The Doomsday Clock is a clock-face not a clock, and has measured the symbolic proximity of the world to nuclear holocaust for 60 years. Today, scientists will move its hands forward to show we are facing the gravest nuclear threat for at least 20 years. The original is displayed on a wall at the University of Chicago where it has been since 1947 when its hands were set to seven minutes to midnight - midnight being the witching hour when the world is plunged into the midst of a global atomic war. It was devised by the Chicago-based Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, at the dawn of the nuclear age. It is in Chicago that Enrico Fermi and his team discovered the process of controlled thermo-nuclear fission, the principle upon which nuclear power and nuclear weapons too are based. The hands of the clock have been moved to mark out various points of the nuclear age, and now are set to be moved to less than seven minutes to twelve, where they have stayed since 2002. This is not unprecedented, and for example during the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, they stood at just a few minutes away from Armageddon. It seems consensus of thought by those who know is that the world is once again in danger from its own actions, and more precariously than at any point since the tricky moments of the cold war in the early 1980's.
This afternoon, at 2.30 p.m., simultaneous events will be made in London and in Washington from seven minutes to some unspecified number of minutes closer to midnight.
The time was advanced five years ago in 2002, as a consequence of the aftermath of 9/11 and dissipating global arms treaties which marked a worrying mark-up in world political friction and instability. Now, at the beginning of 2007, the world map is stained more deeply on both counts, but also, in actions to be taken under the banner of "Global Warming", we are at the dawn of a renewed phase of nuclear proliferation, nominally in a effort to derive "carbon-free" nuclear power. Exactly how carbon-free nuclear is really is subject of discussion and controversy but probably over its working lifetime a nuclear power station will produce a mere 20-40% of the CO2 that an e.g. gas or coal fired plant would. That aside, the undoubted sideline to nuclear will be more material available for nuclear weapons, and most dangerously in the hands of those without prior access to it. The putative WMD's which were never found in Iraq, to the great shame of the Western powers, could become a reality, and in hands not particularly sympathetic to the West. Since any new nuclear plan will be based upon uranium/plutonium as its fuel, there will be plenty around for fabrication into at least dirty-bombs if not outright nuclear bombs, capable of devastating the centre of a large city e.g. the size of London. This would be a good moment to consider Thorium as an alternative nuclear fuel, since it is less readily fabricated into WMD's although as with any radioactive material, the dirty bomb threat persists.
Iran appears set on enriching uranium for its own nuclear programme, to the annoyance of the U.S., who have issued threats of sanctions and more veiled but darker threats. In the first case, dependent as the West is on Iranian Oil, could it seriously implement trade-blockades that would result in a fall in precious oil supplies from Iran? Of course not, unless some more devious plan were to be introduced to keep that reserve on hold, as has happened apparently to the Iraqi oil. Iran is taking the prospect of military action against them sufficiently seriously to buy-in weaponry from Russia with which to shoot down planes intent on potential bombing raids there, and the Russians have said they will sell more ground to air missiles to the Iranians if they want them. Israel have alluded to missile attacks against Iran whom it sees as a threat to their own security, on a rivalled stage to the WWII Holocaust, should the latter secure nuclear power.
North Korea too, has tweaked the nose of the Bush administration, by its own nuclear missile test last year, although I do wonder if that one rocket was it - do they have another one left to fire at anybody? However, since North Korea are on that straight line axis of evil, famously phrased by George Bush, along with Iran, the entire matter has been stirred-up and the U.S. are flexing their muscles in that general direction. Since North Korea is close to Japan, and especially close to South Korea, these nations may well begin to seek "protection" from it by securing nuclear defenses of their own. Then there is the nuclear arsenal of politically unstable and Muslim Pakistan, where Islamic extremists have already made several attempts to eliminate its President Pervez Mucharraf. With the ongoing war and fragmentation of Iraq (which lies on that axis too), the whole Christian-Muslim world may fall into opposing ranks.
The greatest perceived threat is that al-Qa'ida or some similar organisation might manage to get hold of an existing nuclear device or make one of their own, and use it in a catastrophic 9/11 follow-up attack on New York. This is not impossible since there are large amounts of missing nuclear material originating from Russia, much of it dating from the Soviet era. There are also a large number of skilled Russian nuclear scientists who, unable to find a decent standard of living for themselves and their families in Russia, are prepared to sell their skills to a more generous employer. There is no longer the MAD security that once prevailed - Mutually Assured Destruction - the security that if either the Russians or the Americans launched a nuclear missile at the other, the response would be that both sides and most of the world would be rendered a nuclear fricassee!
On the reckoning of the Doomsday Clock, the planet stood closest to nuclear destruction in 1953 when the Russians and the U.S. tested Hydrogen Bombs within months of each other, and the hands were placed at just two minutes to midnight. Therefrom, its face has traced the ebb and flow of the nuclear age, reaching its safest moment in 1991, at 17 minutes to twelve, when the U.S. and disintegrating U.S.S.R. signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), and in that year it seemed as though the world's superpowers could act in concert under the auspices of the United Nations, to drive Saddam Hussain's armies from Kuwait. Global warming will be the great excuse to instigate and pursue the new golden age of nuclear power, from which the proliferation of nuclear materials will strain the fabric of world peace. Once there were 5 nuclear powers, now there are nine, making the whole scenario less controllable. It is no surprise that the hands are moving nearer midnight, but I wonder how close are we to come to it exactly? Are we still minutes off or now counting in seconds?