Tony Williams surveys damage at his Mineral, Va. home after an earthquake struck Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2011. Items in his home were knocked over and displaced, and the home suffered some structural damage after the most powerful earthquake to strike the East Coast in 67 years shook buildings and rattled nerves from South Carolina to New England. The quake was centered near Mineral, a small town northwest of Richmond. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Unbeknownst to many, there are numerous fault lines in the city, but a few stand out for their size and prominence: the 125th Street Fault, the Dyckman Street Fault, the Mosholu Parkway Fault, and the East River Fault.
The 125th Street Fault is the largest, running along the street, extending from New Jersey to the East River. Part of it runs to the northern tip of Central Park, while a portion extends into Roosevelt Island.
The East River Fault looks a bit like an obtuse angle, with its top portion running parallel, to the west of Central Park, before taking a horizontal turn near 32nd St. and extending into the East River and stopping short of Brooklyn.
Just outside of the city is the Dobbs Ferry Fault, located in suburban Westchester; and the Ramapo Fault, running from eastern Pennsylvania to the mid-Hudson Valley, passing within a few miles northwest of the Indian Point Nuclear Plant, less than 40 miles north of the city and astride the intersection of two active seismic zones.
The locations of faults and the prevalence of earthquakes is generally not a concern for most New Yorkers. One reason might be that perceptions of weaker earthquakes vary widely.
On Nov. 30, a magnitude 4.1 earthquake, centered near Dover, Delaware, could be felt in nearby states. Less than 200 miles away in New York City, some people reported on social media that they felt their houses and apartments shaking. At the same time, some New Yorkers, again, did not feel anything:
I felt the earthquake too! I wanna be part of this! I watched the water in a water bottle go back forth for a long time after the 3 seconds of shaking. Thought about the T-rex scene from Jurassic Park and went back to work. #earthquake#nyc
We didn’t but The US Geological Survey reports that a 4.4 magnitude #earthquake has occurred in Dover, Delaware & was reportedly felt by some in the #NYC area. There are no reports of injuries or damage in #NYC at this time.#UpperEastSide#UES
Won-Young Kim is a senior research scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, which monitors and records data on earthquakes that occur in the northeast. Kim says it’s not clear who feels smaller earthquakes, as evident by a magnitude 0.8 quake in the city in December of 2004.
“Hundreds of people called local police, and police called us. Our system was unable to detect that tiny earthquake automatically,” Kim said. “We looked at it, and, indeed, there was a small signal.”
Kim says some parts of the city will feel magnitude 1 or 2 earthquakes even if the seismic activity does not result in any damage.
You have to go back to before the 20th Century, however, to find the last significant earthquake that hit the city. According to Lamont-Doherty researchers, magnitude 5.2 earthquakes occurred in 1737 and 1884. In newspaper accounts, New Yorkers described chimneys falling down and feeling the ground shake underneath them.
“1737 — that was located close to Manhattan,” Kim said. “It was very close to New York City.”
According to Kim, the 1884 quake was felt in areas in or close to the city, such as the Rockaways and Sandy Hook, New Jersey. But it was felt even as far away as Virginia and Maine.
From 1677 to 2007, there were 383 known earthquakes in a 15,000-square-mile area around New York City, researchers at Lamont-Doherty said in a 2008 study.
A 4.9 located in North Central New Jersey was felt in the city in 1783; a 4 hit Ardsley in 1985; and in 2001, magnitude 2.4 and 2.6 quakes were detected in Manhattan itself for the first time.
But the 1737 and 1884 quakes remain the only known ones of at least magnitude 5 to hit the city.
Smaller earthquakes are not to be ignored. Lamont-Doherty researchers say frequent small quakes occur in predictable ratios to larger ones and thus can be used — along with the fault lengths, detected tremors and calculations of how stress builds in the crust — to create a rough time scale.
Researchers say New York City is susceptible to at least a magnitude 5 earthquake once every 100 years, a 6 about every 670 years, and 7 about every 3,400 years.
It’s been 134 years since New York was last hit by at least a magnitude 5. When it happens next, researchers say it won’t be much like 1884.
The city’s earthquake hazard is moderate, according to the New York City Area Consortium for Earthquake Loss Mitigation (NYCEM), but experts agree that, due to its higher population and infrastructure, the damage would be significant.
Before 1995, earthquake risks were not taken into consideration for the city’s building code. Thus, Lamont-Doherty says many older buildings, such as unenforced three- to six-story buildings, could suffer major damage or crumble.
The damage an earthquake causes is also dependent on what’s in the ground. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, bedrock is more resistant to earthquakes than sediment.
The upper third of Manhattan has harder soil that is more resistant to shaking. Parts of Midtown are more susceptible, while Downtown Manhattan’s soil is even softer, according to the NYCEM.
Exceptions to Upper Manhattan’s strength? Portions of Harlem and Inwood — both areas consist of a large amount of soft soil. Central Park has the strongest soil in Manhattan, outside of a small segment of Inwood..
Not all boroughs are created equal. While the Bronx is also made of solid bedrock, the ground in Queens and Brooklyn is softer.
“If you go to Queens and Brooklyn, you have sediment, so there would be more shaking relative to Manhattan,” Kim said. “So, it’s not easy to say the damage would be the same.”
New York City is not a hotbed for seismic activity; it is not close to a tectonic plate, and it is not clear if one of the faults would be the source of a strong quake. But the predicted damage to the city has concerned many experts.
Until that day, earthquakes are isolated events for New Yorkers. Some have felt the ground move, while others have only felt shaking when subway cars travel underground.
But researchers agree: One day, the ground will wake up in the city that never sleeps, and all New Yorkers will understand what Mineral, Virginia felt when their homes rattled with the earth.
Inside Moran Cerf’s quest to modernise the decision-making process that could end life on earth
January 18 2023
Three hundred nuclear missiles are screaming towards the US. This is likely a pre-emptive strike by Russia to destroy all land-based intercontinental ballistic missile silos in the country. Anti-missile defences cannot knock out many of the incoming rockets, meaning 2mn Americans will die.
