2023 Doomsday Clock Statement

This year, the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moves the hands of the Doomsday Clock forward, largely (though not exclusively) because of the mounting dangers of the war in Ukraine. The Clock now stands at 90 seconds to midnight — the closest to global catastrophe it has ever been.

The war in Ukraine may enter a second horrifying year, with both sides convinced they can win. Ukraine’s sovereignty and broader European security arrangements that have largely held since the end of World War II are at stake. Also, Russia’s war on Ukraine has raised profound questions about how states interact, eroding norms of international conduct that underpin successful responses to a variety of global risks.

And worst of all, Russia’s thinly veiled threats to use nuclear weapons remind the world that escalation of the conflict — by accident, intention, or miscalculation — is a terrible risk. The possibility that the conflict could spin out of anyone’s control remains high.

Russia’s recent actions contravene decades of commitments by Moscow. In 1994, Russia joined the United States and United Kingdom in Budapest, Hungary, to solemnly declare that it would “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” and “refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine...” These assurances were made explicitly on the understanding that Ukraine would relinquish nuclear weapons on its soil and sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty — both of which Ukraine did.

Russia has also brought its war to the Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia nuclear reactor sites, violating international protocols and risking widespread release of radioactive materials. Efforts by the International Atomic Energy Agency to secure these plants so far have been rebuffed.

As Russia’s war on Ukraine continues, the last remaining nuclear weapons treaty between Russia and the United States, New START, stands in jeopardy. Unless the two parties resume negotiations and find a basis for further reductions, the treaty will expire in February 2026. This would eliminate mutual inspections, deepen mistrust, spur a nuclear arms race, and heighten the possibility of a nuclear exchange.

As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned in August, the world has entered “a time of nuclear danger not seen since the height of the Cold War.”

The war’s effects are not limited to an increase in nuclear danger; they also undermine global efforts to combat climate change. Countries dependent on Russian oil and gas have sought to diversify their supplies and suppliers, leading to expanded investment in natural gas exactly when such investment should have been shrinking.

In the context of a hot war and against the backdrop of nuclear threats, Russia’s false accusations that Ukraine planned to use radiological dispersal devices, chemical weapons, and biological weapons take on new meaning as well. The continuing stream of disinformation about bioweapons laboratories in Ukraine raises concerns that Russia itself may be thinking of deploying such weapons, which many experts believe it continues to develop.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has increased the risk of nuclear weapons use, raised the specter of biological and chemical weapons use, hamstrung the world’s response to climate change, and hampered international efforts to deal with other global concerns. The invasion and annexation of Ukrainian territory have also violated international norms in ways that may embolden others to take actions that challenge previous understandings and threaten stability.

There is no clear pathway for forging a just peace that discourages future aggression under the shadow of nuclear weapons. But at a minimum, the United States must keep the door open to principled engagement with Moscow that reduces the dangerous increase in nuclear risk the war has fostered. One element of risk reduction could involve sustained, high-level US military-to-military contacts with Russia to reduce the likelihood of miscalculation. The US government, its NATO allies, and Ukraine have a multitude of channels for dialogue; they all should be explored. Finding a path to serious peace negotiations could go a long way toward reducing the risk of escalation. In this time of unprecedented global danger, concerted action is required, and every second counts.

 – Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 24, 2023
PeaceMeal, Winter 2023

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The precedent the world — and Russia — has rejected

In his belligerent speech on September 30 announcing the annexation of four Ukrainian regions, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, made the alarming assertion that the United States’ use of atomic bombs at the end of World War II “created a precedent.” It is true of course that the United States did use the bomb against Japan in August 1945, but Putin’s use of the term “precedent” suggests that he was trying to use the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a justification for the possible Russian use of nuclear weapons in the war in Ukraine.

Putin’s assertion is wrong.

The use of the bomb in August 1945 could have set a precedent for further use, but it has not done so. The most remarkable fact of nuclear history is that the bomb has not been used in war since 1945 — a 77-year tradition of non-use.

This tradition is not merely the result of luck but of effort. Since 1945, numerous resolutions in the United Nations have confirmed that nuclear weapons are instruments of terror and mass destruction, and that nuclear war must be avoided. Even the nuclear-armed states justify their possession as preventing war. The international community constructed a global nuclear order of deterrence and nonproliferation (and, less successfully, disarmament) in the effort to avert nuclear war.

The Soviet Union/Russia has been a key participant in the creation and maintenance of this order. During the Cold War, Soviet leaders consistently condemned the use of the atomic bomb on Japan and called it a war crime. They also portrayed it as an anti-Soviet act, a sign of American callousness and perfidy. Putin himself has expressed this view strongly. In 2007 he told a meeting of social studies teachers that no one should try to make Russia feel guilty about the Great Purge of 1937: “in other countries worse things happened,” such as the use of the atomic bomb against civilian populations in Japan.

