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Turning Back the Doomsday Clock

The clock has moved one minute away from midnight—the longstanding symbol for the end of civilization—signaling the possibility that "we are poised to bend the arc of history toward a world free of nuclear weapons."
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Doomsday clock shows six minutes to midnight

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists created the Doomsday Clock in 1947 "as a way to convey both the imagery of apocalypse (midnight) and the contemporary idiom of nuclear explosion (countdown to zero)".

In recognition of progress toward creating a safer world, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists turned back its famed Doomsday Clock by one minute. The clock now is set at 6 minutes to midnight.

That’s still dangerously close to midnight, the group’s longstanding image for the end of civilization—either through nuclear war or, more recently, a climate catastrophe so great as to put large populations at risk. The scientists say the new time reflects the continued urgency of the threats as well as signs that the world may be reaching a turning point in its efforts to come together to solve them.

The group’s leadership pointed to cooperation by major powers on nuclear arms reduction as well as international pledges to limit greenhouse gas emissions. “These unprecedented steps are signs of a growing political will to tackle the two gravest threats to civilization—the terror of nuclear weapons and runaway climate change,” the board of the Bulletin said.

1951 Nuclear test

In 1951, when the U.S. conducted this atomic test at the Nevada Test Site, the arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union had recently begun and the Doomsday Clock was set at three minutes to midnight.

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy.

The Bulletin’s modest move seemed appropriate to nuclear expert and disarmament advocate Peter Kuznick, an associate professor at American University and director of the university’s Nuclear Studies Institute. Kuznick saw the decision as similar to Obama's receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize, which “was more a sign of optimism and potential” than of concrete progress.

In their statement, the scientists also framed the change as representing an "opportunity" for progress, calling for "citizens everywhere to raise their voices and compel public action for a safer world now and for future generations."

The group also called on world leaders to take action, noting that "a key to the new era of cooperation is a change in the U.S. government's orientation toward international affairs brought about in part by the election of Obama."

Kuznick agreed that Obama has made significant steps, including his speech in Prague envisioning an end to nuclear weapons, cooperation with Russia on continuing to reduce nuclear arms, and active leadership on nuclear non-proliferation discussions. But, pointing to the recent support of former Republican secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz for abolishing nuclear weapons, Kuznick called Obama’s Prague speech “positive but not exactly revolutionary.”

He also pointed out that not all of Obama's actions have been positive—for example, discussions of maintaining U.S. nuclear weapons until everyone else has abolished their stockpiles, or the continued high state of alert for nuclear weapons. Similarly, the Bulletin’s announcement listed a host of steps necessary to keep progress moving, including actions by the U.S. and other major powers to renounce the first use of nuclear weapons, to complete arms reduction talks, and to maintain tighter controls on their nuclear weapons.

George Shultz with Ronald ReaganNo Nuclear Weapons
Sarah van Gelder interviews former Secretary of State George Shultz.

Lawrence Krauss, co-chair of the Bulletin’s Board of Sponsors and a professor at Arizona State University, noted that many people wrongly believe the United States has pledged not to make first use of nuclear weapons. Moreover, neither the U.S. nor the eight other nuclear powers have ever ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Pakistani physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy, a member of the Bulletin’s Board of Sponsors, said part of the credit for the one minute gain (the smallest in the clock’s history) goes to citizens of countries around the world who reject nuclear weapons.

For citizens and activists, making use of the positive potential the Bulletin sees will mean talking, writing, learning about nuclear issues, and marching, said Kuznick. To turn potential into progress, “We have to use everything."


Joe CopelandJoe Copeland wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Joe is an associate editor for the Seattle-based Crosscut.com. Last summer, he was a visiting researcher at Hiroshima Peace Institute on a Fulbright grant.

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