Having been sworn in as US president a few minutes previously, I am sitting in the Oval Office watching TV reports of escalating fighting in Europe. A secret service agent bursts into the room and tells me to leave immediately. I take the lift down to the White House crisis centre known as the Situation Room, where I am joined by my top national security officials, who brief me on the incoming attack. I have 15 minutes to respond. As the clock ticks down, I am presented with three options, all of which involve retaliatory strikes against Russia, projected to kill between 5mn and 45mn people. What do I do?
Mercifully, I am watching all this play out through a clunky virtual reality headset strapped to my face. The polygonal avatars in front of me are crude enough that I am never going to mistake this exercise for reality. Even so, my head is spinning and my heart is racing as the drama unfolds amid throbbing alarms and raised voices. For a few minutes, I have been forced to think about the toughest decision that any individual will ever have to make in the history of humanity. The sense of responsibility is crushing. And the words of my national security adviser echo in my ears: “If you do not retaliate and the attack is real, what will you tell the American people afterwards?”
This immersive experience has been devised by Sharon Weiner and Moritz Kütt, two national security experts from Princeton University, who have tested it on dozens of people to see how they respond. The experience highlights the agonies of making life-and-death decisions based on imperfect information under extreme pressure. It is based on the current US nuclear launch protocols that have changed little since the height of the cold war. In a controlled experiment with 79 participants, 90 per cent chose to launch a nuclear counter-strike.
Weiner admits the precise details of the exercise are not fully accurate. (The fact that, in my case, it crashes after a few minutes means we have to reboot the VR, too.) “But we have been true to what is likely,” she says. “The real authenticity is the stress and the complexities that result from including several decision makers in the room.” Each one of these participants is trying to do their job as best they can. But they have conflicting priorities. Each one has emotional baggage; each responds to stress differently. So, ultimately, the system depends on the president asserting agency and making a decision. “If the president is not directing all this,” Weiner says, “then the crisis mismanages itself.”
It is late 2022, and this chilling simulation is being staged at the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference close to the Capitol in Washington DC. NukeCon, as it is called, is packed with many of the world’s top national security experts, who have become freshly relevant. The war in Ukraine has added a whiff of danger to proceedings, and a grim humour prevails, as speakers joke about the appropriateness of the event being held in an underground bunker. The coffee stall is labelled Baristas of Armageddon.
Robert Oppenheimer, the American physicist who directed the Los Alamos laboratory during the second world war that developed the atomic bomb, once compared two great nuclear powers to “scorpions in a bottle, each capable of killing the other, but only at the risk of his own life”. Conflict in Ukraine has once again shaken those bottled scorpions with two powers, Russia and the US, indirectly locked in a proxy war on Russia’s border.
At NukeCon, one speaker argues that Ukraine is almost certain to win the war and will drive Russian forces out of the entire country, including Crimea. Another speaker adds that if such a scenario comes to pass, President Vladimir Putin would regard this humiliating defeat as an existential threat to his regime, if not Russia itself. In such circumstances, it is easy to believe that Russia would resort to nuclear weapons. Putin has been conducting military drills, warning Nato that he is not bluffing. The US has just reasserted its own commitment to nuclear deterrence to counter any aggression from rival powers, including Russia and China.
Which is to say, the macabre psychological dance of nuclear deterrence has begun again. It will be familiar to anybody who lived through the cold war. But I’ve come to Washington to meet an activist for modernising the decision-making process that could potentially end all life on earth.
Having cast off my presidential responsibilities, I take a brisk 30-minute walk across town to a very different conference. Poptech, boasting an R&B yoga playground and air-freshening Himalayan salt lamps, draws a crowd sporting far more colourful clothing and more facial hair. Speakers here are discussing everything from exploiting data from the James Webb space telescope to building communication apps for sex workers. One of Poptech’s hosts is Moran Cerf, a 45-year-old Israeli neuroscientist and professor at Northwestern University, who is running a session on reimagining national security policy. He is wearing faded jeans and a chequered waistcoat, and sports three-day stubble. As an expert in decision-making, Cerf has grown increasingly alarmed about the flaws in the nuclear launch protocols of the world’s nine nuclear powers (the US, Russia, China, Britain, France, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea). He is campaigning to rewrite these nuclear launch rules. Over the past 18 months, Cerf has interviewed dozens of nuclear weapons experts, military leaders and politicians from around the world about how to lower the risks of a nuclear catastrophe. Mutually Assured Destruction, his documentary on the subject, is due to be broadcast this year.
Cerf’s interest in the nuclear threat was sparked by a discussion at a Poptech conference in 2018 during which two Nobel Prize winners — Beatrice Fihn, a Swedish lawyer who won the peace prize, and Barry Barish, who won in physics — talked about the urgency of the issue. Cerf argues that humans are very bad at processing extreme risks, such as nuclear war. We may experience a flash of concern about the issue from time to time but will quickly move on to everyday concerns. “Our brains are good at living in the here and now. But it is difficult for our brains to contemplate catastrophe, or high-risk and low-probability events,” he says.
After Poptech has wrapped up, I sit down with Cerf in a dimly lit hotel lounge. In heavily accented English, he rattles off his life story: born in Paris and raised in Israel, he studied physics at Tel Aviv University and worked in military intelligence during his national service, with stints guarding Israel’s nuclear plant at Dimona. He then built his career as a “white hat” hacker at the cyber security company Imperva, where he performed penetration tests on banks and government institutions.
Cerf’s life changed direction following a chance meeting with Francis Crick, the English biologist who helped decipher the structure of DNA. In his later career, Crick focused on the mystery of consciousness. He encouraged Cerf to do the same by trying to “hack” the most interesting vault in the universe: the human brain. “Leave your job and go do real stuff,” Crick advised him.