In 2013, Putin declared in an interview with the Kremlin-funded Russia Today television channel that “we know Stalin now like never before. He was a dictator and a tyrant, but I very much doubt that in the spring of 1945, if he had been in possession of an atomic bomb, he would have used it against Germany.” In Putin’s view, atomic bombing of civilians would be too much even for the likes of Stalin, who had no problem carrying out horrendous purges.

Putin’s judgment is certainly not something one must accept. Nevertheless, his statements make clear that he viewed the atomic bombings with a unique opprobrium.

Putin’s recent assertion that the 1945 atomic bombings constitute a precedent thus contrasts oddly with his previous condemnations of them. The assertion is also dangerous. As an editorial in the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaia Gazeta stated days before Putin’s speech, “to allow the possibility of a nuclear conflict, in thoughts and words, is a sure step toward allowing it in reality.”

U.S. leaders, too, have rejected the idea that 1945 is a precedent. In a speech at Hiroshima in 2016, President Obama spoke of “the future we can choose — a future in which Hiroshima and Nagasaki are known not as the dawn of atomic warfare, but as the start of our own moral awakening.” The Peace Memorial Park and the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima commemorate the suffering that atomic bombs caused and remind the world that nuclear weapons should never be used.

Russian leaders know this, even while wielding their nuclear threats. On January 3 of this year, Russia joined with the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council — the United States, Britain, France and China — to reaffirm the Reagan-Gorbachev formula that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

Putin would do well to keep this in mind. It will help remind him that if he ever did order a nuclear strike, people would be discussing how high it ranked in the annals of political crime.

– Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, October 14, 2022
PeaceMeal, Fall 2022

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U.N. chief urges end to nuclear weapons for ‘future generations’

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged all nations to abolish nuclear weapons, which “offer no security, just carnage and chaos,” as Russian President Vladimir Putin amps up threats in his war against Ukraine. Guterres made his remarks on September 26 to a special U.N. General Assembly session on the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, which has been marked every year since 2013, as he offered his New Agenda for Peace.

“The Cold War brought humanity within minutes of annihilation. Now, decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we can hear once again the rattling of nuclear sabers,” Guterres told the General Assembly. “The era of nuclear blackmail must end. The idea that any country could fight and win a nuclear war is deranged.”

“Nuclear disarmament is not a utopian dream,” Guterres tweeted after his speech. “I urge all countries to ease tensions, reduce risk and forge a new consensus around defusing the nuclear threat for good. Eliminating these devices of death is possible and necessary.”

The previous week, Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened to use nuclear weapons in Russia’s war in Ukraine, warning “it’s not a bluff.” Putin also said he was partially mobilizing hundreds of thousands of reservists in Russia to bolster the military in Ukraine in what is believed to be the first mobilization in Russia since World War II.

The United States called the military aggression “outrageous” and urged the United Nations to push back against Moscow’s military campaign and support Ukraine.

Guterres said United Nations members are frustrated with the “slow pace of disarmament” and are concerned about “the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of the use of even a single nuclear weapon, let alone a regional or global nuclear war.”

In August, the parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons fell short of reaching an agreement.

“We are disappointed — but we will not give up,” Guterres said. “I urge all States to use every avenue of dialogue, diplomacy and negotiation to ease tensions, reduce risk, and eliminate the nuclear threat.

“My proposed New Agenda for Peace calls for meaningful disarmament and developing a common understanding for the multiple threats before us,” Guterres added. “I pledge to work closely with all Member States to forge a new consensus around how we can collectively defuse these threats and achieve our shared goal of peace.”

“Any use of a nuclear weapon would incite a humanitarian Armageddon,” Guterres warned. “We need to step back.

“Nuclear weapons are the most destructive power ever created,” he said. “Their elimination would be the greatest gift we could bestow on future generations.”

– United Press International, Sept. 26, 2022
PeaceMeal, Fall 2022


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Rhetoric in Ukraine has reinforced the fallacy of limited nuclear exchange

Since the end of the Cold War, Russia, the United States, France and China have continued to possess and develop nuclear weapons below the strategic level of land-based and submarine-launched intercontinental-range ballistic missiles. The long-touted rationale for this was simple: non-strategic (or tactical) nuclear weapons are necessary to give the decision-maker more options and provide a credible proportionate deterrence response to the use of similar weapons by an adversary. The rationale continues by implying that such nuclear weapons use would occupy a third and separate strategic conflict space between conventional war and all-out strategic nuclear exchange. It is necessary, it has been argued, to occupy that space to deter at all levels.

