Each year I wait with anticipation to find out whether the groundhog will see his shadow and winter will continue, or if he won’t see his shadow and spring will come early. Although I know it is just folklore, it is still interesting to see what weather patterns Punxsutawney Phil will predict.
Much like the groundhog tradition, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists conducts its own annual tradition of changing a metaphorical Doomsday Clock based on how well they believe the world is addressing nuclear nonproliferation and climate change. Each minute closer to midnight signals doom and this year the scientists have moved the clock forward yet another minute closer to midnight to 11:55.
Two years ago, it appeared that world leaders might address the truly global threats that we face. In many cases, that trend has not continued or been reversed. For that reason, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is moving the clock hand one minute closer to midnight, back to its time in 2007.
The scientists point to a nuclear Iran, new leadership within North Korea, the continued threat of climate change, and last year’s Fukushima nuclear accident as some of the main contributors to their decision.
Lawrence Krauss, co-chair of the Bulletin’s Board of Sponsors, comments on the decision:
As we see it, the major challenge at the heart of humanity's survival in the 21st century is how to meet energy needs for economic growth in developing and industrial countries without further damaging the climate, exposing people to loss of health and community, and without risking further spread of nuclear weapons, and in fact setting the stage for global reductions.
Given that nuclear energy is safe, emission free and stimulates the economy, it seems only reasonable that it would be included in energy policies that aim to both reduce the effects of climate change and boost economic development. Bill Sweet at IEEE Spectrum discusses this point with Robert Socolow, one of the Bulletin’s board members.
Together with climate modeler James Hansen of Columbia University's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Socolow emphasized that only nuclear energy can provide baseload electricity as a substitute for fossil fuels. Because of that, he emphasized the importance of keeping the nuclear power open. Yet his insistence on that point was tempered, even to a degree undermined, by his sense that more nuclear power means more proliferation of atomic weaponry.
That attitude, taking nuclear power to be essentially a good thing but dangerous because the technology is dual-use and can be turned to military ends, is characteristic of scientists who have worried about the atom in the post-war era.
Moving forward, Sweet encouraged a more measured look at the reality of the risks involved with nuclear power:
"Worldwide, there have been 582 nuclear power reactors that have operated approximately 14,400 reactor-years. Thus, to date, the historical frequency of core-melt accidents is about one in 1,300 reactor-years," Cochran said. Yet the Nuclear Regulator Commission, working from supposedly scientific probabilistic risk assessments, has put that frequency much lower, in the range of one to five per ten thousand reactor years (1-5/10,000).
The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists—to some degree—acknowledge Sweet’s point that nuclear reactor designs have been improving and getting safer over the past 60 years of operation, but with time running out on the Doomsday Clock, they still call for more safeguards:
Safer nuclear reactor designs need to be developed and built, and more stringent oversight, training, and attention are needed to prevent future disasters. A major question to be addressed is: How can complex systems like nuclear power stations be made less susceptible to accidents and errors in judgment?
Increasing safety at the nation’s nuclear plants is something that the industry aims to achieve each day. However, post-Fukushima safety improvements could result in additional costs to the utilities, The Bulletin said, which may open the door for other energy alternatives to meet the nation’s electricity and climate change goals:
In the United States, increased costs of additional safety measures may make nuclear power too expensive to be a realistic alternative to natural gas and other fossil fuels.
The hopeful news is that alternatives to burning coal, oil, and uranium for energy continue to show promise. Solar and photovoltaic technologies are seeing reductions in price, wind turbines are being adopted for commercial electricity, and energy conservation and efficiency are becoming accepted as sources for industrial production and residential use.
Regardless of The Bulletin’s moving target in reducing the effects of climate change and meeting nuclear nonproliferation goals, it is important to keep in mind that the Doomsday Clock serves just about as much utility as Punxsutawney Phil. Although The Bulletin warns us that, “The Clock is ticking,” I am pretty sure that continued research and development and advanced technologies will save us all before the clock strikes 12.
Just so you won’t have nightmares tonight, read this comforting note from The Los Angeles Times:
However, it may be heartening to hear that humanity has been closer to doomsday in the past and managed to come back from the brink of self destruction. In 1953 the board declared the time on the doomsday clock to be two minutes to midnight as the United States decided to pursue the hydrogen bomb, but by 1960 the time had moved back to six minutes to midnight as it became clear that both the U.S. and Russia were eager to avoid a nuclear conflict.
Photo credits: Robert Socolow sits alongside the Doomsday Clock. Courtesy of Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.