The Nuclear Peril



Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

its doomsday clock to seven minutes before midnight on February
27, 2002. Despite the growing precipitous nuclear crisis since,
the clock remains unchanged. The doomsday clock represents the global
level of nuclear danger and has been as close as two minutes to
midnight in 1953 when the “United States and Soviet Union tested
thermonuclear devices within 9 months of one another” and as
far away as 17 minutes in December 1990 when it was redesigned to
reflect democratic movements in Eastern Europe signaling the end
of the Cold War. Nuclear armageddon still hangs over civilization. 


Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

is overly optimistic in
leaving the clock at seven minutes to midnight, given the Bush administration’s
wanton disregard and reckless withdrawal from important nuclear
arms treaties, which manage the risk of nuclear war; the proliferation
of nuclear weapons and fissionable material; and the irrational
blueprint for the increase and miniaturization of nuclear warheads.
The purpose of building smaller but still very powerful warheads
is to expand the scope of their usage to any war or pseudo war waged
by the U.S. In addition, the United States is embarking on a program
to weaponize space that will only provoke potential competitors
such as China to add to their own arsenals. The Bush energy policy
of transferring dependence on oil to nuclear power poses a number
of risks, including a nuclear power plant breakdown, disposal of
nuclear waste, and the creation of additional targets for terrorists.
One of the least understood perils of nuclear proliferation is the
high probability of a nuclear accident as reflected in the number
of accidents that have occurred to date but have not yet resulted
in the detonation of a nuclear weapon. Primarily because of the
actions of the Bush administration, the doomsday clock should be
at two minutes to midnight. 

The Clock is Ticking 


t could be argued that during
the Cold War when both the U.S. and USSR were scrambling to build
bigger and more powerful nuclear warheads and more accurate delivery
systems, the risk was greater than today. During the Cold War, both
the Soviet Union and the United States possessed an absurd overkill
capacity, which spawned the bizarre and demented concept of Mutually
Assured Destruction (MAD) whereby no side would launch a first strike
for fear of massive retaliation. The primary chink in the armor
of MAD was an effort by the United States to build a first strike
capability, that forced both sides to accelerate the decisionmaking
process about whether to push the nuclear button. The new system
was largely automated and was referred to as launchonwarning. The
argument that the world is safer today than during the Cold War
is meretricious because both the U.S. and Russia still have an overkill
capacity and continue to be on a launchonwarning basis with the
additional risk of an aging Russian system that is in a state of
dangerous disrepair.

It is impossible to assess the extent to which the various treaties
and conventions have reduced the risk of nuclear war, but both sides
have partially adhered to the arms control regimes to avoid the
menace of annihilation. However, President Bush has already demonstrated
his belief that international laws are optional when U.S. interests
are at stake. He has also clearly exhibited his contempt for some
of the most important arms control treaties whose purpose has been
to protect human civilization from the scourge of nuclear war. 

During the Cold War, the U.S. and USSR signed the AntiBallistic
Missile (ABM) treaty, which prohibited the development and deployment
of defensive systems, with the exception that each country was allowed
one location, presumably to protect their capital city.  The
principle of the ABM Treaty has been to avoid the inevitable increase
in the nuclear arsenals on both sides in an attempt to overcome
the other side’s defensive system. 

On June 13, 2002 “Dr. Strangebush” officially withdrew
from the ABM Treaty declaring that it impeded the ability of the
United States to defend itself from an InterContinental Ballistic
Missile (ICBM) attack. U.S. withdrawal from the ABM treaty was in
preparation for developing and deploying a Nuclear Missile Defense
(NMD). The U.S. government planned to convey to the Chinese that
they would not object to China expanding its arsenal as a counterweight
to a U.S. missile defense system if China would not object to the
U.S. NMD. 

Without the ABM Treaty and with the U.S. intention of ignoring the
Outer Space Treaty (OST), there is no obstacle to the weaponization
of space. The weaponization of space will only provoke other nuclear
powers to devise a nuclear strategy to overcome a U.S. defensive
system and avoid being at the mercy of the American arsenal. Therefore,
abandoning the ABM Treaty and the Outer Space Treaty will lead to
a further buildup of nuclear warheads. 

A further danger in rescinding the ABM Treaty and deploying weapons
in space is the threat posed to Russian spacedbased early warning
systems. With U.S. weapons in space, the Russians will be fearful
of the vulnerability of their spacedbased monitoring systems resulting
in a more nervous trigger finger. The withdrawal from the ABM Treaty
and Outer Space Treaty moves the clock to six minutes to midnight. 

The lynchpin of the arms treaties regime to guard against nuclear
war has been the NonProliferation Treaty (NPT), which prohibits
nonnuclear signatory states from developing nuclear weapons in exchange
for the five official nuclear powers committing to a reduction in
their arsenals. It prohibits nuclear states from transferring nuclear
components, devices, and technology to nonnuclear states. Although
the United States has not withdrawn from the NPT, it has violated
it in significant ways. 

