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An open letter to President Obama: The time on the Doomsday Clock is five minutes to midnight via Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

An open letter to President Obama: The time on the Doomsday Clock is five minutes to midnight

By Robert Socolow, Thomas Rosenbaum, Lawrence J. Korb, Lynn Eden, Rod Ewing, Alexander Glaser, James E. Hansen, Sivan Kartha, Edward “Rocky” Kolb , Lawrence M. Krauss, Leon Lederman, Ramamurti Rajaraman, M. V. Ramana, Robert Rosner, Jennifer Sims, Richard C. J. Somerville, and Elizabeth J. Wilson | 14 January 2013

Article Highlights

The Bulletin‘s Science and Security Board announces its 2013 decision to keep in place the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock: It will remain at five minutes to midnight. In this open letter to US President Barack Obama, the Board presents its views on the key issues that affected its decision and provides the president with recommendations to consider in 2013 and throughout his second term.

Editor’s note: Founded in 1945 by University of Chicago scientists who had helped develop the first atomic weapons in the Manhattan Project, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists subsequently created the Doomsday Clock in 1947 using the imagery of apocalypse (midnight) and the contemporary idiom of nuclear explosion (countdown to zero), to convey threats to humanity and the planet. The decision to move the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock is made every year by the Bulletin‘s Science and Security Board in consultation with its Board of Sponsors, which includes 18 Nobel Laureates. The Clock has become a universally recognized indicator of the world’s vulnerability to catastrophe from nuclear weapons, climate change, and new technologies emerging in other domains.

January 14, 2013

Dear President Obama,

2012 was a year in which the problems of the world pressed forward, but too many of its citizens stood back. In the US elections the focus was “the economy, stupid,” with barely a word about the severe long-term trends that threaten the population’s well-being to a far greater extent: climate change, the continuing menace of nuclear oblivion, and the vulnerabilities of the world’s energy sources. 2012 was the hottest year on record in the contiguous United States, marked by devastating drought and brutal storms. These extreme events are exactly what climate models predict for an atmosphere overburdened with greenhouse gases. 2012 was a year of unrealized opportunity to reduce nuclear stockpiles, to lower the immediacy of destruction from missiles on alert, and to control the spread of fissile materials and keep nuclear terrorism at bay. 2012 was a year in which — one year after the partial meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station — the Japanese nation continued to be at the earliest stages of what will be a costly and long recovery.

The stasis of 2012 convinces us, the Science and Security Board, to keep the hands of the Doomsday Clock in place.

Mr. President, we see 2013 as a year for vision and engagement. We know that decisive action can make the world safer. Humanity awaits the US leadership that can secure a future free of nuclear weapons. US action can induce the world’s nations to negotiate international agreements to avert the worst calamities of climate change. We turn to you, Mr. President, to lead us toward a safer world and to help us turn back the hands of the Doomsday Clock.

It remains five minutes to midnight.

Nuclear weapons. Mr. President, we applaud the steps your administration has already taken: ratifying the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), holding to firm account potential violators of the keystone Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), strengthening the global nuclear security regime, and reducing the opportunities and chances of success for terrorists to get hold of fissile material. We are glad that your commitment to the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty — for which we are confident you will seek Senate approval — has not wavered.

In 2009 you stood in Hradcany Square and boldly stated: “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” and you specified that the United States will “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, and urge others to do the same.” Four years after the visionary speech, we see progress, but we also see how much remains to be done.

When the United States and Russia ratified New START, both countries agreed to limit the number of deployed warheads to 1,550. But 20 years after the end of the Cold War, this is not enough, and the United States must commit to cutting well below 1,000 warheads. The stockpile of non-deployed strategic nuclear warheads should be significantly reduced and tactical nuclear warheads must be eliminated. Mr. President, such actions will signal a decreasing role for nuclear weapons in US national security strategy — and they will demonstrate America’s commitment to Article VI of the NPT to significantly reduce nuclear weapons and to strive for nuclear disarmament.

Mr. President, the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review PDF considered eliminating a leg of the nuclear triad as part of the planned reductions under New START. We believe that, by cutting well below 1,000 warheads, the arguments for keeping all three legs of the triad are less convincing than they may have been in the past. The triad is an expensive legacy of a bygone era that makes it increasingly difficult to implement deeper cuts in the global nuclear arsenal. Now is the time to examine the options to fundamentally restructure US nuclear forces.

In addition, much more can be done to signal your commitment to reducing the role of nuclear weapons in national security strategy: You could increase the dismantlement rate of retired nuclear warheads, and consider seriously reducing both the 1,152 nuclear warheads on the submarine-launched ballistic missiles, as well as the 300 nuclear warheads assigned to bombers.

These measures would send a strong message of America’s commitment to work toward a world without nuclear weapons.

As was the case in your first term, we hope that your second term will also begin with an updated statement articulating your future plans to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in US national security strategy.

Fissile materials

[...]

Since the 1970s, the United States has refrained from reprocessing of civilian spent nuclear fuel and the separation of fissile materials. In 2013, the United States should discourage Japan from commissioning its Rokkasho plant and encourage South Korea to reconsider its reprocessing plans.

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