“Doomsday” clock pushed forward amidst fears of nuclear conflict

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a Chicago-based magazine founded by nuclear scientists shortly after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has moved forward the time on its symbolic "Doomsday" clock. Created in 1947 to represent the relative closeness of the threat of nuclear disaster, the clock's face has been adjusted twenty times since then and now also reflects developments in other technologies and the sciences that could "inflict irrevocable harm" on the human species.

In statements made yesterday, the publication's Science and Security Board members and its director provided information about the clock's adjustment. Previously, the clock had been positioned at a setting of six minutes to midnight in Jan. 2010, when "it appeared that world leaders might address the truly global threats we face," said board member Allison MacFarlene, an environmental science and policy professor at George Mason University in Virginia.

Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist at Arizona State University and prominent science writer, cited "[i]naction on climate change and rising international tensions" as the reason for the clock's movement, and said that world leaders are "failing to change business as usual." The decision was made Jan. 9 at a symposium in a law firm building in Washington, D.C., wherein Science and Security Board members reviewed recent events with sponsors and scientific experts.

Originally set at 11:53, the clock moved as far as 11:58 in 1953, when the United States and the Soviet Union both tested thermonuclear devices. Following the avoidance of direct American-Soviet confrontation during the Suez Crisis, along with the organization of International Geophysical Year and the Pugwash Conferences, the BAS downgraded the threat in 1960. Both activities allowed American and Soviet scientists increased interaction, while the group also observed an increase in public understanding of nuclear threats.

Between 1960 and 1991, the clock moved backward and forward a number of times, moving furthest from midnight upon American and Soviet signing of the Partial Test Ban Treaty, Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, and Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Thereafter, with the exception of the downgrade in 2010, the position of the clock has advanced closer to midnight since 1991, when the threat was rated lowest, at 11:43 upon the signing of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Notably, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the point at which nuclear conflict reached its greatest potential during the Cold War, emerged and closed without a corresponding adjustment of the clock.

Commenting in the Bulletin's press release from Tuesday, Jayatha Dhanapala, a former Sri Lankan ambassador and past UN secretary-general for disarmament affairs, spoke favorably of a "new spirit of international cooperation" and an overall reduction in tensions between Russia and the United States. However, Dhanapala warned that "failure to act on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty by leaders in the United States, China, Iran, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Israel and North Korea on a treaty to cut off production of nuclear weapons material continues to leave the world at risk[.]"

Dhanapala ended his statement by noting that "the world still has over 19,000 nuclear weapons, enough power to destroy the world's inhabitants several times over."

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