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Climate change, nuclear threats push world towards Doomsday

AFP | January 17, 2007

The world is inching closer to nuclear Armageddon, top scientists warned Wednesday as they moved a symbolic Doomsday Clock nearer to midnight and stressed the growing threat from climate change.

Stephen Hawking, the renowned Cambridge University physicist, was among 18 Nobel laureates backing the warning, which cited North Korea and Iran as key factors in the increased danger of a nuclear winter.

"It is now five minutes to midnight," Hawking said after the clock was moved forward two minutes from 11:53 pm, where it had stood since 2002.

"We foresee great peril if governments and scientists don't take action now to render nuclear weapons obsolete and to prevent further climate change," he added.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has kept a Doomsday clock since 1947 as a reminder of the dangers of nuclear proliferation.

The publication, whose contributors have included Albert Einstein, was set up by scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bombs detonated over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

At simultaneous events in London and Washington, the clock's big hand was pushed forward again, its sixth move since the end of the Cold War.

"We stand at the brink of a Second Nuclear Age. Not since the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has the world faced such perilous choices," said the bulletin in a statement.

"North Korea's recent test of a nuclear weapon, Iran's nuclear ambitions, a renewed US emphasis on the military utility of nuclear weapons, the failure to adequately secure nuclear materials, and the continued presence of some 26,000 nuclear weapons in the United States and Russia are symptomatic of a failure to solve the problems posed by the most destructive technology on Earth."

Each of the two nations' warheads was between eight and 40 times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima and 50 of them could kill 200 million people, the statement said.

It also criticised the US, Russia and other signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty for having "failed in their obligation to make serious strides toward disarmament".

The London event was held at the Royal Society, Britain's top scientific institution, whose president Martin Rees stressed the threat of climate change as well as nuclear proliferation.

"Nuclear weapons still pose the most catastrophic and immediate threat to humanity, but climate change and emerging technologies in the life sciences also have the potential to end civilization as we know it," he said.

The statement added that the expansion of civilian nuclear power programmes around the world "increases the risk of nuclear proliferation" because enrichment facilities can be modified to produce uranium for weapons use.

First set at seven minutes to midnight -- a phrase that has become part of pop culture -- the clock moved 17 times in response to global events.

The most recent shift was in 2002 when it moved forward two minutes because the US withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and terrorists were known to be seeking nuclear and biological weapons.

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