Doomsday Clock Is Closer Than Ever to Nuclear War 75 Years After Hiroshima

Nuclear threat experts say geopolitical tensions in Asia combined with the United States' approach to non-proliferation efforts—a strategy they warn could instigate a new great powers arms race—have contributed to the reason why the world has been pushed closer to nuclear war than at any time since the U.S.-launched atomic attacks on Japan 75 years ago.

Before COVID-19 grabbed U.S. headlines earlier this year, the group of leading science and global security experts called behind the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists already forecast a grim outlook for 2020. In January, they set their symbolic Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it's been to hypothetical annihilation since the project was begun in 1947, just two years after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.

In addition to the steady failure of international measures adopted in the spirit of non-proliferation and arms control, the group also saw a lack of action on climate change and cybersecurity vulnerabilities as contributing to their determination. But with international rivalries flaring, two members of the Bulletin's Science and Security Board shared with Newsweek their greatest areas of concern when it came to the potential of a nuclear exchange.

Sharon Squassoni, the director of the Global Security Program at Union of Concerned Scientists, said the Cold War hotspot of Europe remained a risk, one that may increase "significantly" with the U.S. withdrawal last August from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty over accusations that Russia was in violation and the potential introduction of the mid-range missiles it long banned. "Most worrisome," she said, however, "is the potential for a nuclear exchange in South Asia."

Fellow board member Scott Sagan looked at a flashpoint even further east in Asia as the most likely place for a nuclear incident.

us, icbm, missile, test, california
An Air Force Global Strike Command unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test August 4, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. The United States is the only country to have ever used nuclear weapons in combat. Senior Airman Aubree Owens/30th Space Wing Public Affairs/U.S. Air Force

"The greatest nuclear danger today is the risk of an accidental nuclear war on the Korean peninsula through a false warning of an attack and rash decision-making," Sagan, a professor of political science at Stanford University and chairman of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences' Committee on International Security Studies, told Newsweek.

He pointed to the January 2018 false alarm incident in Hawaii during which residents panicked after receiving mobile and television alerts that a ballistic missile was incoming. Sagan explained that this was not the case for the Pentagon, whose forces possess overlapping, advanced early warning detection systems that indicated no such imminent attack at the time.

The same, however, could not be said for North Korea. Sagan said the elusive, militarized state's defenses were limited to a few outdated radars and that the consequences of officers admitting to such an egregious error would likely be far more severe for Korean People's Army personnel. Also, he said that "the North Koreans do believe we might attack them."

"Why? Because President Trump has threatened to do precisely that, many times," he added.

Though Pyongyang and Washington held summits and successive rounds of talks in an attempt to achieve peace, their negotiations have steadily unraveled, leading to North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un once again relying on his country's nuclear defense doctrine. An interim report submitted to the 15-member UN Security Council North Korea sanctions committee showed assessed that North Korea "probably developed miniaturized nuclear devices to fit into the warheads of its ballistic missiles," which are believed to be able to reach the U.S., Reuters reported on Tuesday.

As Newsweek reported in June of last year, a survey Sagan conducted last year with the Bulletin and U.K.-based polling firm YouGov showed that one-third of U.S. respondents would support a preemptive nuclear strike against North Korea if it tested long-range missiles capable of hitting the U.S., even if that meant killing one million civilians.

Another study done in 2015, showed nearly six out of 10 in the U.S. would back a hypothetical wartime nuclear strike against Iran that killed 100,000 of its citizens, about as many that died in the Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1945.

Sagan recently laid out an argument for why that attack, the only-ever use of a nuclear weapon in combat, would be illegal today in an article for the Bulletin. He said it would violate Additional Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions that mandate militaries not intentionally attack civilians, not inflict collateral damage against civilians disproportionate to the direct military advantage gained from the target's destruction and to take all feasible precautions to reduce collateral damage against civilians.

"It is therefore critical for senior military leaders in the U.S. to insist that the U.S. always complies with the laws of armed conflict, even when the public does not care about the law and even when the president (as President Trump has repeatedly done) calls for military actions that violate those laws," Sagan told Newsweek.

Both Squassoni and Sagan said they were deeply critical of the U.S. approach to arms control, which the former said was "on the brink of extinction" and that this "is primarily the result of U.S. actions." In addition to leaving the INF, the Trump administration has also yet to renew the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) that limits the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals. U.S. officials have defended the move, saying they are pushing for a new, larger treaty that would incorporate China and more advanced weapons platforms.

"We hope the whole world will come to understand that it's very important that those three nuclear powers with significant resources and capabilities will all come together to create a more robust, more stable strategic situation with respect to the risk of not only the use of nuclear weapons but on their proliferation as well," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told a press conference Wednesday.

Sagan said the U.S. truly left because "officials do not mind entering into an arms race, incorrectly thinking that somehow the U.S. will win such a race."

Also supporting a New START extension was Alicia Sanders-Zakre, policy and research coordinator at the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. She said even these restrictions may not be enough, however.

"By all means, Russia and the United States should agree to continue to cap their nuclear arsenals," she told Newsweek. "But nuclear reductions cannot stop there, with both countries still possessing thousands of weapons of mass destruction. Russia and the United States must adhere to international legal agreements that demand complete nuclear disarmament, including the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons."

"As we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of the detonation of two nuclear weapons in August 1945, it is abundantly clear that a nuclear arsenal—of dozens or thousands of weapons—is an unacceptable threat to humanity," she added. "All countries must work together in committing to ban and eliminate these weapons."

This article has been updated to include remarks by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.