Professor Luke O’Neill PhD FRS – Professor of Biochemistry at Trinity College Dublin – 0866007660 – @laoneill111






Luke O’Neill, Professor of Biochemistry at Trinity College Dublin, thank you very much for joining me.


The end is nigh? I discuss the possibility of the Apocalypse in the 21st century.

I speak with Professor Luke O’Neill about the prospect of the ‘Doomsday Clock’ striking midnight.


  • Before we go on, would you mind explaining why the ‘Doomsday Clock’ was established in the first place?
  • What factors are considered by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists when plotting the clock?
  • Who is involved with the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists when determining their end of the world estimate?
  • In your view, in the current political landscape, which is more likely: apocalypse by climate change, or apocalypse by nuclear war?
  • What about Trump’s current political rhetoric, and the rise of political movements with similar beliefs, has such an influence when the BAS estimate the likelihood of the end of the world?
  • What do you think spawned this desire from major powers such as the US, Russia, China, and the United Kingdom to accumulate nuclear arms?
  • How much of an influence do you think the language being expressed between the US and Europe has on these end of the world estimates?
  • We have already had 2 World Wars, the second of which demonstrated the power of nuclear bombs. Do you think that, having experienced these conflicts, world leaders are more unlikely to resort to global war than ever before? Or do you think that it is a case of those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it?
  • An argument can be made that a positive relationship between Trump and Putin can be beneficial, do you go along with this view?
  • Of course the more immediate threat is climate change. Do you think enough si being done to combat climate change?
  • According to Reuters, Trump has informed environmental agencies to cancel grants for an undetermined amount of time. Trump has also said before that he thinks that climate change is a hoax made up by the Chinese. How much of a concern is this when it comes to the world trying to combat global warming?
  • From an Irish perspective, is enough being done, in your view, to contribute towards the fight against climate change?



The Doomsday Clock

Scientists have moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock closer to midnight last Thursday amid increasing worries over nuclear weapons. It’s the closest it’s been to midnight since 1953 at the height of the Cold War. Why did they do that and what are the chances of a nuclear war now that Trump is in power? And what do we know about the nuclear arsenal held by different countries? Why are the Chinese building ‘City Buster’ nuclear weapons and what about the Russians secret ‘Doomsday Machine’? And what are the chances of a “BOOB,” or “Bolt Out Of the Blue” attack. Welcome back nuclear war paranoia…

The Doomsday Clock
Each year, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, sets the clock, decides whether the events of the previous year pushed humanity closer or further from destruction. The symbolic clock is now two-and-a-half minutes frommidnight, the closest it’s been to midnight since 1953, when the hydrogen bomb was first tested.  Scientists blamed a cocktail of threats ranging from dangerous political rhetoric to the potential of nuclear threat as the catalyst for moving the clock closer towards doomsday.

It was first set at 7 minutes to midnight. While many threats played into the decision to move the clock 30 seconds forward from where it was in 2016 (to 2 and a half minutes to midnight) one person in particular prompted the scientists to act.

Never before has the Bulletin decided to advance the clock largely because of the statements of a single person. But when that person is the new president of the United States, his words matter.

The Bulletin pointed to President Donald Trump’s careless rhetoric on nuclear weapons. Few words issued by President-elect Donald Trump could matter more than his recent rhetoric on nuclear weapons. He Tweeted in December-
“The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes,”

The next day, he said “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all,”.

How was the Doomsday Clock started?

Manhattan Project scientists, concerned about the first atomic weapons, founded the nonprofit Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1945. They created the clock two years later, and update its minute hand each year.
According to the group, the clock “conveys how close we are to destroying our civilization with dangerous technologies of our own making.”

The decision is made by the board of the nonprofit Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’  along with input from a board of sponsors which includes 15 Nobel Laureates, according to the group.

How many nuclear weapons are there?

From a high of 68,000 active weapons in 1985, as of 2016 there are some 4,000 active nuclear warheads and 10,100 total nuclear warheads in the world. Many of the decommissioned weapons were simply stored or partially dismantled, not destroyed.

