Photo by Maria Oswalt on Unsplash

The Nuclear Elephant In The Room Is Never Discussed

You might want to tie up those loose ends, empty out the bucket lists, finally apologize for those longstanding insults and stop procrastinating about that adventure to Nepal because the world may just blow up in about 100 metaphorical seconds.
If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Now that we may have the COVID-19 pandemic under control, if not eliminated, an austere panel of scientists has moved the so-called “Doomsday Clock” to within 100 ticks of a nuclear conflagration.
The “Doomsday Clock” is a grim metaphor to gauge the potential for nuclear war, which is prepared each year by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. This year is worse than it’s been in many years but not to worry because such existential matters, like climate change, are beyond our control.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists will host a live virtual news conference at 10 a.m., Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023, on the Doomsday Clock. For information visit the bulletin’s website at or the Facebook page.
As many as 5 billion people worldwide — 75 percent of the global population — would die from famine and hunger after a nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia, according to a new international study led by scientists at Rutgers University.
The detonation of a nuclear weapon would cause massive fires and inject soot into the atmosphere, blocking sunlight from reaching the surface and limiting food production, leading to the deaths, the study said.
“A large percent of the people will be starving,” said Lili Xia, a climate scientist at Rutgers University, who led the research. “It’s really bad.”
Don’t be overly alarmed as many scientific and non-scientific past predictions have never come to pass. Maybe the Doomsday Clock will be wrong just like the prognostication of blind Bulgarian fortune teller, Baba Vanga, who, before her death in 1996, predicted a nuclear explosion for 2023. Vanga, often referred to as the Nostradamus of the Balkans, also said that Europe would cease to exist in 2016.
Vanga’s supporters say she was right when she predicted a major world event that closely matched the details of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Vanga is believed to have said, “The American brothers will fall after being attacked by the steel birds. The wolves will be howling in a bush, and innocent blood will be gushing.” Others say Vanga never predicted anything that came to pass.
Another example of a bodement that was never realized came in 1843, when Baptist minister William Miller said the world would end in a few months. His prediction did not come true and it was referred to by followers as the “Great Disappointment.” Miller is credited with beginning the mid-19th-century religious movement known as Millerism.
Norse mythology presages the end of days as “Ragnarök,” a time of great devastation known as “Fimbulvetr” when the sun and moon will disappear from the sky, and poison will fill the air. The dead will rise from the ground and there will be widespread despair. The date for Ragnarök is not known.
During the Munster rebellion, radical Anabaptist leader Jan Matthys declared that the apocalypse would happen on April 5, 1534. When the day came and the world did not end, Matthys led a failed attack against Franz von Waldeck and was decapitated. VonWaldeck, Prince-Bishop of Münster, defeated the Anabaptists in their attempt to establish a communal sectarian government in the German city of Münster, which was then under the large Prince-Bishopric of Münster in the Holy Roman Empire.
Wilbur Glenn Voliva was an evangelist and Flat Earth theorist who controlled the town of Zion, Ill., during the early 20th century. Voliva announced that “the world is going to go ‘puff’ and disappear” in September 1935.
Ronald Weinland, a pastor with the Worldwide Church of God, predicted the world would end in 2011, 2013 and 2013 and that Jesus would return on June 9, 2019. Weinland later began to express some doubts about his predictions. Weinland later went to prison for failing to pay federal income taxes.
One prediction we are not likely to see if it plays out, is David Powell’s claim that in 7.95 billion years, the earth and moon will be destroyed by falling into the sun. Powell is a writer with
Unlike, Vanga, Miller, Matthys, Voliva and Weinland, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists base its predictions on science.
The Bulletin has reset the minute hand on the Doomsday Clock 24 times since its debut in 1947, most recently in 2020 and again in 2022, when it was moved from two minutes to midnight to 100 seconds to midnight.
“The members of the Science and Security Board find the world to be no safer than it was last year at this time and therefore decide to set the Doomsday Clock once again at 100 seconds to midnight,” said a March 2022, statement by the board in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The statement was addressed to “Leaders and citizens of the world” and was titled, “At doom’s doorstep: It is 100 seconds to midnight.”
The decision to turn the clock ahead represents “the closest (the world) has ever been to civilization-ending apocalypse because the world remains stuck in an extremely dangerous moment. In 2019 we called it the new abnormal, and it has unfortunately persisted.”
One of the best years, as far as nuclear annihilation is concerned, came in 1991; the Cold War was over and the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the first treaty to provide for deep cuts to the two countries’ strategic nuclear weapons arsenals. Showing optimism, the Bulletin set the clock hand to 17 minutes to midnight.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was formed in 1945 by Albert Einstein and University of Chicago scientists who helped develop the first atomic weapons in the Manhattan Project. The Doomsday Clock is set every year by the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board in consultation with its Board of Sponsors, which includes 11 Nobel laureates. The clock has become a universally recognized indicator of the world’s vulnerability to catastrophe from nuclear weapons, climate change, and disruptive technologies in other domains.
The bulletin’s letter noted that the nation’s change in leadership under President Joe Biden “provided hope that what seemed like a global race toward catastrophe might be halted and — with renewed U.S. engagement — even reversed.”
It said that in 2021 the new Biden administration changed policies “in some ways that made the world safer.” It included agreeing to an extension of the “New START” arms control agreement and beginning strategic stability talks with Russia; announcing that the United States would seek to return to the Iran nuclear deal; and rejoining the Paris climate accord.
The Bulletin pointed to the positive change under Biden but warned that the change in U.S. leadership alone was “not enough to reverse negative international security trends that had been long in developing and continued across the threat horizon in 2021.”

