It is 3 Minutes to Midnight

by Robin Alexander
Published in New People, The Thomas Merton Center

Since 1947, the Doomsday Clock has provided an ominous warning. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists observes: “The United States and Russia have embarked on massive programs to modernize their nuclear triads—thereby undermining existing nuclear weapons treaties… The clock ticks now at just three minutes to midnight because international leaders are failing to perform their most important duty—ensuring and preserving the health and vitality of human civilization.”

The 2015 report of the Federation of American Scientists reveals a total of 15,700 warheads worldwide and that the US and Russia — with approximately 7500 each – have the vast majority. In addition, India, Pakistan and Israel are believed to have between 80 and 120 nuclear warheads, and North Korea may have as many as ten, although it may not have delivery capabilities.

According to the International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons, “The United States and Russia maintain roughly 1,800 of their nuclear weapons on high-alert – capable of being launched within minutes. Most are many times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. A single nuclear warhead, if detonated on a large city, could kill millions of people, with the effects persisting for decades.”

The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) entered into force in 1970. Today, 191 countries are covered, including what are termed the “five nuclear-weapon States” (the US, Russia, the UK, France, and China). The reasons cited for elimination of nuclear weapons include “the devastation that would be visited upon all mankind by a nuclear war” and the belief that “the proliferation of nuclear weapons would seriously enhance the danger of nuclear war.” Article VI therefore requires that “Each of the Parties … undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date…”.

The outcome of the 2015 review process by the UN was very disappointing. The inability of the parties to move forward is illustrated by the failure to even agree upon a concluding document. The major stumbling block was the failure to set a date for a conference to discuss a nuclear free zone in the Middle East. A Resolution calling for such a zone had been approved in 1995, and the 2010 outcome document had specified that it be established by 2012.

The 2015 draft outcome document was blocked by the US, UK and Canada. As explained in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: “In the final analysis, consensus on the NPT outcome document was thwarted by support for the objections of a non-state party [Israel], which has for decades resisted calls to join the treaty.” Such a conference would not necessarily have resulted in a regional agreement, but it would likely have resulted in the acknowledgement that Israel possesses nuclear weapons – something widely known, but still a state secret in both Israel and the US.

Although the deal with Iran is to be applauded, as it eliminates the imminent threat of a nuclear Iran, we face a far deeper problem. The United States, Russia and other nuclear powers are all engaged in the process of “modernizing” their nuclear weapons, rather than eliminating them. Russia is introducing both new land and submarine-based missiles, and the United States has begun a nuclear modernization program that will commission new land-based missiles, ballistic missile submarines and long-range bombers. The newly approved federal budget raises defense spending to $607 billion and it is estimated that over the next 30 years the modernization program alone will cost approximately one trillion US dollars.

The failure to move forward in the NPT discussions is even more troubling given increasing threats regarding the use of nuclear weapons. As described by Eric Schlosser in the November, 2015 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: “Thanks to Vladimir Putin, the rhetoric surrounding nuclear weapons has changed too. They are once again being celebrated as symbols of national power. Putin has boasted about the size of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. One of his ambassadors said that nuclear weapons would be aimed at Denmark if it participated in NATO’s missile-defense scheme. And Putin’s chief propagandist, the head of an official news agency, reminded his television audience that Russia was still ‘the only country in the world capable of turning the USA into radioactive dust.’ (Mackey, 2014).” Nor is Russia alone. For example, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon has been quoted as saying “in certain cases” when “we feel like we don’t have the answer by surgical operations” Israel might take “certain steps” such as the Americans did in “Nagasaki and Hiroshima, causing at the end the fatalities of 200,000…” Mondoweiss, May 20, 2015.

While the Iran deal was limited in scope, let us hope that it will lead to discussions and improved relations on broader issues. Given the increased political tensions in the world, the only possible way to move the doomsday clock back is through negotiations. We must join together in a powerful grass roots movement. As expressed by Rep. Barbara Lee at the Merton Center dinner, it is imperative that we “stop endless war and end the culture of militarism.”


The full Mackey cite: Mackey R (2014) Russia could still turn U.S. ‘into radioactive dust,’ news anchor in Moscow reminds viewers. The Lede, March 16. Available at:

The Mondoweiss cite:

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