Cerf studied for a PhD in neuroscience at the California Institute of Technology and later conducted research at UCLA neurosurgery department. UCLA ran one of the few hospitals where surgeons would open up the skull and implant electrodes in the brain to diagnose various conditions. Taking advantage of this opportunity, Cerf persuaded patients to allow him to study the circuitry of their brains. He would, for example, show the patients pictures of their relatives, show them videos or play simple games with them and monitor which neurons fired. His research has helped explain why the brain responds to certain stimuli but ignores others, perhaps one of the first intimations of consciousness. “Within neuroscience, I am part of a niche that is tiny in terms of resources but is very sexy,” he says. “We had access to golden data. You could ask a patient a question and see how the electrodes responded.”
One of the conclusions Cerf says he drew from his research is that we are living in a world that is now far too complex for our brains to process. Our grey matter worked fine when our ancestors lived in the savannah and only needed to recognise 100 people and five plants. But now that we live in an infinitely more sophisticated world, it is little wonder that our brains struggle to make the necessary connections or identify significant patterns.
That is especially true when it comes to issues as abstract and remote as climate change or nuclear war. Cerf explains that if the brain assesses the likelihood of something happening as very, very small, say 0.0000-something, it does not know how to deal with such a low-probability event. “So, it just assigns it a value of zero,” he says. “The only way to deal with that is to cheat the brain.”
Alarming though that sounds, Cerf gives an example of how this can be done to good effect. With colleagues from Northwestern University, Cerf has been working with the US Transportation Security Administration to help airport screening teams detect explosives in passengers’ luggage. The vast majority of security staff in airports around the world will never see a bomb in their entire careers. So their brains tend to become dismissive of the possibility. After millions of times of seeing nothing, nothing, nothing, the chances of them one day detecting a real bomb are close to zero, Cerf says. But if you randomly inject a dummy bomb into the process every 10 minutes or so, then you can keep the screeners’ brains responsive.
Lottery operators work on a similar principle to cheat the brain in a different way. Even though an individual’s chances of winning the lottery are close to zero, the operators will regularly show advertisements of players winning the jackpot. See enough smiling faces of winners on your television screen, and you will convince yourself that you too stand a fair chance. “This is what we in neuroscience call choice architecture: you force the brain to confront something it otherwise wouldn’t,” Cerf says.
Backed by the Carnegie Corporation, Cerf has interviewed dozens of people involved in crisis decision-making around the world. That has convinced him nuclear powers must change the choice architecture of their launch protocols. Several design changes could be made to the decision-making process to make it safer, according to Cerf. The first would be to remove the 15-minute response time, which forces a US president to launch on warning. Cerf argues this hair-trigger response procedure is a “relic of the past”, considering that the US would retain a second-strike capability by air and sea even if all its land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles were destroyed.
Cerf also thinks that key decision makers should repeatedly practise emergency drills and analyse their responses to learn from their mistakes. They could also conduct “pre-mortems”, in which they imagine worst-case outcomes and then work backwards to see how they could be avoided. Another tweak would be to appoint one member of the decision-making team to oppose the consensus. Rachel Bronson, president and chief executive of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which has been warning of the dangers of nuclear war since 1945, hopes that Cerf’s forthcoming film will raise awareness and help nudge the world towards a saner, safer future. “What Moran is doing is very important,” she tells me at the PopTech conference. When it comes to nuclear launch protocols, she adds: “We need to rethink every aspect of this system and push for more time and more engagement and more democracy.”
In November, the Union of Concerned Scientists, another campaigning organisation, wrote to President Joe Biden urging him to revise the nuclear launch protocol. Any launch order should require the consent of two high-level officials in the presidential line of succession, the scientists wrote. “As the risk of nuclear war continues to grow, you have the power to take concrete, immediate steps to build a more stable nuclear weapons system, one that isn’t subject to the whims and questionable judgment of one person alone.”
Cerf argues that if the US were to change its protocol, other nuclear powers would almost certainly do the same. Washington would stand a good chance of persuading its Nato allies, including the UK and France, to follow suit and could put pressure on other countries, such as Pakistan and India, to modify their procedures. Having interviewed policymakers from potentially hostile powers, such as Russia and China, Cerf believes they would also be open to moving to a safer regime. “The hope and the strong belief that I have is that it won’t just be the US that adopts this protocol,” he says.
On September 26 1983, Lieutenant ColonelStanislav Petrov was the duty officer at a Soviet early warning command centre when he was alerted to an incoming US missile attack. Three weeks earlier, a Soviet fighter jet had shot down a Korean civilian airliner that drifted off course, killing 269 people. Cold war tensions were at their height. The Soviet satellite warning system had flagged five US missiles heading towards Russia. But Petrov knew the detection system was new and suspected it might be faulty. Ground radar had not corroborated the missile launch. Besides, it would seem illogical for the US to launch an attack with just five missiles.
Disobeying Soviet military protocol, Petrov concluded it was a false alarm and did not report the incident up the chain of command. He may well have prevented an escalation that could have triggered a nuclear war. A Danish documentary film of the incident released in 2014 was entitled The Man Who Saved the World. “I am not a hero. I was just at the right place at the right time,” Petrov says in the film.
To an extent that is little recognised, the world critically depends on sensible people, such as Petrov, being in the right place at the right time. The history of the past 77 years has been littered with accidents and false alarms that could have escalated into a nuclear conflict. At least one former US defence secretary, William Perry, has argued that nuclear war is far more likely to result from a blunder than from a deliberate attack. “We have continued to focus our nuclear posture and policies on preparing for a surprise, disarming attack, and those policies actually increase the likelihood of an accidental nuclear war,” he wrote two years ago.
In such circumstances, we ultimately rely on the good sense of our leaders. “We elect presidents to make the final decision and, God willing, those presidents should have both the intellectual and moral responsibility to make the right decision,” Leon Panetta, the former US secretary of defence who also served as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, says in Cerf’s film.
