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'Round Midnight

01.25.2007 | POLITICS

Maybe there was a delay in his computerized voice system. Or maybe Stephen Hawking wanted a dramatic pause equal to the power of the words. Whatever the case, a long ten seconds passed between the Cambridge mathematician's roundup of the twin perils hanging over mankind like a double-bladed guillotine -- nuclear weapons and climate change -- and the following sentence, which would have been chilling even if they weren't uttered in the robot voice of the wheelchair-bound genius:

"It is now five minutes to midnight."

Thus ended Hawking's opening statement at Wednesday's simultaneous Washington/London press conference convened by the board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The presser announced a two-minute advance of the Doomsday Clock's minute hand, its 18th movement since 1947. That was the year the Cold War turned mutually atomic, and scientists at the University of Chicago hatched the clock as a way to remind humanity how close it was to destroying itself in a spasm of nuclear firepower. Since then, the clock has gotten as close as two minutes to midnight (1953) and as far away as 17 (1991).

The optimism of the "17 minutes" years faded fast. By 1995, it was obvious the nuclear powers felt no urgency in making the most of what Jonathan Schell called the "gift of time." The United States and Russia kept their still massive arsenals cocked on hair-triggers. Global military spending hovered at Cold War levels. Concerns grew over leakage of the post-Soviet nuclear stockpile. Bin Laden. India. Pakistan.

Then the Bush administration rode into town waving blueprints for space weapons, missile defenses, tactical nukes, and dark new doctrines. They trashed arms control treaties like so many bongs left on State Department desks by previous administrations.

The 9/11 attacks opened up a window of fire to consider and address the mounting dangers of this "second nuclear age," which does not supplant but merely compounds the dangers of the first. It was an opportunity lost. The national security debate was soon defined by saber-rattling, fear-mongering, and the blasts of war. There it remains today. Iraq is the "most crucial" issue facing the new Congress according to Jack Murtha, chairman of the House defense appropriations subcommittee.

Maybe. But as the 18 Nobel Laureates at the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists remind us, there are other national security fronts that require urgent tending to. High-profile hearings on Iraq should not be held at the exclusion of hearings initiating a nuclear debate long overdue. In the last 15 years, public concern over and knowledge about nuclear issues has faded, despite the ascendance of an abstract, fatalistic and generally uninformed panic over nuclear terrorism.

But this is no time for forgetting, or for fatalism. There are hard policy levers that impact the probability of both nuclear terrorism and the still extant possibility of full-scale nuclear war. The new Congress must grasp this and rain legislative hellfire down on a raft of Strangelovean policies and programs currently in place or seeking funding. This means canceling some weapons while submitting them to fierce public inspection and ridicule, and boosting funds for and explaining the importance of nonproliferation programs that actually enhance national security.

The 110th can't save the world. Real progress will take new executive leadership and arduous diplomacy to reopen and deepen the U.S.-Russia disarmament process, and to close the Non-Proliferation Treaty loophole that allows countries to enrich and reprocess their own nuclear fuel for peaceful purposes. In the meantime, Congress can begin raising awareness of nuclear issues. It can kill or stall destabilizing nuclear-related programs where they can, retarding administration and Pentagon efforts to create a world of more nukes at home through obscene levels of defense spending, and less nukes abroad through the application of mindless, counterproductive and hypocritical force.

High on any list of congressional priorities should be expansion of the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, known as Nunn-Lugar after its authors. Since its passage in 1991, CTR programs operated by the departments of Defense and Energy have helped decommission and secure thousands of warheads in the former Soviet Union. They've also tightened safeguards at hundreds of supply depots holding nuclear material. Any serious and honestly fought "war on terror" would involve steroid injections for globalizing CTR, which last year saw its funding slashed to under $400 million for the first time since 1991.

More than 1,400 metric tons of highly enriched uranium and 500 tons of plutonium still sit in poorly guarded facilities around the world. A global lockdown must be accelerated.

We also need a mental shift in what constitutes defense spending. Along with expanding its programs, CTR should be integrated "into the concept of homeland defense and the war on terrorism -- not foreign aid," says Kenneth N. Luongo, executive director of the Russian-American Nuclear Security Advisory Council. "These programs are a first line of defense against WMD threats to the United States and its allies, and they should be considered a high national security priority."

Where would we find the money to expand CTR and other nonproliferation efforts?

As easy as plucking petals off a daisy. The 110th should reduce, redirect and rescind funds going to programs that increase the risk of nuclear war, nuclear proliferation, or both. Juicy targets include missile defense (aka, The Maginot Inch), all space weapons research, and "Complex 2030," the Department of Energy's sneaky beast of a proposal to reinvent and expand the entire U.S. nuclear supply chain in the name of "consolidation."

