bunker buster" nuclear bombs as the reasons for the change. They also cited human related climate change as a growing danger. "We stand at the brink of a second nuclear age," the group said in a statement read in New York and London. It was the first adjustment since 2002.

The Doomsday Clock is a peculiar hangover from the Cold War. The Clock evoked both an image of doom (midnight) and a nuclear launch (countdown to zero). Created in 1947, it was initially set to seven minutes to midnight. This week marks the 18th adjustment of the clock in the last 60 years. It has been as close as two minutes to midnight in 1953 when the US and USSR tested thermonuclear devices within nine months of one another, and as far away as seventeen minutes in 1991 after the same two countries signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (SALT).

The custodians of the clock are the board of directors of the “Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists”. Founded in 1945, the Bulletin is a magazine that covers global security and public policy issues, especially related to the dangers of nuclear weapons. The original founder and editor was biophysicist Eugene Rabinowitch, a professor of botany and biophysics at the University of Illinois near Chicago. It has an impressive list of contributors over the years that include Albert Einstein, Edward Teller, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Carl Sagan, Wernher von Braun, Al Gore, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke.

Bunker buster bombs
are the newest threat identified by the Bulletin. These are bombs designed to penetrate hardened targets or those buried deep underground. Barnes Wallis designed the first bunker buster bombs for the British in World War II. The US military updated Barnes Wallis’s original designs for use in the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The American looked at plans to develop nuclear variants in order to access the so-called Al-Qaeda underground complexes in Tora Bora as well as Iranian nuclear industry which is also mainly underground. In 2005, the Bush administration requested Congress approval for $4 million dollars to research the technology. Congress refused and the idea was abandoned after criticism of potential nuclear fall-out. The military analysts Jane’s suspect however that the research may still be continuing under a different name.

The bulletin believes we are now at the cusp of a Second Nuclear Age. Many felt that the nuclear threat was eradicated by the fall of the Soviet Union as a world superpower in 1991. But many new dangers emerged to fill the void. The ex-Soviet states suffered a partial breakdown of command and control systems leading to the “disappearance” of former Soviet nuclear weapons. Israel nuclear ambitions are matched by many of its Arab enemies. The 50 year old feud between India and Pakistan is now a nuclear standoff. And Pakistan’s chief nuclear technician A Q Khan has sold secrets of nuclear technology to many smaller countries in Asia and Africa worried about American hegemony. Meanwhile the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NNPT) could disintegrate due to the lack of good will among its members.

The climate change rationale is also adding new relevance to the Cold War institution. The statement released this week claimed global warming poses a dire threat to human civilisation second only to nuclear weapons. It cited flooding, desertification and threats to habitats and agricultural resources which are likely to contribute to mass migrations and wars over land, water, and other natural resources. Stephen Hawking told the London gathering “as scientists, we understand the dangers of nuclear weapons and their devastating effects, and we are learning how human activities and technologies are affecting climate systems in ways that may forever change life on Earth. As citizens of the world, we have a duty to alert the public to the unnecessary risks that we live with every day, and to the perils we foresee if governments and societies do not take action now to render nuclear weapons obsolete and to prevent further climate change."

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