One common argument is that, since 1945, the very existence of nuclear weapons has saved us from another world war. Humanity has peered over the edge of the abyss and recoiled from the brink. That suggests the theory of nuclear deterrence has worked. Leaders have behaved responsibly because the costs of irresponsibility would be catastrophic. But according to Weiner, the Princeton academic who designed the VR simulation, this argument is nothing more than “sloppy causal inference”. One could make a similar argument that it was the existence of the UN that has helped to keep the peace over the same time, she says.
Humanity has peered over the edge of the abyss and recoiled from the brink
Even if we make the decision-making process safer, as Cerf would like, that does not automatically mean that we will avoid catastrophic outcomes. “If you look at the literature about human behaviour and the heuristics of decision-making and change the launch protocol accordingly, it does not mean that the person in the room will not launch the missiles immediately,” says Weiner. “You cannot programme people to make rational decisions. But you can at least try to eliminate irrational decisions.”
When Cerf first started investigating the issue, he thought that an objective decision-making system, powered by artificial intelligence, might help strip emotion from the process and reduce the possibility of an irrational response. But he quickly realised that deterrence is a psychological relationship in which irrationality can be a key part of the game. As Weiner says, the whole theory of deterrence rests on the assumption that a leader would be prepared to kill themselves (and perhaps the rest of humanity) in defence of national security. “You need a madman theory in deterrence,” she says.
The fullest explanation of the madman theory was contained in the memoirs of Harry “Bob” Haldeman, chief of staff to President Richard Nixon when he was looking to wind down the Vietnam war. “I want the North Vietnamese to believe that I’ve reached the point that I might do anything to stop the war,” Nixon said, according to Haldeman’s account. “We’ll just slip the word to them that, ‘for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about Communism. We can’t restrain him when he is angry — and he has his hand on the nuclear button’ and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted many to question Putin’s rationality. At the beginning of last year, he swore that he did not intend to attack Ukraine. In October, he said he saw no point in a nuclear strike. But fears of nuclear war have skyrocketed since the outbreak of conflict, says Fihn, the Nobel-winner who inspired Cerf back in 2018. “People are really scared and rightfully so,” she says. The Russian-language page of her International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons website, explaining the humanitarian consequences of a nuclear exchange, has been one of the most visited on the site. Only by working for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons, she says, can the world ever be safe from the threat of Armageddon.
In a video interview from Geneva, Fihn argues that it is naive to believe that the leaders of the nine nuclear powers will forever be rational and will never make a mistake or do something stupid. “There’s this kind of fallacy of nuclear deterrence that is now exposed by Russia’s actions that no rational country would ever use these weapons, only an irrational country would,” she says. “This is a weapon that favours the crazy.”
Still Fihn, like many of the experts I interviewed for this article, rejects fatalism. Most were hopeful that change is possible. “I am quite optimistic. If we get through this crisis alive and we don’t see the use of nuclear weapons, I think we will see a moment of opportunity just as there was after the Cuban missile crisis when there was massive progress on non-proliferation,” Fihn says. Cerf also describes himself as an optimist. When researching his film, he was surprised by how willing his interviewees were to talk. “In all the countries, this knowledge is burning inside them,” he says. “I do imagine the US making drastic changes.”
Back in the immersive nuclear scenario, I am being shouted at by the security service who tell me that a missile might hit the White House at any point. I need to evacuate as soon as possible. I demand that everything should be done to warn those who may be targeted by the incoming attack. (This is a somewhat forlorn hope.) I agree that US forces should be moved to Defcon 1, maximum military readiness. And, when I ask why we have not yet contacted the Russians, I’m told they are apparently not returning our calls.
Three options are thrust in front of me on virtual cards. The first authorises a limited counter-strike against Russia’s intercontinental ballistic missile sites and its primary submarine and air bases. That would result in between 5mn and 15mn casualties. The second involves targeting all nuclear sites in Russia, inflicting between 20mn and 25mn casualties. And the third option would add Russia’s main industrial sites and leadership to the target list, causing up to 45mn casualties. “We need to know your guidance,” I am told.
In all the countries, this knowledge is burning inside them
Faced with such hellish options, I decide to authorise none of them. I refuse to verify the nuclear launch code. My logic is as follows: there is nothing I can do to stop the incoming missiles from striking their targets. Moreover, I do not know for certain that the attack is real and who may have launched it. Reassured that the US retains a second-strike capability, I conclude there is no need to rush a response. I wonder how things might’ve gone in a version of the simulation guided by rules Cerf might shape.
As Weiner explains afterwards, there are no right or wrong answers. Some people who undergo the experience are convinced they have done the right thing in launching a counter-strike. Others, who have authorised a missile launch, immediately regret their decision and agonise over having made a terrible mistake.
Published 11:45 AM ET Mon, 14 May 2018 Updated 9:54 AM ET Tue, 15 May 2018 CNBC.com
HAIDAR HAMDANI | AFP | Getty Images
Iraqi Shiite cleric and leader Moqtada al-Sadr (C-L) shows his ink-stained index finger and holds a national flag while surrounded by people outside a polling station in the central holy city of Najaf on May 12, 2018 as the country votes in the first parliamentary election since declaring victory over the Islamic State (IS) group.
More than 91 percent of Iraq’s votes have been tallied after polls closed over the weekend in Iraq’s first election since defeating the Islamic State (ISIS) late last year. And they reveal a shock win for firebrand Iraqi cleric Moqtada al Sadr, who wasn’t even running for prime minister, along with his coalition allies, the Iraqi Communist Party. He was followed by Iran-backed Shia militia leader Hadi Al Amiri, while incumbent Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi, initially predicted to win re-election, trailed in third. Voter turnout was a low 44.5 percent, indicating widespread voter apathy and pessimism, observers said.
Reports show that Sadr’s “Sairoon” alliance won more than 1.3 million votes, translating to 54 seats in the country’s 329-seat parliament, taking the greatest share among a broad and fractured array of parties.