Which countries have them?

The United States currently has at least 7300 war heads. It has enough nuclear weapons to destroy 500 major cities (yep…they’ve done the sums…).  It remains the only country to have used nuclear weapons in war, devastating the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki(called ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Man’). The U.S. nuclear arsenal contained 31,175 warheads at its Cold War height (in 1966).

The US has intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) buried inside fortified underground missile silos. It also has Minuteman missiles, of which 440 are based in Midwestern silos. These can be launched in mere minutes. America also has the stealthy B-2 and venerable B-52 bombers. It is focusing on new stealth bomber programs.

The US spends a fortune on nuclear weapons so Trump’s statement that they should spend more seems especially ridiculous. Nuclear weapons spending over the last 50 years exceeded the combined total federal spending for education; social services; law enforcement, agriculture;  general science, space, and technology. On average, the United States has spent $150 billion (!) per year on nuclear weapons.

Russian Federation (formerly Soviet Union)

The Russian Federation is estimated to have over 8000 war heads and is modernising its arsenal- this is what has disturbed Trump.  The Soviet Union tested its first nuclear weapon (“RDS-1”) in 1949, in a crash project developed partially with espionage obtained during and after World War II. The direct motivation for Soviet weapons development was to achieve a balance of power during the Cold War. The Soviet Union also tested the most powerful explosive ever detonated by humans, (“Tsar Bomba”), with a theoretical yield of 100 megatons, intentionally reduced to 50 when detonated.


China has a stockpile of around 240 warheads. Like the US, China has intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) buried inside fortified underground missile silos. China’s workhorse ICBM is the massive, 183-ton DF-5, which has a range of over 7,450 miles and the capacity to carry 3.2 tons—including a 5 megaton “city buster” hydrogen bomb. Currently, a Chinese Rocket Force brigade of 10-12 launchers is forming in northeastern China, near the Russian border. China is also focusing on new stealth bomber programs.

United Kingdom

The UK has 225 warheads. It currently maintains a fleet of four ‘Vanguard’ class ballistic missile submarines equipped with Trident II missiles. In 2016, the UK House of Commons voted to renew the British nuclear deterrent with the Dreadnought-class submarine.


France has 300 warheads. After the Cold War, France has disarmed 175 warheads with the reduction and modernization of its arsenal that has now evolved to a dual system based on submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and medium-range air-to-surface missiles (Rafale fighter-bombers). However new nuclear weapons are in development.
Other states declaring possession of nuclear weapons.


India tested what it called a “peaceful nuclear explosive” in 1974 (which became known as “Smiling Buddha”). The test created new questions about how civilian nuclear technology could be diverted secretly to weapons purposes (dual-use technology). India’s secret development caused great concern and anger particularly from nations, such as Canada, that had supplied its nuclear reactors for peaceful and power generating needs. As of early 2013, India was estimated to have had a stockpile of around 90–110 warheads.[1]

Pakistan covertly developed nuclear weapons over decades, beginning in the late 1970s. It is believed that Pakistan has possessed nuclear weapons since the mid-1980s. As of early 2013, Pakistan was estimated to have had a stockpile of around 100–120 warheads.
North Korea

North Korea

In February 2005, North Korea claimed to possess functional nuclear weapons. In October 2006, North Korea stated that due to growing intimidation by the United States, it would conduct a nuclear test to confirm its nuclear status. North Korea reported a successful nuclear test on October 9, 2006. North Korea conducted a second, higher yield test on 25 May 2009 and a third test with still higher yield on 12 February 2013. North Korea claimed to have conducted its first H-bomb test on 5 January 2016.


Israel engages in ‘strategic ambiguity’, saying it would not be the first country to “introduce” nuclear weapons into the region, but refusing to otherwise confirm or deny a nuclear weapons program or arsenal.  Israel likely possesses around 75–200 nuclear weapons.
What are the Chances of a nuclear war

Nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan, or between a future nuclear-armed Iran and Israel, is unlikely but far easier to imagine than a global nuclear conflict.  A nuclear conflict of any serious size in the Northern Hemisphere, however, would effectively mean the end of the modern era. So how do we begin each of the nightmare scenarios?

