Terror puts Doomsday Clock in motion

by Jeremy Manier

Since the deepest chill of the Cold War, the occasional movements of the hands on the Doomsday Clock at the University of Chicago have served as an unofficial gauge of the threat that the world might plunge into nuclear Armageddon.p. But when the clock’s academic custodians today moved the hands closer to midnight for the first time in four years, the focus was on a laundry list of dangersincluding the increased risk of nuclear terrorism after Sept. 11. Ten years ago, it was unclear whether such an icon of superpower confrontation would stay relevant after the end of hostilities between the U.S. and Russia. As the specter of apocalypse has changed, so has the meaning of the Doomsday Clock, dreamed up by U. of C. atomic researchers 55 years ago as a warning of impending nuclear doom.

Now, after a decade of image overhaul, the clock’s boosters say its message of disarmament has found new urgency.

“It’s gratifying in a sense that Sept. 11 has awoken people to a world that’s still dangerous,” said Stephen Schwartz, publisher of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which has overseen the clock’s movements since its inception in 1947. “We like to say we’re more relevant than ever.”

Bulletin officials Tuesday would not say precisely how far they plan to move the clock, which has stood at nine minutes to midnight since Pakistan and India tested nuclear weapons in 1998. But sources familiar with the decision said that when Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman moves the minute hand on Wednesday, the new reading will be between five and seven minutes to midnight.

[At a news conference this morning, the clock was moved to seven minutes to midnight, the same position as when the clock made its debut]

One reason for the change was the recognition after Sept. 11 that terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda are actively searching for nuclear material, saidGeorge Lopez,chairman of the bulletin’s board and director of policy studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at theUniversity of Notre Dame.But he said the board also was disturbed by Bush administration decisions to weaken or pull out of numerous international agreements.

“It’s difficult to make the case that emerging nations shouldn’t test nuclear weapons when the U.S. makes continuing exceptions about the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty,” Lopez said.

Lopez also pointed to the administration’s lack of a plan to fully fund the Nunn-Lugar program, which helps protect Russian nuclear material from being stolen, and the decision to confront North Korea as part of an “axis of evil” rather than build on negotiations started in the Clinton administration.

In addition to nuclear threats, the new assessment is based on efforts by terrorists to obtain many different weapons of mass destruction, said Natalie Goldring, a member of the bulletin’s board and director of the Program on Global Security and Disarmament at the University of Maryland.

“We now know the terrorists were trying to get access to nuclear material and biological weapons,” Goldring said.

Since the end of the Cold War, the group has expanded its mission to focus on global security issues rather than nuclear threats alone.

Such a move may have helped the bulletin avoid the fate of other peace advocacy groups that died with the Cold War. But they have slowly nudged the publication away from what a few former Manhattan Project scientists had in mind in 1945 when they started planning the journal at Stineway’s Drugstore on 57th Street.

The bulletin’s early agenda was summed up in a fundraising letter from Albert Einstein, who wrote, “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”

Critics say history has passed by the bulletin and its continuing plea for international cooperation on nuclear issues.

“This clock business is a scam,” said Frank Gaffney, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Security Policy. “These are people who are completely irrelevant to the process, who have been promoting this publicity scheme for decades. They have consistently advocated prescriptions that are simply wrong.”

The group’s deliberate pace has left it holding the bag of history at times.

The clock did not change between 1960 and 1963, when the hands were moved back. In the meantime, the group ignored the Cuban missile crisis, which many believe brought the world closer than ever to nuclear war.

For many, the Doomsday Clock still carries meaning.

“For a few moments, people will think about nuclear danger, and do their own calculation of how dangerous they think this is,” said Joe Cirincione, director of the non-proliferation project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “In some ways there’s a greater danger today of a nuclear explosion on American soil than there was 10 years ago.”

February 27, 2002

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