A win for Sadr, the populist Shia leader known for his anti-American campaigns and his populist appeal to Iraq’s young and poor, could dramatically change Iraq’s political landscape and its relationship with external powers like the U.S. and Iran. In addition to pushing for the removal of U.S. troops from Iraq, Sadr is avidly opposed to Iranian influence in his country. That influence has grown significantly thanks to the pivotal role played by Iran-backed militias in driving out ISIS. The influential cleric, who has millions of religious followers, cannot become prime minister as he did not run for the position himself — but his electoral success means he will likely have a key role in deciding who does.
Sadr has spearheaded a number of political movements in Iraq, gaining infamy for directing attacks on U.S. troops in the wake of the 2003 Iraq invasion. His charismatic sermons have drawn hundreds of thousands into the streets over a range of causes. More recently, he’s led campaigns and protests against corruption within the Shia-led government as well as against Iranian influence, and pledged to overcome sectarianism by leading a secular coalition that includes Iraq’s communists. Sadr in 2003 created the Mahdi Army, which executed the first major armed confrontation against U.S. forces in Iraq led by the Shia community — and it posed such a threat that U.S. forces were instructed to kill or capture him. The group, which numbered up to 10,000, was also accused of carrying out atrocities against Iraq’s Sunnis. It was disbanded in 2008, but re-mobilized in 2014 to fight ISIS. The cleric owes much of his religious following to the legacy of his father, an influential Iraqi ayatollah murdered in the 1990s for opposing former President Saddam Hussein, and has spent much of his career championing Shia causes.
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE | AFP | Getty Images
But in the last year, he’s undergone something of a reinvention: he has reached out to Sunni Gulf neighbors, most notably in 2017 visits to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, where he met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) powers typically shunned Iraq’s Shia, but are now making headway in the country through investment and economic aid, seen partially as an attempt to counter arch-rival Iran’s entrenched influence in the country. Ahead of the election, Sadr pledged a commitment to abandon sectarianism by forming a coalition with secular Sunnis and Iraq’s Communist Party, who have as a result seen their best election performance ever. “Sadr‘s strong showing suggests that he maintains a relatively loyal following and that his nationalist, cross-sectarian platform was effective at mobilizing voters in challenging conditions,” said Ryan Turner, a senior risk analyst at London-based PGI Group. He has also stopped advocating violence, said Renad Mansour, an Iraq researcher and fellow at U.K. policy institute Chatham House. “He passed the use of violence for his political agenda,” Mansour said. “But say if the U.S. come back and occupy Iraq, I imagine that this would change.”
Because of the fractured nature of Iraqi politics, no candidate or bloc has won an outright majority. The winners of the most seats must negotiate a coalition government within 90 days, during which a long complex process of compromise will have to unfold. Winning the greatest share of votes does not directly translate to leading the government. “Depending on the final tallies and political jockeying, Sadr may find himself in a position to play kingmaker, which could see Abadi reappointed prime minister,” Turner said, referring to the current prime minister, who was widely praised for leading the fight against ISIS and for balancing relationships across sects and external powers. But to do so, Sadr would likely have to outmaneuver Iran, which would prefer to see Amiri — the candidate who finished second place — assume the premiership. Tehran wields much of its influence by pushing its preferred policies through Iranian-backed candidates and political players like Amiri. A major objective of Iran’s is to push the U.S. out of Iraq, where some 5,000 troops still remain.
Department of Defense photo
U.S. Army paratroopers assigned to Bravo Troop, 5th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division, maneuver through a hallway as part of squad level training at Camp Taji, Iraq.
The extent to which the reforms Sadr has championed can take place will be determined by these fractured politics, said Mansour. “So far Sadr has been a very vocal voice demanding change — the question becomes whether he’ll actually be able to maneuver around the system that Iraq is, which is one where power is so diffuse among different entities that it’s hard for one group to have complete control. But I think he certainly will try and be more dramatic about it.” Labeled one of the most corrupt countries in the world by Transparency International, Iraq is still mired in poverty and dysfunction following its bloody, three-year battle against ISIS. Officials estimate they’ll need at least $100 billion to rebuild the country’s destroyed homes, businesses and infrastructure, and improvised explosive devices and landmines remain scattered throughout the country. The composition of the new government will be crucial in determining how Iraq moves forward. “It’s not clear that Sadr‘s rising political influence will undermine Iraq’s recent progress,” Turner said, noting that despite the cleric’s past, he has cooperated with Abadi and backed changes intended to reduce corruption. “Much will depend on what happens next, and whether Sadr is able to quickly form a governing coalition or Iraq enters a period of prolonged deadlock as after the 2010 election.”Natasha TurakCorrespondent, CNBC
Historically, the clock has measured the danger of nuclear disaster, but that’s not the only apocalyptic scenario being considered. Climate change, bioterrorism, artificial intelligence and the damage done by mis- and disinformation also have been included in the mix of possible cataclysms.
“It gave the sense that if we did nothing, it would tick on toward midnight and we could experience the apocalypse,” Bronson said.
Where does the Doomsday Clock stand now?
For the past two years the Doomsday Clock has stood at 100 seconds to midnight, closer to destruction than at any point since it was created in 1947.
What does midnight represent on the Doomsday Clock?
Midnight on the Doomsday Clock represents how close humans are to bringing about civilization-ending catastrophe because of the unleashing of human-caused perils either by nuclear disaster, climate change or other cataclysms.
At its heart, the bulletin’s founders were asking how well humanity was managing the “dangerous Pandora’s box made possible by modern science,” Bronson said.
Though technology makes possible amazing and wonderful things, it can also pose risks. In 1947 the biggest of those was nuclear war. Since then the bulletin has added others, including climate change, bioterrorism, artificial intelligence and the damage done by mis- and disinformation.
Why is the Doomsday Clock so prominent?
