The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists will tomorrow announce whether the danger of a nuclear cataclysm has moved closer since last year. The minute hand of the Bulletin’s Doomsday clock, which has measured since 1947 how close the world stands from catastrophic destruction through its symbolic proximity to midnight, has stood at six minutes to midnight since January 2010.
It was then moved back by one minute following the conclusion of the New START treaty between Russia and the United States on reducing their long-range nuclear weapons.
On the nuclear weapons front, the reasons for keeping the hands at six minutes to midnight are compelling, on balance. There are certainly warning signs flashing in parts of the world, but for now they reflect fears rather than reality.
Although relations with Moscow have not delivered further nuclear arms control measures since START, and the “reset” with the Obama administration has stalled, the situation is a far cry from 1984 when the Doomsday Clock stood at two minutes to midnight and dialogue between the two nuclear superpowers came to a halt during the Cold War.
Now the risk of nuclear conflagration emanate less from a potential exchange between Moscow and Washington, the two countries which possess 90 percent of the global nuclear arsenal and still have thousands of their nuclear warheads on hair trigger alert. Today the principle threat comes from nuclear-armed countries outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, such as Pakistan and North Korea. Worries have grown over the safety of the Pakistani nuclear weapons arsenal at a time when the country’s civilian government, led by an ailing president, is in confrontation with the powerful military, elements of which have been accused of supporting Taliban militia targeting American soldiers in Afghanistan. There are also concerns around Asia triggered by the sudden death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il and his replacement by his son aged in his late twenties.
Despite the rising tensions with Iran and the possibility of armed conflict over its nuclear ambitions, Iran remains inside the NPT. The UN watchdog has not produced evidence that Iran has taken the decision to develop a nuclear weapon in violation of its treaty commitment, although the last International Atomic Energy Agency report in November suggested that work towards a military objective may be ongoing.
In 2012, cool heads will need to prevail. Heads of State will meet in Seoul in March to follow up on the Obama administration’s 2010 nuclear security summit in Washington. Securing “loose nukes” will remain a global nuclear non-proliferation priority.
So that is why, on balance, The Bulletin of The Atomic Scientists should refrain from moving the Doomsday Clock minute hand any closer to midnight.