In 2000 the NPT Review Conference committed to an “unequivocal
undertaking…to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear
arsenals.” Although a majority of member states at the 2005
NPT conference were seeking an agreement to completely dismantle
all nuclear weapons based on the 2000 conference, the U.S. obstructed
any progress towards that goal by impeding development of a Comprehensive
Test Ban Treaty and 13 other steps to achieve nuclear disarmament.
According to David Krieger, president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation,
“Current U.S. nuclear policy comes down on the side of an indefinite
commitment to nuclear weapons.” 

unmasked his hypocrisy about his commitment to the NPT regime when
he struck a deal with India, in which the U.S. would transfer nuclear
fuel, technology, and parts to India in exchange for India spending
billions of dollars on U.S. defense industries. The hypocrisy began
with the fact that India is not a member of the NPT and therefore
is outside of the inspection and control regime of the International
Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In negotiating the treaty, the U.S.
ignored virtually every single proliferation constraint, thereby
allowing India to process weapons grade material at eight of their
reactors without the required IAEA inspections. By transferring
nuclear fuel, the U.S. is in violation of Article I of the NPT,
which states, “Each nuclearweapons State Party to the treaty
undertakes not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclearweapons
or other nuclear explosive devices” and Article VI, which states,
“Each of the parties to the treaty undertakes to pursuit negotiations
in good faith on effective measures relating to the cessation of
the nuclear arms race.” Violations of the NPT move the clock
to five minutes to midnight. 


nother deterrent to the development
of new weapons and ensuring the reliability of old ones is the Comprehensive
Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which bans all testing of nuclear weapons
in order to prevent further developments in weapons technology and
specifically the miniaturization of warheads. The miniaturization
of weapons would widen the scope of possible usage of nuclear devices
to include, for example, the destruction of underground facilities
such as the nuclear reactors in Iran. To test these new weapons,
the United States and France have developed a sophisticated computer
system that allows either country to redesign weapons without an
actual physical test. 

Although it doesn’t violate the letter of the CTBT, the decision
by Congress to launch the Reliable Warhead Replacement program violates
its spirit. By developing more sophisticated and miniaturized nuclear
warheads, the U.S. is precipitating further development of nuclear
technologies by both nuclear and nonnuclear states. Violating the
spirit of the CTBT and developing new weapons moves the clock to
four minutes to midnight. 

With the end of the Cold War, the U.S. had no justification for
expanding and upgrading its nuclear arsenal, yet every year the
government has spent billions of dollars enhancing its nuclear capability.
According to the

Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

, “As
of January 2006, the U.S. stockpile contains almost 10,000 nuclear
warheads…. The Defense Department is upgrading its nuclear
strike plans to reflect new presidential guidance and a transition
of war planning from the topheavy Single Integrated Operational
Plan of the Cold War to a family of smaller and more flexible strike
plans designed to defeat today’s adversaries.” Bush’s
nuclear policy reflects a severely distorted and inaccurate perspective
of the global nuclear configuration where only Russia, which is
no longer an enemy, even remotely approaches the strength of the
U.S. arsenal. It would be suicide for any nation to launch even
the feeblest of nuclear attacks against the United States. 

the other hand, there are 27,000 nuclear warheads distributed among
the official and nonofficial nuclear powers, all of which can be
launched within half an hour.  The U.S. arsenal, the total
worldwide inventory of nuclear warheads, and the new nuclear weapons
strategy moves the doomsday clock to three minutes to midnight. 

The threat of a nuclear accident is possibly the greatest threat
to catastrophe. The complexity and number of mechanical, electronic
and chemical components in a nuclear arsenal creates the potential
for human error. There have been a frightenly large number of near
misses, many of which could have moved the doomsday clock to zero.
Consider the following accidents (as reported in the

of the Atomic Scientists

, 2006): 

  • February 1958 at Greenham Common airbase, England, a U.S. Air
    Force B47 jettisoned two 1,700gallon wingtip fuel tanks just missing
    a parked B47 armed with nuclear weapons 

  • February 1958 near Savannah, Georgia, a B47 armed with a nuclear
    weapon collided with an F86 fighter plane and jettisoned its bomb
    just before making a landing 

  • January 16, 1961 an F100 armed with a thermonuclear weapon caught
    fire scorching the nuclear weapon before it was extinguished 

  • January 1968 the Defense Department announced that between 1958
    and 1968, there had been 13 major aircraft accidents involving
    nuclear weapons 

  • In 1973 a Sandia Laboratories report stated that between 1950
    and 1968 there had been a total of 1,250 nuclear weapons accidents
    of varying severity, including cases where the bombs’ conventional
    high explosives had been detonated 

  • November 1977 in West Germany, a U.S. Army CH47 helicopter carrying
    nuclear weapons crashed after takeoff 

  • Since 1988, 96 U.S. nuclear warhead accidents have been reported 

With 27,000 warheads deployed in so many countries, it is virtually
inevitable that human or nonhuman error will eventually be responsible
for a nuclear accident. Any nuclear accident would be a catastrophe
of major proportions, but an accident that triggers a nuclear exchange
could precipitate nuclear winter and would sentence life on earth
to a very painful death. The possibility of nuclear accidents moves
the doomsday clock to two minutes to midnight. 

The tragic commentary of an arms buildup, and the nuclear arms buildup
in particular, is that leaders in most nations and institutions
lack the ability to transcend the historical tendency to resolve
disputes by force to a higher plane where negotiations, cooperation,
and compromise replace force as the means to settle differences. 

It is ironic that Albert Einstein, the person who discovered the
theory that led to nuclear weapons, warned that, “The unleashed
power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking
and we thus drift towards unparalleled catastrophe.”


Model has been a professor of political science, economics, and sociology
for 31 years at Seneca College, King Campus, in Toronto. He has published
three books:

Lying For Empire:

How To Commit War Crimes
With A Straight Face

(Common Courage Press),

People Before
Profits: Reversing the Corporate Agenda (

Captus Press), and

Rule: Understanding and Challenging the New World Order

Rose Books).