These trends include relations between the U.S. and Russia and China remained tense with all three countries modernizing and expanding their nuclear capabilities. Included were China’s apparent large-scale program to increase its deployment of silo-based long-range nuclear missiles; the push by Russia, China, and the United States to develop hypersonic missiles; and the continued testing of anti-satellite weapons by many nations. Other concerns include North Korea’s unconstrained nuclear and missile expansion and, so far, unsuccessful attempts to revive the Iran nuclear deal.
The U.S. administration has made progress in reestablishing the role of science and evidence in public policy, reversing an alarming trend under trump. But “corruption of the information ecosystem continued apace in 2021.”
One particularly troubling effect of Internet-based disinformation, was the lies that persuaded a significant portion of the U.S. public to believe that Biden did not win the 2020 election.
“Continued efforts to foster this narrative threaten to undermine future U.S .elections, American democracy in general, and, therefore, the United States’ ability to lead global efforts to manage existential risk,” the bulletin reported.
It noted that “negative trends in nuclear and biological weapons, climate change, and a variety of disruptive technologies — all exacerbated by a corrupted information ecosphere that undermines rational decision making — kept the world within a stone’s throw of apocalypse.”
The letter warned that “global leaders and the public are not moving with anywhere near the speed or unity needed to prevent disaster.”
The bulletin noted that during 2021, some nuclear risks declined while others rose. One positive development came in the February 2021 agreement between the U.S. and Russia to renew New START for five years. The extension creates a window of opportunity to negotiate a future arms control agreement between the two countries that possess 90 percent of all nuclear weapons. The United States and Russia also agreed to start two sets of dialogues about how to best maintain “nuclear stability” in the future.
Another bright spot was the Biden administration’s announcements that it would seek to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran and offer to enter strategic stability talks with China. The Bulletin noted that while there were no talks in 2021 between North Korea and the U.S., the North Koreans have not resumed testing of nuclear weapons or long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) although tests of shorter-range missiles have continued.
On the negative side, Iran continues to build an enriched uranium stockpile and over time, Iran’s neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia, may acquire similar capabilities, raising the possibility of a Middle East with multiple countries with the expertise and material to build nuclear weapons.
The Chinese also have started to build new ICBM silos on a large scale, leading to concerns that China may be considering a change in its nuclear doctrine, the letter said. China and Russia have both tested anti-satellite weapons while efforts by the U.S., China and Russia to field hypersonic missiles are moving ahead.
The North Koreans continue to test nuclear-capable short- and medium-range missiles, including cruise, ballistic, and glide vehicles, and there is evidence of their restarting plutonium production. And don’t forget India and Pakistan, two adversaries that continue to advance their nuclear, missile, and other military capabilities.

Another worry is growing tensions over military space activity in the past few years. Russia conducted an anti-satellite missile test in November, destroying one of its own satellites and creating a debris cloud that orbited dangerously close to the International Space Station. Russia has also “injected an object into orbit” that subsequently approached another Russian satellite already in orbit in a manner consistent with its use as an anti-satellite weapon, the Bulletin noted.
The European Space Agency estimates that the Earth is currently orbited by more than 300 million objects of space debris sized 1 millimeter to 1 centimeter. Long-term simulations project the number of small objects to increase exponentially at the current rate of new vehicle launches and collisions.
Finally, the U.S. is preparing a Nuclear Posture Review to guide future strategy, policy, and deployments of nuclear weapons, but its overall message appears not yet decided.
“We hope the document will assert that the United States will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in its deterrence and defense policies, which in turn may positively affect the nuclear weapons postures of other countries, leading, we believe, to a safer world,” the letter said. “Where we set the Clock next year will be influenced by what the Nuclear Posture Review ultimately contains.”
Among immediate steps to turn back the clock, the letter said that Russian and U.S. leaders should identify more ambitious and comprehensive limits on nuclear weapons and delivery systems by the end of 2022. Nations around the world also should speed up decarbonization efforts, and reduce biological risks through better monitoring of animal and human interactions, improving international disease surveillance and reporting, increased production and distribution of medical supplies, and expanded hospital capacity. The president also should not have the authority to launch nuclear weapons, the letter said.
The Nuclear Notebook is a product of the Nuclear Information Project and the Federation of American Scientists.It has been published since 1987 and examines the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
According to the notebook, the U.S. nuclear arsenal remained roughly unchanged in the last year, with the Department of Defense maintaining an estimated stockpile of 3,708 warheads. Of these, about 1,770 warheads are deployed, while around 1,938 are held in reserve. Additionally, about 1,536 retired warheads are awaiting dismantlement, giving a total inventory of around 5,244 nuclear warheads.
Of the estimated 1,770 warheads that are deployed, 400 are on land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, roughly 970 are on submarine-launched ballistic missiles, 300 are at bomber bases in the United States, and 100 tactical bombs are at European bases.
The pace of warhead dismantling has slowed in recent years with the U.S. disassembling on average more than 1,000 warheads per year during the 1990s. In 2020 only 184 warheads were dismantled.
Among the more sobering statistics reported by the bulletin, U.S. nuclear weapons are thought to be stored at about 24 locations in 11 U.S. states and five European countries. The most nuclear weapons are stored at the Kirtland Underground Munitions and Maintenance Storage Complex (KUMMSC) south of Albuquerque, N.M. Most of the weapons are retired weapons awaiting dismantlement at the Pantex Plant in Texas.
The state with the second-largest inventory is Washington, which is home to the Strategic Weapons Facility Pacific and the ballistic missile submarines at Naval Submarine Base Kitsap. The submarines operating from this base carry more deployed nuclear weapons than any other base in the United States, the bulletin reported.
The Nuclear Notebook is a product of the Nuclear Information Project and the Federation of American Scientists.It has been published since 1987 and examines the U.S. nuclear arsenal.



Journalist for 40 years and now a creative writer

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store