The profound implication of this line of reasoning is that this “limited nuclear exchange” space is both distinct and separate from conventional war below and nuclear Armageddon above, and that transitions between the spaces can be controlled. This is, at best, unproven conjecture.

For many years, opponents to the continued existence of such tactical weapons in nuclear arsenals have argued to the contrary. Rather than being controlled, those transitions are simultaneously enabled, increased in probability, and accelerated by the very existence of such weapons.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attendant and near-continuous rattling of his nuclear saber, has brought this argument to stark reality. His first threats, as the war unfolded, were largely ignored by Western nuclear-armed nations. United States President Joe Biden did not want to “nuclearize” what is still a conventional conflict.

Six months into the war and in the face of Russian conventional losses and retreats, Putin has doubled down and made more specific threats. While some commentators interpret Putin’s remarks as less than an increased threat, that is not consistent with his other moves: non-elections in the seized regions, sabotage of the North Sea pipeline, increased use of indiscriminate drone attacks, the appointment of Gen. Sergei Surovikin – a hard-liner with a reputation for brutality – in charge of Russian forces in Ukraine, and a mass mobilization of troops.

The only good news is that Putin does not yet appear to be making concrete steps to turn his bellicose rhetoric into preparations for nuclear weapon use, such as preparing to draw warheads from storage and mate them with their delivery systems.

According to current U.S. and NATO countries’ nuclear doctrines, the response to Putin’s escalatory rhetoric should have been carefully calibrated, proportional rhetoric. It should have reminded Putin that a transition by Russia from the conventional space to the less-than-strategic nuclear space would be met with a range of options that include a proportional nuclear response. Indeed, the rationale by those maintaining tactical nuclear weapons has long been that threats of massive retaliation are simply not credible.

But that’s not what happened.

President Putin operates largely in an unchallenged one-man power space, which the U.K.’s communications intelligence agency GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) opines is largely responsible for Russia’s strategic failures, and therefore has little moderation on his choice of rhetoric. In contrast, any nuclear rhetoric by the United States and other NATO nuclear powers has been carefully calibrated. Thus, any variation from declaratory doctrine will not be accidental and deserves close scrutiny.

The stark assessment that tactical nuclear weapons may actually be used by Russia in Ukraine has clearly broken the “limited exchange” theory around the table of the U.S. president’s National Security Council. The National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, did not use proportional language, nor subsequently did President Biden.

On September 25, Sullivan stated: “We have communicated directly, privately and at very high levels to the Kremlin that any use of nuclear weapons will be met with catastrophic consequences for Russia, that the U.S. and our allies will respond decisively, and we have been clear and specific about what that will entail.”

On October 6, during a fund-raiser in New York, President Biden said, “We have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis.”

Words like “catastrophic” and “Armageddon” are dramatic, are not proportional, and certainly were carefully chosen.

With its choice of words, the National Security Council seems to have accepted that the transition into nuclear weapons use in the 21st century is something untried and that escalation control — far from assured — is nebulous and likely mythical, as James Acton, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace explained in a series of tweets following Biden’s “Armageddon” comment.

Such declarations illustrate an understanding at the highest level of the need to deter any nuclear weapon employment with the threat of a catastrophic response.

Perhaps realizing the hollowness of the like-for-like limited exchange shibboleth, siren voices have begun to weave a parallel new construct, that Western countries could respond to the first use of a nuclear weapon in war since 1945 by a “devastating” conventional response. This novelty is meant to avoid the nuclear escalation their limited exchange theories were certain could be controlled. This, however, is its own equally dangerous fantasy.

A conventional response to Russian nuclear use would need to be so devastating that it would likely provoke further nuclear use. This is particularly true if this response involved, as retired U.S. General David Petraeus suggested in an interview on October 2, “[the United States] leading a NATO, a collective effort, that would take out every Russian conventional force that we can see and identify on the battlefield in Ukraine and also in Crimea and every ship in the Black Sea.” Such a second nuclear use in response would likely be aimed at those who destroyed his conventional forces – NATO – rather than be confined to Ukraine.

Indeed, if there were no nuclear response, the whole tapestry of nuclear deterrence across the world could unravel dangerously. This dilemma — how to respond to a limited nuclear use — has dogged every secret war game since the turning of the millennium. It enabled the continued possession of tactical nuclear weapons and mindsets long past their Cold War best-before date. Such narrative invented a “more acceptable” use of nuclear weapons as a brief nuclear excursion in a conventional war. The mindsets bred a generation of officers and officials who accepted this notion and integrated limited nuclear use into their rhetoric and war plans.

But this dilemma is based on false premises.

