World one step from ‘nuclear annihilation’, says UN chief

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The head of the United Nations (UN) has warned that the world is one step away from “nuclear annihilation” and faces dangers not seen since the Cold War. 

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Monday that “humanity is just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation,” over the war in Ukraine, alongside other nuclear threats around the world.   

He made the comments during a conference on the decades-old Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which seeks to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and eventually achieve a nuclear-free world.

In his opening address, Guterres said the pandemic-delayed meeting, which aims to review the landmark agreement, was taking place amid “nuclear danger not seen since the height of the Cold War.”

The conference is “an opportunity to hammer out the measures that will help avoid certain disaster, and to put humanity on a new path towards a world free of nuclear weapons,” he said.

“The risks of proliferation are growing and guardrails to prevent escalation are weakening,” Guterres added, pointing out that “crises — with nuclear undertones — are festering from the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula.” 

The threat of nuclear catastrophe was also raised by the United States (US), Japan, Germany, the UN nuclear chief and many other speakers.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken claimed Russia, which did not address the conference in its scheduled slot, is “engaged in reckless, dangerous nuclear sabre-rattling” in Ukraine.

He cited Russian President Vladimir Putin’s warning that any intervention in the conflict could have “consequences you have never seen” and that his country is a “potent nuclear power.”

Blinken also highlighted the dangers posed by North Korea’s upcoming nuclear test and Iran, which he said was “unwilling or unable” to accept a deal to return to the 2015 nuclear agreement aimed at curbing its nuclear programme. 

Putin seemingly eased off from his past nuclear warnings as the conference got underway.  

“We believe that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” said the Russian president in a message of greetings to NPT participants posted on his website Monday. “We stand for equal and indivisible security for all members of the world community.” 

Blinken also claimed Russia is using the Ukrainian nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhya — which is the largest in Europe — as a military base, having seized it from Kyiv earlier in the war. 

Russian forces were firing on Ukrainians from the site, “knowing that they can’t and won’t shoot back because they might accidentally strike a nuclear reactor or highly radioactive waste in storage,” he said. 

“[This brings the idea of] a human shield to an entirely different and horrific level.”

Russia’s delegation at the conference strongly rejected Blinken’s claim in a statement on Monday night, saying a small number of its personnel were at the power plant “to ensure [its] safety and security.”

Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said the Ukraine conflict is “so grave that the spectre of a potential nuclear confrontation, or accident, has raised its terrifying head again.”

He warned that the situation at Zaporizhzhya was “becoming more perilous by the day,” while urging both sides to allow an IAEA team of security experts to visit the plant, which has been unsuccessful for the past two months. 

Guterres called on conference participants to take action to avert nuclear disaster. 

These included urgently reaffirming and strengthening “the 77-year-old norm against the use of nuclear weapons,” and working relentlessly toward eliminating nuclear weapons with new commitments to reduce arsenals. 

He also asked world leaders to address “the simmering tensions in the Middle East and Asia” and promote the peaceful use of nuclear technology.

“Future generations are counting on your commitment to step back from the abyss,” he told diplomats. “This is our moment to meet this fundamental test and lift the cloud of nuclear annihilation once and for all.”

In force since 1970, the NPT has 191 signatories, making it one of the most widely adhered arms control agreements. 

Under its provisions, the five original nuclear powers — the US, China, Russia (then the Soviet Union), Britain and France — agreed to negotiate toward eliminating their arsenals in the future, while nations without nuclear weapons promised not to acquire them in exchange for guarantees they could develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.