Doomsday Clock May Finally Stop Ticking

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by Haider Rizvi, IPS, Feb. 23, 2009

UNITED NATIONS, Feb 23 (IPS) – The Barack Obama administration’s apparent resolve to take U.S. foreign policy in a new direction is creating ripples of hope for an enhanced U.N. agenda on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament.

Observers and diplomats who are due to take part in a major meeting to discuss progress on the implementation of the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) told IPS they had never before so optimistic about the U.N.-led negotiation process.

“I think he [Obama] is sincere about what he is saying,” said David Krieger, president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, an advocacy group that works closely with the U.N. “I think he is willing to stand up against the vested interests.”

Many peace activists, like Krieger, believe that the threat of a possible nuclear catastrophe is not going to go away so long as the major nuclear powers remain reluctant to take drastic steps towards dismantling their nuclear arsenals.

Countries that rolled back their weapons programmes, as well as those that never produced such arms, have long been calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons, but the response they received from the major nuclear powers has always been disappointing. In addition to actions against the spread of nuclear weapons, the NPT requires the five declared nuclear states – the United States, Russia, Britain, France, and China – to engage in “good faith” negotiations for disarmament. Until now that task has remained elusive.

The United States and Russia are the world’s largest nuclear weapon states. They possess no less than 93 percent of the total number of nuclear weapons in the world, according to Sipri, a Sweden-based think tank that tracks weapon production and export worldwide.

Among others, China has 400 warheads, France 348, and Israel and Britain about 200 each. India is believed to have more than 80 and Pakistan about 40 nuclear weapons.

Critics see the United States as the most irresponsible member of the nuclear club, for it not only failed to meet the NPT obligations, but also contributed, at great length, to block, and even derail, the international discourse on nuclear disarmament.

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The Doomsday Clock

from Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

The Doomsday Clock conveys how close humanity is to catastrophic destruction–the figurative midnight–and monitors the means humankind could use to obliterate itself. First and foremost, these include nuclear weapons, but they also encompass climate-changing technologies and new developments in the life sciences that could inflict irrevocable harm.

The nuclear age dawned in the 1940s when scientists learned how to release the energy stored within the atom. Immediately, they thought of two potential uses–an unparalleled weapon and a new energy source. The United States built the first atomic bombs during World War II, which they used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Within two decades, Britain, the Soviet Union, China, and France had also established nuclear weapon programs. Since then, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea have built nuclear weapons as well.

For most of the Cold War, overt hostility between the United States and Soviet Union, coupled with their enormous nuclear arsenals, defined the nuclear threat. The U.S. arsenal peaked at about 30,000 warheads in the mid-1960s and the Soviet arsenal at 40,000 warheads in the 1980s, dwarfing all other nuclear weapon states. The scenario for nuclear holocaust was simple: Heightened tensions between the two jittery superpowers would lead to an all-out nuclear exchange. Today, the potential for an accidental or inadvertent nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia remains, with both countries anachronistically maintaining more than 1,000 warheads on high alert, ready to launch within tens of minutes, even though a deliberate attack by Russia or the United States on the other seems improbable.

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