Over the years the clock has been referenced by the White House, the Kremlin and the leadership of many other nations. Robert Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein were on the bulletin’s Board of Sponsors, and John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon wrote pieces for the magazine.
Though not everyone agrees with the clock’s settings, it is generally respected for the questions it asks and for its science-based stance.
Does the Doomsday Clock always go forward?
The setting of the clock has jumped forward and back over the past 75 years, depending on world events.
The furthest from midnight it has ever been was in 1991, when it was set at 17 minutes to midnight after the U.S. and the Soviet Union signed the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, followed by the dissolution of the USSR.
“People would go to sleep every night worried about were they going to wake up,” said Daniel Holz, a professor of physics at the University of Chicago and co-chair of the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board. “That threat was definitely reduced at the end of the Cold War.”
An Israeli military commander has revealed to Newsweek how his soldiers were planning to mount a ground offensive into the Gaza Strip should another conflict break out between the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and the Palestinian fighters operating out of the Mediterranean territory.
As the decadeslong Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to erupt into violence, some of the largest escalations this century have been fought between the IDF and Gaza-based Palestinian factions led primarily by the Islamist movement Hamas. Major engagements have taken place in recent years, with thousands of rockets pounding Israeli cities and the IDF bombarding the Gaza Strip, but not since 2014 have IDF personnel invaded the Palestinian stronghold by land.
Now, however, IDF Colonel Beni Aharon tells Newsweek that Israeli forces “have a new plan,” the main component of which deals with “maneuvering in Gaza” itself.
“There have been a lot of operations over 20 years, every four or five years you have a big operation, and the rest of them are from the air,” Aharon, who serves as a brigade commander, said. “Sometimes it can result in the quiet that we want to make, but sometimes it’s not enough. And when our civilians are in danger, we want to have a plan that can stop this, and this plan is going to do it correctly.”
The new strategy was the subject of an IDF exercise conducted last month simulating a near-future conflict in Gaza. Its title: “The Path of Fire.”
The tactics involved what Aharon referred to as “the most powerful units in the IDF.” Specifically, he said the IDF would only employ the most advanced and heavily armored tanks and personnel carriers such as the Namer, which the Israeli Defense Ministry has claimed to be “the most protected armored combat vehicle in the world.”
In addition to heavy weaponry, the armored fleet would be equipped with the Identify & Alert System, a high-tech platform that another senior IDF officer previously told Newsweek allowed Israeli troops to digitally map out the battlefieldin real time.
“Today, we have a kind of computer in the tanks that can communicate with all the computers in the IDF,” Aharon said. “So, if there’s any intelligence soldier with a radio listening to the enemy and they understand that there is an anti-tank missile in a building, the tank commander can see it, put it in his computer and destroy it.”
Aharon said the fast pace of such conflicts and the speed in which enemy combatants can disappear into the surroundings of their own turf meant Israeli forces have only “like a minute” to respond.
In fact, Aharon said that one of the biggest challenges the IDF has faced in taking on Hamas and allied groups has been their use of a sprawling system of subterranean tunnels allowing them to evade Israeli detection in the midst of the battle. So, while he said that the IDF “can hear and see maybe anything in the Gaza Strip,” he also said that “Hamas knows this” and has since shifted its own strategy.
“We put a lot of effort into overseeing what happens in a more sophisticated way above the ground,” Aharon said, “but, on the contrary, terrorist organizations are hunting us all the time through their tunnels.”
Another major difficulty Aharon identified based on the IDF’s past experiences operating within Gaza itself is the cost incurred by such conflicts on civilians within the strip.
Israeli officials have repeatedly accused Hamas and other Palestinian factions of using human shields and killing their own through rocket misfires, while Palestinian movements have accused the IDF of killing scores of civilians through its bombings of the densely populated territory as well yas regular raids conducted in other regions where Palestinians are present such as the West Bank and Jerusalem.
In one recent example, Hamas issued a statement mourning the death of 14-year-old Omar Khamour, who was said to have been “killed at the hands of the Israeli occupation troops in a raid on the Dheisheh refugee camp in the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem.”
“Hamas condemns the killing of Khamour as a crime against humanity that adds to the Israeli occupation’s escalating crimes under the current extremist government,” the statement added. “We denounce the world’s silence on the settler-colonial occupation’s repeated crimes against Palestinian children and reiterate that the Palestinian people will continue to defend their land until liberation and return.”
Hamas would go on to take control of Gaza after the group’s legislative electoral victories the following year gave way to a violent split with left-wing Fatah, which heads the Palestinian National Authority based in the West Bank.
Efforts to reconcile the two major Palestinian political factions have yet to produce a lasting result and Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has repeatedly delayed plans to hold another round of legislative elections in which Hamas may be poised for more gains.
In the meantime, Hamas has continued to oppose any normalization of ties with Israel and has maintained a constant state of combat readiness through its military wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades.
Speaking to Newsweek about the IDF’s new strategy for conducting operations within Gaza, still today under effective Israeli blockade, a Hamas spokesperson said that “there is no doubt that the Palestinian resistance, led by Hamas and its military wing, the Al-Qassam Brigades, possesses a strong resistance in the Gaza Strip, and this resistance has resisted the Israeli occupation and stood strong.”
“This resistance defends our Palestinian people, our Islamic and Christian sanctities and the Al-Aqsa Mosque,” the Hamas spokesperson added.
The Al-Aqsa Mosque is considered to be among the most sacred sites in Islam and is one of several locations revered by the three Abrahamic religions within Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, known to Jews as Har Habayit and to Muslims as Al-Haram al-Sharif. Access to the compound has been a source of controversy between Jewish and Muslim worshippers, occasionally leading to broader violence that has sparked recent conflict between the IDF and Hamas.
And, as the IDF prepared itself for the next battle that could erupt at any moment, Hamas too was honing its warfighting prowess.
