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"Forget the Rest" blog

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moves its clock -- Study Group press statement

Main web site:
Bulletin board statement on moving the clock:

January 17, 2007

Statement from Greg Mello, Los Alamos Study Group:

We concur with the action and much of the justification of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists editorial board in moving its "doomsday clock" from "7 minutes to midnight" to "5 minutes to midnight."

It is difficult to quantify the increasing danger we face from nuclear technologies.  Whatever that danger is, like the Bulletin editors we believe it is palpably increasing.  The specific dangers listed by the Bulletin editors are real, but their list is hardly comprehensive and serious nuclear risks have been omitted or glossed over. 

For example, I think an objective assessment would conclude that the risk of nuclear attack by the U.S. or another nuclear power such as Israel is increasing.  The danger may not yet be great, but it is rising and could rise further almost without warning or limit.  Should anything like a nuclear attack by the U.S. occur, it would likely take the form of an escalation in response to a major military defeat, such as the sinking of a U.S. aircraft carrier or a successful chemical weapon attack on a U.S. base or on a pivotal oil refinery. 

Unfortunately, stunning and sudden military defeats for the U.S. are virtually certain sooner or later if the U.S. continues to overplay its rapidly weakening military-political hand -- say, in a disparate attempt to prevent a major reversal in access to fluid hydrocarbons, to avoid catastrophic loss of face, or to prevent the rise of a powerful regional rival. 

The overall danger seems to arise from a situation in which those with great power in our government have not been able to integrate breathtaking changes in national security circumstances.  This has led to what appears to be an extremely dangerous combination of ignorance, shocking new knowledge and collapse of prior beliefs, secrecy (say, to protect economic markets), "group-think" and its variations (the "echo chamber" and "bunker mentality"), sudden realization of possible historic personal culpability, etc.  The combination of such elements (among many others not listed here) can quickly lead to desperate acts.  Such volatile combinations are not confined to the White House or to any particular political party. 

Obviously national discussion of key issues is badly needed.  Especially, education of political elites (so prone to arrogance, so heavily propagandized, and so insulated from many commonplace realities), must now outrun the approach of catastrophe, or there will be hell to pay. 

It is especially noteworthy that the Bulletin editors have chosen climate change as a nearly co-equal danger with their traditional concerns.  It is a danger in quite another key, spelling certain doom for much or even most of creation if carbon emissions are not decreased rapidly and steeply.  There is widespread ignorance about just how profound a change this must be, and a continued widespread belief that various technological "fixes" collectively will be able to "save the day," including saving our current economic arrangements.  In fact, our economic and political systems are deeply challenged.  The slow-boiling constitutional crisis we face in the U.S. today can be understood as an artifact of a changing global energy and financial situation interacting with long-standing internal U.S. political weaknesses.

Unfortunately the Bulletin editors have chosen this moment to (mildly) promote nuclear power, which offers no help in ameliorating the climate and energy crises.  A more objective analysis would show that nuclear power:

  • is uneconomic, requiring massive direct and indirect subsidies to expand or even operate;
  • cannot be built fast enough to make a significant, cost-effective difference in global warming, and absorbing capital and other resources needed for more practical solutions at every step;
  • cannot be operated safely at the vast scale and in the worldwide locations required;
  • depends on a skill base which does not exist at a relevant scale;
  • cannot resolve the security and proliferation issues inherent in the technology;
  • has a significant carbon "footprint" of its own;
  • cannot be made compatible with a free and open society at the scale and with the technologies involved;
  • cannot be insured without an inequitable socialization of risk -- using the term "insured" loosely, since in the event of a truly major accident, few damages would be paid;
  • exacerbates capital concentrations incompatible with democratic enfranchisement; and
  • on and on. 

The waste issue, usually placed front-and-center, is hardly the worst problem although it is a very difficult one indeed, including security of the waste, itself a weapon and a means to weapons.  In the final analysis, nuclear power is not just an energy technology but also embodies choices about governance, capital distribution, and social control.  All energy choices are not just about how we make energy but also about who we will be as a people. 

Some of the problems of nuclear power cannot be solved at any price; others can be solved only at a price which makes simpler technologies more practical -- far more practical.  Unlike nuclear power, collectively these other technologies are adequate for human needs -- though not perhaps for greed organized on a vast scale.  Practical energy generation and conservation technologies are available today, without further research, and would be implemented rapidly if price signals in energy markets incorporated environmental externalities, and if key transaction barriers were removed.  Ownership and control would change, democratizing both, a change now trenchantly resisted.  "Where," J.P. Morgan famously said, "would we put the meter?"

We enter 2007 in a desperate race for human and planetary survival.  In this race, human dignity is our immediate as well as our ultimate objective -- our primary means as well as our principal end.  Along with preservation of earth's species, respect for human beings as such must be the proof-test of all our strategies.  Taken together, these two criteria imply responsibility to, and within, a living landscape.  The living landscape is the seat of our culture, the basis of our thought, the repository of our history, and the arena of our aspirations.  Without animals, plants, and the living landscape in which we all live together, humanity will perish -- from the head down. 

Dramatic action is needed, but we need not give up a single real freedom nor compromise a single human obligation.  Denying our freedoms and obligations will quickly lead to fascism, and  catastrophe.  The struggle we are in is not the property of any political party.  Those who are weapons scientists and engineers today have a critical role to play in bringing about disarmament in both its narrow and broader meanings, just as much as anti-nuclear activists, journalists, and elected officials. 

The editors of the Bulletin remind us of this task.  We need their wisdom, but it is not enough.  Each of us must be willing to add our own, walk the talk, and pay the price for it.  Our children will live, if they live, to thank us.

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