A SecureWorld

From the Foundation's 1997 Annual Report

Shortly after the nuclear age dawned in 1945, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, founded by participants in the Manhattan Project, created a symbolic clock. The clock marked mankind's temporal approach to destruction, an alarm clock of sorts. It began, in June 1947, at seven minutes to midnight, and moved to its shortest warning point two minutes in 1953 when the U.S. and the Soviet Union tested thermonuclear weapons within nine months of each other, heralding a massive increase in destructive capacity. Ironically, the United States' and the Soviet Union's closest brush with nuclear annihilation the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis -- happened with so little warning and so quickly that the clock went unchanged, showing that nuclear threats, like earthquakes can defy our collective powers of prediction, warning and preparation.(1) In 1991, as the United States and the reforming Soviet Union signed the long-stalled START I Treaty and announced additional reciprocal cuts in tactical and strategic nuclear weapons, the Bulletin clock wound back to seventeen minutes to midnight, its most comforting position ever. Today the clock rests at fourteen minutes to midnight.(2)

Three minutes or thirty minutes, even if symbolic, are a short measure away from the destruction of human society which took XX years to develop. If during the Cold War the United States and the Soviet Union stood poised to unleash enough nuclear weapons to threaten natural ecosystems which took billions of years to evolve, this earth-defying threat has been diminished but not completely eliminated. The U.S. and Russia continue to deploy YY thousand strategic nuclear weapons between them and have not eliminated the hair-triggered operational doctrines and plans that could rapidly escalate any nuclear conflict. The point is, in a nanosecond of geologic time 53 years we have created disproportionately large threats to human and natural history.

Among the reasons for the emergence of these threats, the limitation of human foresight must be recognized. A quick survey of some of the unanticipated nuclear developments of the past 50 years tells the story:

To be sure, unanticipated positive developments also occurred in this period, as did many events which were correctly predicted. Most importantly, nuclear war has been avoided, whether through deterrence, enlightenment, or plain luck.

Still, the bounded nature of human foresight contrasts with the nearly unbounded durability of the nuclear dangers we have created. Nuclear waste, of which the world now possesses about 200,000 metric tons, contains isotopes which remain lethal for 1,000's to 1,000,000's of years. The most toxic of these plutonium 239(4) also remains viable as an explosive material for much of its 24,000 year half-life.

We are responsible today for managing these consequences of our past activities. But more, we take actions which themselves will have new consequences over time. This requires greater attention to predicting the effects of our actions. As we approach a new millennium and set our collective course, some basic propositions and principles may be useful in guiding our efforts to ensure humankind's and nature's protection from the worst dangers of the nuclear age.

These and other propositions and principles are reflected in the work of W. Alton Jones Foundation grantees as they and the Foundation pursue the goal of eliminating threats of nuclear war and the massive release of radioactive materials. The history, and more importantly the future of the nuclear age may suggest other approaches for achieving these objectives, and the Foundation will be open to them. Foresight is an imperfect instrument which must be frequently tuned.


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(1) The Cuban Missile Crisis, thirteen days in October 1962 when Soviet emplacement of ballistic missiles in Cuba was detected by the United States, brought American leaders close to a decision to attack the island unknowing that tactical nuclear weapons were in place, and that nuclear warheads had been delivered to the island for missiles capable of hitting the United States.

(2)Following nuclear tests by India and Pakistan in May 1998, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists reset its Doomsday Clock five minutes closer to midnight to 11:51 p.m.

(3)Atomic Audit (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, June 1998).

(4)Ed. Note: Not all isotopes of plutonium are fissile.


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