“The resistance, led by the Al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, has brave fighters who faced the occupation and its soldiers in the wars waged by the occupation against the Gaza Strip,” the spokesperson added.
Aharon too acknowledged that Hamas retains significant capabilities even after repeated IDF operations targeting the group.
“Our enemy is sophisticated, he adapts very fast, and he is learning all the time,” Aharon said. “We know that once we take one step against him, he will take one step against us.”
As a result, the IDF is taught to expect the unexpected.
“This is the first thing in the battlefield, that you know that you’re probably going to be surprised by the enemy every time,” Aharon said, “because the enemy who is against you, he is human, he is always thinking and, if he sees you have a vulnerable spot, he’s going to hit you there.”
“With my experience, the enemy has always tried to surprise us, and I believe he’s going to do it in the next war,” Aharon said. “We try to train our minds so that, even if the enemy does surprise you, the enemy will not make you lose, so you can stand up and ensure the opposite happens.”
Aharon also acknowledged that “Israel, in the past few years, has been vulnerable to soldiers falling in the battlefield, we know it.”
The new battle plan, however, will include a comprehensive set of tactics demonstrating what he called “the right way to go from Israel to the Gaza Strip, stay safe and hit the target and go back with all the soldiers, so it’s low price.”
“We’re going to do it together, so the air and the sea and the ground forces [are] together,” Aharon said. “In all the tactics, we are training to do them together in the Gaza Strip. It’s a very small place, but we develop tactics that can help us to do it in the right way, in the right place.”
“We’re going to surprise Hamas,” he said.
But even as the tensions between Israel and the Gaza Strip set the stage for another war, Aharon noted that an even more powerful foe lies in wait across Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. Here, the Hezbollah movement has access not only to rockets, but also precision guided missiles and other equipment ready to be used against Israeli forces.
Is South Korea Willing to Lose Its World-leading Nuclear Power Program to Build the Bomb?
In a wide-ranging interview on January 11, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol warned Pyongyang that if North Korea’s nuclear threat continues to advance, South Korea would consider building nuclear weapons of its own or ask the United States to redeploy them on the Korean Peninsula. Although President Yoon walked back these comments at the World Economic Forum in Davos, they were published in the South Korean press and reinforced by some Republic of Korea (ROK) defense analysts. Cheon Seong-whun said, “President Yoon’s comment could turn out to be a watershed moment in the history of South Korea’s national security.”
A South Korean decision to build its own bomb could, indeed, be a watershed. Threatening Pyongyang does little besides give it a stronger justification to enhance its own nuclear arsenal. I believe that such a move would trigger a tsunami that would wipe out Seoul’s remarkable economic miracle and destroy the soft power it has established around the world.
President Yoon’s frustration of having to stand by as the North revved up all aspects of its nuclear and missile programs over the past year is understandable. But his latest threat, alongside the Biden administration’s tepid North Korea policy, demonstrates how both have little understanding of the 30-year history of how and why Pyongyang built a threatening nuclear arsenal.
In the book Hinge Points:An Inside Look at North Korea’s Nuclear Program, published last week, I describe how at key moments in the past, so-called hinge points—bad decisions by both sides—have landed us in the present quandary. President Yoon may well be moving to another hinge point, this one with disastrous consequences: a more dangerous Korean Peninsula and a greatly weakened South Korea.
The National Burden of a Nuclear Arsenal
Whereas President Yoon’s comment, “…we can have our own nuclear weapons pretty quickly, given our scientific and technological capabilities” is true, it doesn’t come close to capturing the national redirection, expense, and immense burden that Seoul would have to shoulder to field not just one bomb, but a nuclear arsenal to counter Pyongyang’s.
It is true that with its advanced technological capabilities, South Korea could probably build the bomb quickly. But a few bombs don’t make a nuclear deterrent, particularly if Seoul will have to go it alone. And let’s be clear, if Seoul were to go down this path, Washington could, and likely would, withdraw its nuclear umbrella. Building a nuclear arsenal to counter Pyongyang’s would require a major national redirection of its economy and diplomacy that would negatively affect nearly all facets of South Korean life for decades.
For nearly fifty years, South Korea has pursued a civilian nuclear energy program. It wisely focused on the middle of the fuel cycle—that is, reactor fuel fabrication, reactor construction and operation, and electricity production. It has built neither enrichment nor reprocessing facilities. Consequently, South Korea has no inventory of bomb-grade plutonium or uranium currently stockpiled. To build nuclear weapons, it would have to repurpose some of its civilian reactors to produce the plutonium bomb fuel (combined with using its laboratory-scale pyroprocessing facilities to extract plutonium) or construct a centrifuge facility to make highly enriched uranium. Either path would take at least two years to produce enough bomb fuel for even a few bombs. In the longer term, an effective nuclear deterrent would require new, dedicated nuclear weapons facilities, requiring substantial time and financial commitments.
The next step in building a bomb is weaponization—that is, designing, building and testing the nuclear devices. South Korea could surely master all scientific and engineering challenges of building a bomb—as it has demonstrated so convincingly in mastering civilian nuclear power generation. Some of the purely military aspects could be accomplished in concert with its conventional military technical complex. But to prove the design and fabrication, there would need to be nuclear testing, but where? Neighboring countries—China and Japan—would certainly object strongly, and there would undoubtedly be strong domestic opposition to tests from every South Korean province.
The nuclear warheads will also have to be integrated into delivery vehicles—such as ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, submarine-launched missiles or bombers. South Korea has all the basic building blocks, but it would still have substantial work to do to integrate the nuclear warheads into the delivery systems. Moreover, these requirements will continue to evolve as North Korea upgrades its offensive and defensive capabilities. The assembly, disassembly and fielding of nuclear devices pose serious safety and security risks and would have to be learned without help or advice from current nuclear powers. Seoul will also have to develop a command-and-control structure that is more stringent than anything it has done so far for its conventional military.
