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:
- In 1942 the U.S. began its crash program to build nuclear weapons – the Manhattan Project – with the purpose of deterring or defeating a Germany. Three years later, the U.S. dropped two bombs on Japan, an eventuality that had not been contemplated at the project's outset.
- In the first decade of nuclear weapons production in the U.S., and even longer in the Soviet Union, little attention was paid to the management and disposition of massive volumes of nuclear waste, much of which was simply dumped into the desert around Hanford in Washington state and rivers around the Soviet plant at Chelyabinsk. Now both countries suffer the environmental, human health and budgetary consequences of a seemingly intractable clean up challenge.
- In building up their nuclear arsenals, the United States, the Soviet Union, China (and somewhat less so the other nuclear powers) paid little attention to costs. The U.S. and the U.S.S.R. developed nuclear doctrines "requiring" tens of thousands of weapons as if they were free goods, resulting in American expenditures of more than $5 trillion. Congress never asked for a full-cost accounting of this enterprise. (3)
- As the five declared nuclear-weapon states and others such as Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea, South Africa and Iraq acquired their nuclear weapons capabilities, they did not contemplate the possibility that one or more of them might collapse or change forms of governments. When the Soviet Union did collapse in 1991, it created the dangers of "loose nukes," poorly guarded nuclear facilities, and a nuclear establishment desperate to sell its wares to buyers, including in countries like Iraq and Iran. The possibility that nuclear weapons and materials will outlast the regimes that control them in other states today remains practically unexamined.
- As they built up their nuclear capabilities, all nuclear-weapon capable states, but on the largest scale the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., did not anticipate that one day they might want to build them down. This has led to unanticipated huge expenses and challenges in the dismantlement process.
- India in conducting its first and thus far only nuclear explosive test in 1974 did not foresee the international consequences which in many ways have undermined its entire civilian nuclear power program.
- Protagonists of nuclear power in the 1950s asserted with little solid analysis that it would provide electricity too cheap to meter; in 1998 the conservative Economist said of nuclear plants: "not one, anywhere in the world makes commercial sense."
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.
- The spread of nuclear power plants and related facilities around the world, if it occurs, will increase the prospects of accidents, weapons proliferation, and waste-disposal crises. This is especially true if the use of new plutonium as fuel increases.
- The nuclear proliferation threat, and indeed the overall security problems of major countries and regions, will grow if alternative sources of energy are not developed and distributed, particularly natural gas to Asia and renewable energy technologies everywhere.
- Doubts about the durability and governance of some states possessing nuclear weapon capabilities will complicate the nuclear arms control and nonproliferation challenge.
- To deal with the increased availability of dual-use technology, and overall globalization, international rules must be created and upheld to increase transparency and accounting of activities related to nuclear materials.
- Premium must be placed on integrating the relatively small number of states that now stand outside the international mainstream into regional and global trade, legal and nonproliferation regimes. Isolation can be a tool for punishing internationally deviant behavior, but the objective must be integration.
- In regions where security mechanisms exist, they must be strengthened by the inclusion of major actors, such as Russia in Europe. In regions where security mechanisms do not function, they must be engendered with the inclusion of major actors – especially the Persian Gulf with Iran and Iraq, Northeast Asia with North and South Korea, Japan, China including Taiwan, Russia, and the United States, and South Asia with India, Pakistan and China.
- If the world's leading powers continue to value nuclear weapons as a great source of status and security, the less powerful will extract significant tolls one way or another over time.
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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