Be afraid. Be more afraid.

For the first time in five years, the elite board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is moving the minute hand on their Doomsday Clock closer to the fatal hour of midnight.

The clock – a symbol of the perils facing the human race – is expected to shift two minutes, from the current seven minutes to midnight to five, a figure the Bulletin would not confirm before its news conference today.

“This is a sober and highly alarming judgment by a group of people who are knowledgeable and experienced,” said Nobel laureate John Polanyi, a faculty member in the University of Toronto’s chemistry department.

“The most immediate hazard we face is also the most easily addressed, namely the thousands of nuclear-armed weapons aimed at Russia and the United States, and left pointlessly in a state of high alert. The fact that they are is an appalling failure to step back from the brink.”

The clock, which hangs in the University of Chicago, was first set 60 years ago to focus on the danger of nuclear weapons. But for the first time it will take into account the perils posed by global warming, which has sparked renewed interest in building nuclear power plants.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was founded by former Manhattan Project scientists who turned against nuclear weapons after developing the first atomic bomb.

“The major new step reflects growing concerns about a ‘Second Nuclear Age’ marked by grave threats, including: nuclear ambitions in Iran and North Korea, unsecured nuclear materials in Russia and elsewhere, the continuing launch-ready status of 2,000 of the 25,000 nuclear weapons held by the U.S. and Russia, escalating terrorism and new pressure from climate change for expanded civilian nuclear power that could increase proliferation risks,” said a statement released before a news conference today.

The clock was first set in 1947 at seven minutes to midnight, and plunged to an all-time low of two minutes in 1953, when the United States and Soviet Union both tested hydrogen bombs. Since then India, Pakistan, North Korea and, it is believed, Israel have developed nuclear weapons and Iran is enriching uranium that could potentially be used to fuel an atomic bomb.

The clock was set furthest from midnight – 17 minutes – in 1991, when Washington and Moscow signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

But it has crept steadily nearer since then as global military spending increased, India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons, the U.S. withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to pave the way for its missile defence program, and reports spread of terrorists seeking nuclear weapons.

American non-proliferation expert Joseph Cirincione said today’s movement of the Doomsday Clock’s hand was a “measurable indicator of how bad things are. If some of the world’s smartest scientists are saying we are now closer to doomsday, it should focus attention on both the problems, and the urgency of finding solutions.”

And, he said, U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration has made the dangers faced by the planet worse.

“They came in determined to make a radical change and they made it. It was a complete disaster. Every member of what they call the ‘axis of evil’ is a greater threat now than it was before they came to power. They thought they could use the blunt instrument of military might to overthrow evil regimes. But instead of intimidating countries, they made things worse.”

And global warming is also worse, said Cirincione, a senior vice-president at the Washington-based Center for American Progress.

“We lost six years when we could have been taking steps to fix the problem.”

Last week, the once-hawkish former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger, and three other American former officials, declared that reliance on nuclear arms was “becoming increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective,” and called for Washington to lead in creating “a world without nuclear weapons.”

The group, which included former defence secretary William Perry, said “North Korea’s recent nuclear test and Iran’s refusal to stop its program to enrich uranium – potentially to weapons grade – highlight the fact that the world is now on the precipice of a new and dangerous nuclear era.”

Ernie Regehr, a policy adviser for Waterloo-based Project Ploughshares, agreed that the trends “are all in a dangerous direction, and the notion of a nuclear renaissance, the spread of nuclear power, is making (them) more so.”

Even a modest movement to revive nuclear power, he added, was perilous.

At the same time, Regehr said, not only the United States but Britain and France are helping to stoke the fires of nuclear proliferation by refusing to give up their deadly arsenals, or even signalling that they will update them.

“Britain could have pointed the world in the direction it needs to go, because it is a secure country that doesn’t need nuclear weapons. …

“Yet, in defiance of all that, it has indicated an interest in modernizing the arsenal, which is a heavy blow to non-proliferation.

Published on Wednesday, January 17, 2007 by the Toronto Star