The way to deter the transition to a likely uncontrolled nuclear escalation is to make it clear that a devastating response would ensue to any nuclear weapon employment. Carity needs to be re-established and maintained between conventional conflict and any nuclear weapon attack.

President Biden and his national security advisor clearly understand this. Let's hope that President Putin, despite his rhetoric, also understands it.

Hope alone is not a strategy. We must bolster hope with urgent action to remove these less-than-strategic weapons, whose existence has brought us to this feverous place and has been shown to be illusionary and dangerously destabilizing.

– edited from Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Oct. 21, 2022, and reprinted in PeaceMeal, Fall 2022

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Nuclear tragedy in the Marshall Islands

Sally Clark

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May 25, 2022

We were innocent 21-year-olds entering an organization called the Peace Corps in 1969. We came from all over the United States, some wanting to dodge the draft, but most of us were embracing a desire to help others. We were thrilled looking out the window of Micronesia Air plane peering down at a beautiful atoll, a thin necklace of green trees and white sandy beaches, floating on the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. As we approached for landing, we buzzed first over the runway to clear all the trucks, pigs, cars, chickens, and people off the landing area. Then we landed, on the rough runway, the pilot forcing the plane into reverse to come to a stop, much to our relief, at the end of the concrete road in Majuro, looking across at the Pacific Ocean.

We stepped off the plane and into an extremely humid hot environment, where we received greetings by the Marshallese placing leis over our heads, so many leis that they were eventually stacked all the way to our chins. Young, naive Americans, we knew little about the area, other than, perhaps, fleeting thoughts that we might find the remains of Amelia Earhart or artifacts from her plane there.

Our naivete began to diminish when we were told the Atomic Energy Commission was coming to check out the health of the children and adults and of course to give out candy and show a dated movie. We asked questions and learned about the nuclear test over Bikini and the fallout coming down over a neighboring island, whose residents thought it was snow. We were told that the Marshallese ran outside, allowing the fallout to land on their skin, with some children putting it to their eyes. Luckily many residents sensed danger and ran to the ocean, saving themselves from a future road of at least some fallout ailments.

As we spent more time in the islands, little by little more detailed stories emerged — of still births, high cancer rates, and other radiation-related health issues. Islanders had been moved from Bikini before nuclear tests were conducted; some of the explosions were so great that one of the small islands simply vaporized, leaving a deep cavern. Many Marshallese had to endure being relocated from their blessed atoll to Kili, an island in the middle of the ocean with no lagoon.

Over the years, more and more people spoke out about such atrocities and such disregard for the Marshallese, who were actually called “savages” by a U.S. paper in the 50’s. My heart wept as I learned more information about the scope of nuclear testing in the Marshalls.

Between 1946 and 1958, the Marshall Islands region was thesite of the testing of nuclear weapons equivalent to the explosive power of 1.6 Hiroshima bombs every day for 12 years — 67 in all at the Bikini and Enewetak atolls — a fact that is impossible for me to comprehend.A resolution is now in front of the Congress asking the United States to prioritize nuclear justice in its negotiations with the Marshall Islands on an extended Compact of Free Association between the countries. The resolution recognizes that the United States nuclear testing program and radioactive waste disposal, including not just contaminated debris from the Marshalls but also material transported from the Nevada Test Site, caused irreparable material and intangible harm to the people of the Marshall Islands. We believe this harm continues to this day. Within this resolution is a call for an apology for what the United States did to the Marshallese and to raise awareness about the need for more action to undo this harm. U.S. Rep. Katie Porter of California and senators Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Edward Markey of Massachusetts are spearheading this effort, which would formally apologize for the U.S. nuclear legacy in the Marshall Islands and raise public awareness of the issue. Please write or call your representatives and senators, asking them to support House Joint Resolution 73 and Senate Joint Resolution 40.

What happened in the islands is simply incomprehensible to me. The toll on the Marshallese and the environment is impossible for me to grasp. And I have another nagging thought: Why as Peace Corps volunteers were we not warned about the radioactive fallout and the social issues we were being dropped into? Of course, there’s the implication that we were being used as pawns to smooth the relationship between the Marshall Islands and the United States and to continue to have the islanders as our friends for strategic reasons.

Who makes these decisions to drop bombs on such beautiful, pristine islands? Who sends 20-year-olds into a potentially radioactive area without warning them? When can we as a human race honor peoples around the world and get out of building weapons and gaining lands for strategic reasons? Please stop. I’m sad and weep and write letters asking for an apology. So sad. Where is our soul?

Sally Clark served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Marshall Islands in Majuro from 1969 to 1971. She then became a high school teacher and the coordinator of global education in her district in Newark, California. Since retirement, she has been a practicing psychologist focused on developmental issues in adults and children. Her article was reprinted in PeaceMeal, May/June/July 2022.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)