Missile defense should be first in line for a Thorazine shot and a straightjacket. The boondoggle has the unique triple-attribute of being corrupt, dysfunctional and destabilizing. It's also a pretty penny, sucking up some $10 billion a year. (That number, incidentally, equals the total price tag Harvard's Graham Allison puts on securing the world's remaining vulnerable fissile material depots.) Even though rigged tests of the program's marquee ground-based system have mostly proved embarrassing, the Missile Defense Agency has been curiously relieved of all congressional reporting requirements. This should change, and its funding should be drastically reduced to match its pathetic performance and questionable utility in an age of suitcase nukes and stateless nutcases.

"After four years [missile defense] is still back where it started," writes Philip Coyle in a recent issue of Current History. Coyle, a senior advisor to the Center for Defense Information and former director of the Operational Test and Evaluation office in the Department of Defense, points to "a troubling lack of clarity [in] public discourse regarding both the rationale for and the technical progress toward this kind of defense." Coyle's successor in the Defense Department issued a report last year admitting, "[missile defense] flight tests still lack operational realism."

So does MDA's spiraling annual budget, expected to hit a staggering $18 billion by 2016.

Congress should also choke funding for space weapons R&D, currently in the billions and threatening to spark a space arms race with profound implications for global security, not to mention our ability to use the heavenly commons for peaceful purposes. Though there exists a rare global consensus against weaponizing space, the Bush administration has officially declared outer space the domain of the United States Air Force, international law and opinion be damned.

Alongside futuristic Pentagon projects like space lasers and the "Long-Rod Penetrator," the Missile Defense Agency is also eager to breach the space weapons taboo with its Space-Based Interceptor. Congress should pull the plug on all these programs. Aside from being destabilizing, attempts to rule space are likely to be futile.

"It takes great hubris to believe that space can be controlled by military dominance," Michael Krepon, director of the Stimson Center's Space Security Project, writes in Defense News.

"Asymmetrical space warfare is a game that a growing number of countries can play. The characteristics of sensors that make satellites so valuable also make them vulnerable to some forms of interference. A bag of marbles that costs two dollars, properly inserted into space, can wreck a satellite that costs hundreds of millions of dollars."

Krepon further argues that the militarization of space will lead to the deterioration of major power relations, making proliferation more likely and harder to stop.

Then there is "Complex 2030," a proposal to consolidate and update the entire nuclear complex, including the opening of a new plutonium "pit" facility capable of producing 125 new bombs a year. Estimated price tag: $150 billion over 25 years. The Bush administration and the Department of Energy argue that the overhaul is necessary to maintain the country's deterrence capability and close aged plants, but arms control experts who have read the fine print say otherwise.

"The current nuclear stockpile is not in need of replacement, all of the existing nuclear weapons sites would still be in operation under the new plan, and the fundamental environmental problems of weapons production would not be solved," states a joint report issued by more than a dozen nuclear watchdog groups, including Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Union of Concerned Scientists. "Furthermore, the increased design, production and testing capabilities of Complex 2030 could spark a new nuclear arms race."

The report suggests Congress couple a rejection of "2030" funds with hearings on the future of our nuclear arsenal and posture. In these hearings, fundamental questions should be asked about the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. security policy.

If Murtha and Co. can pull their head out of Iraq long enough to take this advice, committee chairs might find some surprising voices for change. Among them, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, both of whom have had late-career conversions to the cause of comprehensive arms control leading to universal abolition.

In a Jan. 4 Wall Street Journal op-ed coauthored with George Schultz, William Perry, and Sam Nunn, Kissinger acknowledged that the world "is now on the precipice of a new and dangerous nuclear era," and that "unless urgent new actions are taken, the United States soon will be compelled to enter a new nuclear era that will be more precarious, psychologically disorienting and economically even more costly than was the Cold War deterrence."

That's about the size of it. But it should have been obvious to Kissinger and everyone else a long time ago that the endgame was coming. The major nuclear powers cannot continue to simultaneously refine their arsenals while keeping the rest of the world in 1944 by threat of force; only a madman thinks threats and preemptive strikes constitute a coherent or sustainable nonproliferation strategy. Nor can we continue to allow the production of fissile material and expect it to remain forever out of dangerous hands. We cannot have our yellow cake and eat it, too.

If we don't come to grips with the dead-end of the nuclear double-standard, and begin soon the brave and historic grapple with the nuclear genie, we race toward a climax as awful as it is certain. The writing -- and the clock -- is on the wall.

This article originally appeared on

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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