Another consequence of building a nuclear arsenal is that it will compete for resources—financial, personnel, and technical—with the South’s conventional military. As with other industries, such as electronics, automotive and consumer goods that depend on South Korean engineering and manufacturing, its military industry has risen to be among the best in the world. South Korea has become one of the top international suppliers of military hardware. Seoul’s sales pitch is that it can deliver NATO-attuned military hardware faster and at lower prices than the United States. Changing directions to focus on a nuclear arsenal will derail most of its conventional military export business.
Should South Korea decide to build its own nuclear arsenal, I believe the United States will almost surely end its military alliance and economic partnership with Seoul. Congressional sanctions would likely follow, trade would suffer, and technology cooperation would be derailed.
A South Korean Nuclear Arsenal Would Seriously Undermine and Possibly Destroy Its Civilian Nuclear Industry and Global Exports
President Yoon has vowed to reinvigorate South Korea’s civilian nuclear industry and greatly expand its exports. Shortly after his interview, he was in the United Arab Emirates to do just that.
In the 1980s, South Korea worked closely with the United States and Canada and quickly learned how to design, license, build, and operate nuclear reactors. By the 2000s, the Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO) licensed and built its own Advanced Power Reactor, the APR-1400. I visited South Korea’s impressive nuclear facilities about ten years ago. I found the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI) in Daejeon to be a world-class research laboratory. Its High-Flux Advanced Neutron Application Reactor (HANARO) is one of the best in the world, which allows the South to do cutting-edge nuclear research and produce a variety of nuclear isotopes.
The fuel fabrication facility in Daejeon, operated by KEPCO Nuclear Fuels, is a marvel of modern engineering and manufacturing. Doosan Heavy Industries in Busan is one of the few places that can forge reactor vessels for modern light water reactors. It was there that our Korean host showed us one (pictured below) that was going to the Vogtle reactor being built by Westinghouse in Georgia. The United States no longer has the capacity for heavy forgings like reactor vessels. South Korea, along with Japan, are among the few in the world that still do. At the time, I concluded that South Korea was a model for the nuclear industry.
In 2009, South Korea won the contract to build four of its APR-1400 reactors for the United Arab Emirates. It has done a remarkable job and is well on its way to putting the four reactors on the grid. South Korea’s success is in stark contrast to the huge cost overruns experienced by the French company Areva in Finland and Westinghouse in the United States. The two reactors to be built in South Carolina were scrapped after an expenditure of $9 billion. The two in Georgia are in better shape, but still greatly over budget. KEPCO, on the other hand, has proven itself competent and the supplier of choice to the western world. Poland recently signed a contract for a reactor from KEPCO.
If Seoul decides to build the bomb, it will likely bring about an end to its nuclear export business, both for lack of customers and because the US can block the export of many South Korean nuclear technologies since they are based on US technologies licensed to the South. It may also lead to the shutdown of its domestic reactor fleet. South Korea imports all the uranium used for its civilian nuclear reactors and depends on other countries for enrichment services. Once South Korea withdraws from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), it may no longer be able to produce nuclear fuel, threatening the domestic nuclear industry, which generates one-third of South Korea’s electricity.
Seoul Would Deal a Serious Blow to the Nonproliferation Regime
South Korea would be the first democratic country to withdraw from the NPT, dealing a blow to decades of US leadership in preventing nuclear proliferation. As serious as the North Korean nuclear threat is, I believe Washington would have no choice but to condemn and counter the South’s decision to build the bomb. The nonproliferation regime is a complex fabric of treaties, agreements, assurances, practices, and international organizations. North Korea’s bomb and Iran’s pursuit of the bomb have already stressed the regime. The negative impacts of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are playing out now. South Korea should not join these countries in undermining the regime.
Its withdrawal or expulsion from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would also put it in company with the only other country in that situation—namely North Korea. Instead of playing a supportive role in organizations like the IAEA, the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Missile Technology Control Regime, South Korea would be shunned by the international community.
South Korea’s withdrawal from the NPT would also undermine one of the most effective elements of the regime, namely forging security alliances to extend security protection to allied states, eliminating the need for these countries to build their own nuclear deterrents. So far, the United States has done this successfully in Europe and in Northeast Asia.
Shooting Itself in the Foot
South Korea’s decision to build the bomb will be widely condemned. It is unrealistic to think that Washington would support such a move or turn a blind eye. Moreover, China would likely level its own sanctions or support the international community to do the same. Consequently, the quest for the bomb will threaten much of South Korea’s economic success and soft power it has so painstakingly constructed over the years. Its quest for the bomb will shatter South Korea’s phenomenal success with the likes of Samsung, Hyundai, and Hallyu.
The irony is that an indigenous nuclear arsenal will make South Korea less secure. It is likely to draw an escalatory response from the North, and Seoul may then have to face that threat on its own. Gone will be the experienced hand of Washington, the nuclear umbrella, and visits by US strategic platforms to South Korean ports and airfields. Instead, a South Korean nuclear arsenal would create the potential for any small incident on the peninsula to go nuclear, with little experience in either Korean capital on how to deescalate such crises. Except for a few instances, over the past forty years, the South Korean public and general life have been rather little affected by various developments in the North. That will change as Seoul will have to decide on its own how to respond to Pyongyang’s threatening actions.
President Yoon may have walked back his comments on pursuing the bomb, but to the South Korean public, it is not a fringe idea. Public opinion polls over the last decade show consistent majority support for nuclear possession. South Koreans also increasingly question the credibility of US extended deterrence. It is imperative for the South Korean government to widen the discourse with the public about what it with cost them to build a nuclear arsenal. Likewise, Washington must better understand why its extended deterrence is being questioned and how it can work with Seoul to correct it.
I have stressed that for South Korea, the decision to go nuclear comes with trade-offs and consequences too enormous to bear. The South can have its own nuclear arsenal—at great expense and sacrifice—or work with the Americans to remain under the nuclear umbrella with American troops stationed on the peninsula. It cannot have both.