Doomsday Clock: two minutes of midnight

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on Jan. 25 advanced the minute hand of its Doomsday Clock to two minutes of midnight from its previous two-and-a-half minutes. "In 2017, world leaders failed to respond effectively to the looming threats of nuclear war and climate change, making the world security situation more dangerous than it was a year ago—and as dangerous as it has been since World War II," the Bulletin said in a statement. Finding that the "greatest risks last year arose in the nuclear realm," the statement of course cited the crisis over North Korea's atomic program, but also ongoing military exercises along the borders of NATO, upgrading of nuclear arsenals by the US and Russia, tensions over the South China Sea, a nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan, and uncertainty about continued US support for the Iran nuclear deal. These threats are worsened by "a breakdown in the international order that has been dangerously exacerbated by recent US actions."

Amid all this, the threat of global ecological collapse looms ever closer. "Global carbon dioxide emissions have not yet shown the beginnings of the sustained decline towards zero that must occur if ever-greater warming is to be avoided. The nations of the world will have to significantly decrease their greenhouse gas emissions to keep climate risks manageable, and so far, the global response has fallen far short of meeting this challenge."

And finally the very nature of our media and information technology is dramatically eroding our ability to confront these problems: "Beyond the nuclear and climate domains, technological change is disrupting democracies around the world as states seek and exploit opportunities to use information technologies as weapons, among them internet-based deception campaigns aimed at undermining elections and popular confidence in institutions essential to free thought and global security."

Under the hashtag #rewindtheDoomsdayClock, the Bulletin concludes with a call to popular action: "The world has seen the threat posed by the misuse of information technology and witnessed the vulnerability of democracies to disinformation. But there is a flip side to the abuse of social media. Leaders react when citizens insist they do so, and citizens around the world can use the power of the internet to improve the long-term prospects of their children and grandchildren. They can insist on facts, and discount nonsense. They can demand action to reduce the existential threat of nuclear war and unchecked climate change. They can seize the opportunity to make a safer and saner world."

Safety issues seen in nuclear re-armament

From Public Radio International, May 7:

The Department of Energy is scheduled to decide within days where plutonium parts for the next generation of nuclear weapons are to be made, but recent internal government reports indicate serious and persistent safety issues plague both of the two candidate sites.

An announcement by the Trump administration about the location is expected by May 11, in preparation for the ramped-up production of nuclear warheads called for by the Defense Department's recent review of America's nuclear weapons policy.

Some experts are worried about the safety records of either choice: Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where plutonium parts have historically been assembled, and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, where other nuclear materials for America's bombs have been made since in the 1950s.

Recent internal government reports obtained by the Center for Public Integrity have warned that workers at these plants have been handling nuclear materials sloppily, or have failed to monitor safety issues aggressively.

Personnel at Savannah River, for example, came dangerously close to a lethal nuclear accident in January 2015, when the stirring mechanism for a tank that held plutonium solution failed. Flecks of plutonium sank to the bottom of the tank, close enough for their neutrons to interact in a way that threatened to kick off a nuclear chain reaction—known as a criticality—that could have killed everyone in the room and spread radioactivity.

Since then, the site's nuclear materials operations have been conducted under special oversight by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA)...

The NNSA was called in to oversee the Obama administration's nuclear "modernization," which was pursed instead of actual disarmament. But this looks considerably worse. Redolent of the Reagan cold war, when breakneck warhead production led to safety corner-cutting, making the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state the most highly contaminated nuclear weapons site in the US...