An End to the Nuclear Threat?
FOR more than 40 years, the world lived under the threat of a nuclear apocalypse. Then, in 1989, the Berlin Wall tumbled down—a prelude to the fall of Soviet Communism. Before long, the superpowers had agreed to stop aiming their missiles at each other. With the nuclear “Armageddon” seemingly called off, or at least postponed, the world heaved a long-awaited sigh of relief.
Many experts feel, however, that it is far too early to celebrate. In 1998 the famous doomsday clock of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was moved up five minutes, to nine minutes to midnight—a clear indication that the nuclear threat had not gone away.* True, the world scene has changed. No longer are two major nuclear powers locked in a nuclear standoff. Now several nations possess nuclear capabilities! In addition, experts fear that it is only a matter of time before some terrorist group get their hands on radioactive material and build a crude atom bomb.
Furthermore, despite dramatic reductions, the United States and Russia still retain awesome arsenals of nuclear warheads. According to a research group called the Committee on Nuclear Policy, some 5,000 nuclear weapons are currently on hair-trigger alert. “Therefore,” their report states, “if a launch order were sent under current circumstances, 4,000 [intercontinental ballistic missile] warheads (2,000 on each side) could be on their way to their targets within a few minutes and another 1,000 [submarine-launched ballistic missile] warheads could be en route to targets shortly thereafter.”
The existence of this arsenal raises the possibility of accidental or even premeditated war. “A fateful accident could plunge the world into the chaos of a thermonuclear catastrophe, contrary to political leaders’ wishes,” warned prominent Russian strategist Vladimir Belous. So while the Cold War may be over, the threat of a nuclear holocaust has not really gone away. But just how great is that threat? Will the earth ever be rid of nuclear weapons? The following articles will address these issues.
The doomsday clock on the cover of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is a symbol of how close the world supposedly is to the “midnight” of nuclear war. Over the decades, the clock’s minute hand has been moved to reflect changes in the world’s political climate.
[Picture Credit Line on page 3]
Explosions on pages 2 and 3: U.S. National Archives photo