1. Mechanical Accident:

It’s important to note that this is the least likely trigger for a nuclear war. If anything, during the Cold War the superpowers spent so much time assuring the security of their arsenals against accidental use that both the Americans and the Soviets started to wonder whether they had too many barriers in place that could prevent the intentional launch of the weapons in wartime. That is, unless someone builds a “Doomsday Machine” that takes the human beings out of the loop. And who’d be crazy enough to do that? The Russians did – they developed  ‘Perimetr’ which was essentially a computer system that would watch for signs of nuclear attack and retaliate on its own if the Soviet leadership was struck first and wiped out.

  1. Human Error:The error will lay in the misinterpretation of an accident by fallible human beings. In 1995, the Russians forgot that the Norwegians had notified them of a rocket launch to put a weather satellite into space. The Russian high command told President Boris Yeltsin that they had a confirmed rocket launch from NATO over Russia. Fortunately, no one in the Kremlin assumed that Bill Clinton was trying to start World War III with a single warhead from Norway. Moreover, the warm relationship between Clinton and Yeltsin made the Russian president skeptical that Russia was under what Cold War strategists used to call a “BOOB,” or “Bolt Out Of the Blue” attack. Similar mistakes have been provoked by flocks of birds, random computer glitches, and the sun glinting off cloud formations (which was interpreted by Soviet computers as the fiery tails of multiple U.S. missile boosters). In each case, it was up to a human being to make the call: is someone really attacking us?

    In 1979, for example, NORAD, the joint U.S.- Canadian North American Air Defense Command, rousted White House advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski out of bed and told him that a massive Soviet nuclear strike was incoming. Or so they thought, anyway: they were giving him a heads-up while they checked it out. Brzezinski was minutes away from waking President Jimmy Carter and handing him the codes to Hell when NORAD called back and said: Oops, nevermind. The computers goofed.

    Another worrying aspect of human frailty  is problems with launch officers in charge of nuclear weapons.  In 2015, three launch officers at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, were dismissed for using illegal drugs, including ecstasy, cocaine, and amphetamines. As the job title implies, launch officers are entrusted with the keys for launching intercontinental ballistic missiles.

    3. A Show of Force:

    The worst mistake to make about nuclear weapons is to believe that they are ordinary arms, available for military use like any other. (This is sometimes called the “conventionalizing” of nuclear weapons.) The second worst mistake, however, is to believe that nuclear weapons are magic, and that using them solves problems that are otherwise politically or strategically intractable.

  2. The “Sore Loser Scenario”:Finally, there are paths to nuclear war that rely on the most durable source of war there is: human stupidity. If the major powers don’t bumble into a nuclear war, or get dragged into one by their friends, they can always just choose to launch one themselves. If China, for example, decides to press a claim in the Pacific and precipitates an open conflict with the United States at sea, it will almost certainly lose. At that point, China will have to make a choice: surrender whatever was at stake, or remove the U.S. fleet from the conflict by nuclear force. The use of nuclear arms will serve only to make the victor pay a price equal to one the loser feels has already been suffered.

    Finally..War Games

The Russian military held a major war game in 1999, Zapad-99 (or “West-99,” in case anyone missed the point). In this scenario NATO, for some utterly inexplicable reason, seized the Russian city of Kaliningrad, an enclave on the Baltic coast. And so the game’s final act was a set of four nuclear strikes on NATO, two on Western Europe and two in North America. This ended the war and forced NATO to give back the Russian enclave. Unfortunately, American exercises aren’t much better. In 2006, for example, the United States conducted a drill called “Vigilant Shield” in which the US was at war with an assorted group of generic bad guys, including “Ruebek,” “Nemazee” and “Churya.” In the end, America settled everyone’s hash by launching a few strategic nuclear weapons at “Ruebek,” which brought the whole mess over whatever it was to an end.

