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Addressing the Nuclear Threat

Dr. Michael McCally

September 22, 2008

During the Presidential Primaries the question was raised of which candidate is most ready for the “3 AM phone call.”  As the Presidential contenders prepare for the September 26 debate on national security, a more immediate question is who is prepared to address the fact that the Doomsday Clock is set at five minutes to midnight? 

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the minute hand of its “Doomsday Clock” to five minutes before midnight this year, citing “global failures to solve the problems posed by nuclear weapons.”  The clock striking midnight would signal a nuclear exchange.

With nearly 30,000 nuclear warheads and thousands of tons of unsecured bomb making material worldwide, tensions growing with Iran and North Korea, plans for new nuclear weapons, and international treaties severely weakened, the next President of the United States will face urgent nuclear threats.  Detonation of even a single nuclear weapon brought in by terrorist or launched by accident has the power to kill hundreds of thousands of people instantly, and radioactive contamination would impact millions more.

Senators Barack Obama and John McCain seem to understand the seriousness of the challenge.  For the first time in history both major party candidates have endorsed the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons.  However, neither candidate has said how they plan to turn this vision into reality. 

Physicians for Social Responsibility believes Jim Lehrer, the host for the initial debate, should ask both men the following questions:

First, how long will it take to eliminate nuclear weapons?  Both have made statements that seem to back away from the idea of global elimination.  Senator Obama said that, as long as nuclear weapons exist, the United States will maintain a strong deterrent.  Senator McCain has made it clear that there are conditions that must be met before eliminating nuclear weapons.

Second, what is the first step that each will take towards a world without nuclear weapons?  Neither candidate has produced a road map to the complete elimination of nuclear weapons.  Will the candidates negotiate a new agreement with Russia to achieve dramatically deeper cuts in their nuclear stockpiles?  Will they act to build support for the ratification of the treaty to permanently end all nuclear weapon testing?

Finally, will both men pledge to stop U.S. programs to develop new nuclear weapons?  The Bush Administration continues to ask for funding to develop a new nuclear weapon the reliable replacement warhead.  Senator Obama has stated that he does not support plans to build the warhead at this time.  Senator McCain has yet to offer a stance on the issue.

Specifics are important.  It isn’t too much to ask the candidates to spend five minutes each one minute for every one thousand deployed nuclear warheads in the U.S. arsenal explaining how they will eliminate the threat to human life and health posed by continued reliance on nuclear weapons.
 
We are at an important moment in history, and the goal of a nuclear weapons free world is being promoted by respected national security experts like former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger.

Senators Obama and McCain should use this initial debate to show how they will ensure that the United States will be a leader in eliminating the nuclear threat.  The clock is ticking.

Dr. McCally is the executive director of the Physicians for Social Responsibility, mmccally@psr.org 

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