It’s Seven Minutes To Midnight — Nuclear Overview
By Louis Rastelli
From Vol. 3 No. 1, 2004
In February 2002, the Atomic Clock kept by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which has kept track of the chances of a nuclear bomb going off since the late 1940s, was moved ahead to seven minutes before midnight. The main reason was Bush’s abandonment of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (or ABM) Treaty, which had forbidden nuclear powers from developing missile defence systems. They also cited the increased chances of terrorists detonating portable nukes. This risk has grown since the Bush administration has weakened or pulled out of most international treaties controlling WMDs (in favour of a go-it-alone policy.) The only effort to reduce the number of nukes in the world was a program announced in 2002 whereby Russia and the U.S. would both put some older nukes in storage. Russia had wanted a deal where thousands of nukes would actually be destroyed, but Bush was against this, insisting on the ability to re-deploy them in the future. (He never explained why he wants to reserve the right to one day launch thousands of nukes, which would destroy the earth.) Despite these lame agreements, the U.S. still maintains over 2000 nukes on hair-trigger alert, meaning they would reach- and destroy– Russia within 30 minutes of the President’s command.)
Another reason why the clock moved ahead is Bush’s program to develop new nuclear weapons. The threat from this isn’t so much the fact that the U.S. is re-starting nuclear R&D, but that it makes all the other nuclear powers feel obliged to do the same.
Still another reason why the clock has moved ahead is the appalling refusal of both Russia and the U.S. to conduct an inventory of how much nuclear weapons material (uranium and plutonium) each country has, without which it’s impossible to know how much has gone missing or been stolen. Though there isn’t much chance that nuclear material missing from U.S. stockpiles has been sold to terrorists, some of Russia’s lost material likely has (including at least 87 working portable nuclear devices, which are reported to be selling for $300 million each on the black market.) Russia is more willing to reveal its inventories than the U.S. is, but the fact is that unless countries like the U.S. and Israel reveal their arsenals, they won’t be able to convince countries like Iran or North Korea to do the same. This childish stance of “Show me yours or else suffer our wrath– but no, you can’t see mine” only encourages more countries to acquire nukes faster, because once they have some, they can use them to deter these threatened consequences. Maintaining secrecy on the missing nuclear material that exists also makes it harder to know how much needs to be tracked down.
And so, for this and other reasons, we are now on the cusp of a huge increase in the number of countries with nuclear weapons. (See www.thebulletin.org for more information about the Atomic Clock and current developments regarding nuclear arms and analysis of other global security issues.)
Crazy, by any other name…
During the Cold War, the prevailing theory regarding nukes was one of deterrence, which said that having a lot of nukes was the best way to deter (prevent) your enemy from using his. This state of affairs was referred to as Mutually Assured Destruction, meaning both sides knew they would get destroyed if they used nukes, so they didn’t. The acronym for Mutually Assured Destruction described the situation perfectly: MAD.
After the cold war, there was some progress in changing this state of affairs. Nuclear testing hasn’t occurred since India and Pakistan did it in 1998. However, the U.S., China and Russia still have large amounts of nukes on hair-trigger alert. India and Pakistan are in a MAD situation, and when Pakistan recently offered to mutually dismantle their nukes, India replied that it would, if it weren’t for the fact that Pakistan isn’t the only country its nukes are aimed at.
These types of situations have been dealt with since 1945 and are relatively stable, barring a calamitous accident. What’s less stable is the new U.S. decision to devise Nuclear Use Theories, meaning, planning for battleground situations where nukes could be used to shorten a war, scare or annihilate armies, or destroy a hardened bunker or vaguely pinpointed high-value target (say, if Bin Laden was known to be within the radius of a nuclear blast).
As a result, Russia and China are ramping back up their own nuclear programs, and North Korea and other nuke wannabes are hurrying up so they can deter the U.S., too. In the meantime, neighbouring Japan, South Korea and Taiwan would quickly produce deterrent nukes if North Korea tested its own. Iran and potentially other mid-east countries are interested in getting some to deter both the U.S.’ and Israel’s nukes, and for some reason both South Africa and Brazil have recently conducted research indicating they may be re-starting their own -dormant nuclear programs. All this is a direct result of the US decision to adopt Nuclear Use Theories, whose acronym is even more fitting than MAD; it’s NUTS.