Professor Luke O’Neill PhD FRS
Inflammation Research Group
School of Biochemistry and Immunology
Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute
Trinity College Dublin
Dublin 2




The Doomsday Clock is an internationally recognized design that conveys how close we are to destroying our civilization with dangerous technologies of our own making. First and foremost among these are nuclear weapons, but the dangers include climate-changing technologies, emerging biotechnologies, and cybertechnology that could inflict irrevocable harm, whether by intention, miscalculation, or by accident, to our way of life and to the planet.

Nuclear Weapons

The nuclear age dawned with the creation of the first atomic bombs dropped by the United States on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 at the end of World War II. During the Cold War years of 1949 to 1990, hostility between the United States and the Soviet Union defined the nuclear threat. Each superpower was poised to destroy the other with nuclear arsenals that together at their peak exceeded 70,000 bombs. The possibility of all-out nuclear war–a war that no one could win and that could lead to the end of modern civilization–was ever present.

The US and Soviet nuclear arsenals were by far the largest, but Britain, China, and France also established nuclear weapon programs during the 1950s. Later came Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. In contrast, other countries, including Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, and Sweden, initiated nuclear weapons programs but later decided to shut them down.

Today, the mind-numbing possibility of nuclear annihilation as a result of a deliberate attack on the other by the United States or Russia seems a thing of the past, yet the potential for an accidental, unauthorized, or inadvertent nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia remains, with both countries anachronistically maintaining more than 800 warheads on high alert, ready to launch within tens of minutes.

In addition to creating their enormous nuclear arsenals, the United States and the Soviet Union spread civilian nuclear power technology and research reactors, the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, to more than 40 countries during the decades of superpower competition. The result is that the materials used to construct nuclear bombs can be found in some 144 sites around the world according to the International Panel on Fissile Materials. Save for Antarctica, every continent contains at least one country with civilian highly enriched uranium. Even with the improvement of nuclear reactor design and international controls provided by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the presence of bomb-making materials in so many places increases the chances that terrorist groups could get hold of enough highly enriched uranium or plutonium to use in a bomb.

While international attention focuses today on North Korea’s small number of nuclear weapons and on Iran’s pursuit of a civilian nuclear power capability, with the possibility that it could create nuclear weapons as well, the IAEA estimates that another 20 to 30 countries possess the capabilities, if not the intent, to pursue the bomb.

Meanwhile, the original nuclear weapon states (in particular, Britain, France, Russia, and the United States) continue to modernize their nuclear arsenals, with seemingly little effort to relinquish these weapons. These trends lead many to believe that key governments are not yet intending to pursue the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. As long as nuclear weapons are considered a legitimate way to provide for national security, all of humanity remains at risk from the most dangerous technology on Earth.

Climate Change

Fossil-fuel technologies such as coal-burning plants powered the industrial revolution, bringing unparalleled economic prosperity to many parts of the world. But in the 1950s, scientists began measuring year-to-year changes in the carbon-dioxide concentration in the atmosphere that they could relate to fossil-fuel combustion, and they began to see the implications for Earth’s temperature and for climate change.

Today, the concentration of carbon dioxide is higher than at any time during the last 650,000 years. These gases warm Earth’s continents and oceans by acting like a giant blanket that keeps the sun’s heat from leaving the atmosphere, melting ice and triggering a number of ecological changes that cause an increase in global temperature. Even if carbon-dioxide emissions were to cease immediately, the extra gases already added to the atmosphere, which linger for centuries, would continue to raise sea level and change other characteristics of the Earth for hundreds of years.

The most authoritative scientific group on the issue, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), suggests that warming on the order of 2-10 degrees Fahrenheit over the next 100 years is a distinct possibility if the industrialized world doesn’t curb its carbon dioxide emissions habit. Effects could include wide-ranging, drastic changes. One such result: a 3- to 34-inch rise in sea level, leading to more coastal erosion, increased flooding during storms, and, in some regions such as the Indus River Delta in Bangladesh and the Mississippi River Delta in the United States, permanent inundation. This sea-level rise will affect coastal cities (New York, Miami, Shanghai, London) the most, compelling major shifts in human settlement patterns.

