Somehow, complete and utter nuclear annihilation seems so Cold War-esque. It harkens back to Reagan’s 1980s, “The Day After,” and the Red Menace. Today it is easier to get caught up in the more immediate conflicts: terrorism, our deteriorating environment, and immigration, not to mention an unpopular war in Iraq that is dragging into its fourth year.
So it is rather jarring to be reminded that the United States and Russia still have 26,000 nuclear weapons between them. That North Korea’s recent arrival in the nuclear weapons club and Iran’s impending arrival have rendered international security even shakier than it was during the height of the Cold War. Finally, rubbing salt into the wound, we are reminded that tons of material that could be used to make even more nuclear weapons are dangerously under-secured.
Because of these factors, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has moved up the minute hand of its doomsday clock so that it is now positioned at five minutes to midnight. Or, to be utterly clear, we are that much closer to nuclear annihilation.
This marks only the 18th time that the hands of the clock have been changed since 1947 and the closest we have been to nuclear doomsday since the demise of the Cold War.
Fiften years after that war ended, we still follow policies that weaken our nuclear security. It makes one question the priorities of our government when it persists in maintaining an aggressive nuclear posture, even when its primary nemesis – the Soviet Union – has melted away.
Besides keeping our nuclear arsenal at Cold War-levels, the United States is considering some programs that would keep our nuclear weapons laboratories well-employed for the next 25 years. The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the semi-autonomous entity at the Department of Energy in charge of our nuclear weapons, is examining possibilities for its future through a mindset known as “Complex 2030.”
The principal part of the government’s vision for future is the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW). There are arguments about what exactly is meant by this – do we want to replace all our nuclear weapons or just some? Would we ensure that we can continue to unleash the same level of catastrophic damage, or would we build nuclear weapons with smaller yields? Is the whole project a good idea?
Thanks to a program known as Stockpile Stewardship, we are certain that our nuclear weapons are effective even without having held a test since 1992. And independent studies by scientists have proven that the pits – where the bang for the nuclear weapons comes from – will likely be good for another 100 years.
So why do we need to replace what doesn’t require replacing? Why promote the RRW which could very well be a new nuclear weapon in disguise? Our insistence upon holding onto such a huge arsenal of nuclear weapons and augmenting it further with new designs does little to give credibility to our protestations about the proliferation of other countries.
Besides, this determination to hold onto the past is preventing our government from focusing on threats that we actually face now. It detracts funds, brainpower, and political capital away from dangers that should not be ignored, while simultaneously sustaining a build-up of nuclear weapons that does not protect the United States.
Blessedly there is no valid reason for the doomsday clock to still exist, and we certainly should be ashamed that we continue to tick it closer to midnight by our own actions.
Victoria Samson is a research analyst for the Center for Defense Information, a non-partisan think tank in Washington, D.C., that focuses on military and security issues. www.cdi.org.
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