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Nuclear Disarmament’s Midnight Hour

CANBERRA – Last month, the Doomsday Clock’s hands were moved a minute closer to midnight by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the respected global organization that for decades has tracked the risk of a nuclear-weapons catastrophe, whether caused by accident or design, state or terrorist, fission bomb or dirty radiological bomb.

Few around the world seemed to be listening. The story – as others like it since the end of the Cold War ­– came and went within a half-day’s news cycle. But the Scientists’ argument was sobering, and demands attention. Progress since 2007 – when the Clock’s hands were last set at five minutes to midnight – has stalled, and political leadership has gone missing on all of the critical issues: disarmament, non-proliferation, and key building blocks needed for both.

On disarmament, the balloon has well and truly deflated. The New START treaty, signed by the United States and Russia in 2010, reduced the number of deployed strategic weapons, but left both sides’ actual stockpiles intact, their high-alert status undisturbed,  weapons-modernization programs in place, disagreements about missile defense and conventional-arms imbalances unresolved – and talks on further draw-downs going nowhere.

With no further movement by the US and Russia, which together hold 95% of the world’s total of more than 20,000 nuclear weapons, no other nuclear-armed state has felt pressure to reduce its own stocks significantly, and some – China, India, and Pakistan – have been increasing them.