Inland, the IPCC predicts that another century of temperature increases could place severe stress on forests, alpine regions, and other ecosystems, threaten human health as disease-carrying insects and rodents spread lethal viruses and bacteria over larger geographical regions, and harm agricultural regions by reducing rainfall in many food producing areas while at the same time increasing flooding in others–any of which could contribute to mass migrations and wars over arable land, water, and other natural resources.

Extreme weather, such as long-lasting droughts, outsized storm systems, and increasingly erratic monsoon seasons –is already reducing agricultural yields, causing fresh water sources to dry up, and leading to increased flooding of coastal cities around the world. While these are the kinds of effects from global warming that environmental scientists have been predicting, government policies have yet to encourage the changes in energy use and human settlement that could stave off the very worst results and mitigate the suffering that is now bound to occur.


Advances in genetics and biology over the last five decades have inspired a host of new possibilities–both positive and troubling. Over the past 10 years, in particular, there has been an exponential growth in new biology-based technologies, aided by integration of information and computerized software that allows rapid replication.

With greater understanding of genetic material and of how systems interact, biologists can fight disease better and improve overall human health. Scientists already have begun to develop bioengineered vaccines for common diseases such as dengue fever and certain forms of hepatitis. They are using these tools to develop other innovative medical solutions, including cells that have been bioengineered to serve as physiological “pacemakers.” The mapping of the complete human genome in 2001 allows for even greater understanding of human functioning.

But along with their potential benefits, these technological advances raise the possibility that individuals or organizations could create new pathogens. Researchers with the best intentions could inadvertently create novel pathogens that could harm humans or other species. For example, in 2001, researchers in Australia reported that they had accidentally created a new, virulent strain of the mousepox virus while attempting to genetically engineer a more effective rodent control method. In 2011, scientists evolved a supervirulent strain of the virus H5N1 as part of an effort to discover a vaccine against the virus.

Unlike the biological weapons of the last century, these new tools could create a limitless variety of threats, from new types of “nonlethal” agents, to viruses that sterilize their hosts, to others that incapacitate whole systems within an organism. The wide availability of bioengineering knowledge and tools, along with the ease with which individuals can obtain specific fragments of genetic material (some can be ordered through the mail or over the internet), could allow these capabilities to find their way into the hands of groups bent on violent disruption. Such potential dangers are causing scientists, research institutions, and industry to put in place self-governing mechanisms to prevent misuse. But developing a robust universal system to ensure the safe use of bioengineering, without impeding beneficial research and development, could pose the greatest international science and security challenge in the early 21st century.

Emerging Technologies

In addition to rapid developments in biological sciences, the application of cyber technology to industrial operations, advanced manufacturing, and miniaturization and replication of systems at the atomic and molecular level, present extraordinary opportunities for curing disease and engineering new products to enhance human welfare. Greater understanding of human neurosystems also holds the promise of increasing cognitive capacity and resisting the ravages of genetic and dementia-related mental illnesses.

Yet, there are few governing systems in place to control the uses of these new inventions. We know very well that technologies have benign uses, but they can also be dangerous if used for malicious purposes. Whether by governments or non-state actors, technologies can be unleashed on societies causing grave and irreversible harm. And even with the best intentions, deploying technological solutions, say in geoengineering to combat climate change, may lead to unintended consequences with devastating effects.

Furthermore, some of these emerging technologies are being developed for military applications that may increase the effectiveness of military operations, the accuracy of weapons in combat, and the control of weapons systems. But such knowledge cannot be kept secret. By utilizing powerful new technologies, militaries may create new methods of killing and subduing populations that could come back to haunt us.

As President John F. Kennedy said about the discovery of nuclear fission, “our progress in the use of science is great, but our progress in ordering our relations small.” The challenge remains whether societies can develop and apply powerful technologies for our welfare without also bringing about our own destruction through misapplication, madness, or accident.