Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Doomsday Clock Rolled Back One Minute

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Saturday,  April 3 / 10

Zack Gross

If “midnight” stands for inevitable, total global destruction, then the good news is that the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, based in Chicago, recently pushed back the dial from five minutes to midnight to six before the “final” hour. 

This was, in part, because of the agreement signed exactly one year ago by US President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to reduce deployed strategic nuclear warheads by twenty-five percent on both sides of the East-West divide.

The Bulletin was established in 1947, just after World War II, by people like Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer, prominent scientists who were part of the Manhattan Project that created the first nuclear weapons and who feared that the nuclear age would result in world conflagration.

The Cold War between the West and the Soviet Empire lasted some forty-five years, dominating the news and threatening our existence as each side ramped up its nuclear arsenal.  The whole thing was MAD – not just crazy, but actually described as “Mutually Assured Destruction”!  The Doomsday Clock signaled to the world just how close we were coming to nuclear war and has been changed by the Atomic Scientists 18 times in its history.

Since those early days, and especially since the Berlin Wall came down in 1990, the Bulletin has broadened its focus for the Doomsday Clock to also take into account challenges such as global warming and other growing vulnerabilities.  The Scientists, in this latest time change on the clock, cited increased awareness and interest in stopping key threats such as nuclear war and climate change not only among ordinary people, but also among world leaders, especially in the time since Barack Obama was elected US President. 

Global initiatives such as the United Nations Millennium Development Goals and the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference seem to indicate growing collaboration among nations to deal with the roots of the doomsday scenario.

At the same time, the world nuclear landscape has changed, not for the better, with many smaller nations now developing or possessing destructive materials and technology, including countries in conflict or tense situations, such as India, Pakistan, Israel, Iran and North Korea.   

As well, there is the longstanding fear that “terror groups” and nations suffering economic collapse and resource scarcity also present a significant potential nuclear danger.  This week’s Moscow subway suicide blasts might be next week’s second 9-11-style major attack, or worse.

Some of the high- and low-lights of the Doomsday Clock include its first appearance, pegged at seven minutes to midnight as the West and Soviet Union squared off in Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War. 

Two years later, in 1949, the “Arms Race” began in earnest when the Soviets tested their first nuclear device and the clock was reset to three minutes to midnight.  It was two minutes to midnight in 1953 as the US and USSR tested larger and larger atomic bombs and the Korean War broke out.

Skip ahead to 1972, when the two nations signed a couple of arms limitation treaties and the clock was set back to twelve minutes before midnight.  In 1984, with Ronald Reagan in power against a crumbling but stubborn empire, the US looked into space-based nuclear weaponry and the clock advance to three minutes to midnight!  In 1991, with the Cold War officially over and Russia’s arsenal being severely reduced, the Bulletin set the clock at seventeen to midnight, the best scenario ever. 

However, in recent years, with growing tensions between the superpowers, many resource wars being fought, and Eastern Europe wavering between its former masters and NATO and the European Union – and with new threats from climate, natural disaster, global poverty and terrorism – the clock had inched to five before the hour.

An interesting irony is that nuclear power is being seen by many as the way to solve humanity’s climate change problems.  Nuclear power stations are considered a “clean” technology by the Obama Administration and many scientists and citizens who may not be aware of past accidents and global tensions are jumping on-side. 

The question, then, is can this technology, which has proven dangerous in the past both as an energy source and a weapon, be safely used to replace coal and other polluting resources? 

Some countries, such as Britain, France and Germany, are seeking to reduce arsenals on their soil and develop conventions and technologies that would ensure safety, transparency and verification in the peaceful use of nuclear power.  To make this work, many new treaties would need to be written, many differences and tensions solved, many nations would have to open up their facilities to outside inspection, and civilian – not just military – involvement would have to be assured in nuclear affairs.

The history of the Doomsday Clock’s progress toward and back from midnight is checkered.  Tensions rise and fall, greed and fear often motivate the decisions and actions of humanity, and the life of our planet hangs in the balance. 

It is to be hoped that the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ current optimism is well-founded.


Zack Gross works for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of more than 40 international development organizations.

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