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Warnings Grow Over Nuclear War as Tensions Escalate Between US, Russia and China

The UN warned this week that humanity is “one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation” as tensions escalate.

The U.N. warned this week that humanity is “one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation” as tensions escalate globally. We speak with Ira Helfand, former president of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, who says the U.N. Security Council permanent members, comprising Russia, China, the U.S., the U.K. and France, are pursuing nuclear policies that are “going to lead to the end of the world that we know.” We also speak with disarmament activist Zia Mian, co-director of Princeton’s Program on Science and Global Security, who says non-nuclear weapon states must pressure other countries to sign onto the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

The United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres warned this week humanity is, quote, “one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation.” He made the comments at the opening of a major U.N. gathering here in New York to review the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The meeting comes at a time when tensions are escalating between the United States and two other nuclear powers, Russia and China. This is part of António Guterres’s remarks.

SECRETARYGENERAL ANTÓNIO GUTERRES: The clouds that parted following the end of the Cold War are gathering once more. We have been extraordinarily lucky so far. But luck is not a strategy, nor is it a shield from geopolitical tensions boiling over into nuclear conflict. Today humanity is just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation. We need a treaty of nonproliferation of nuclear weapons as much as ever. And that is why this review conference is so important. It’s 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.

AMY GOODMAN: During his speech, the U.N. secretary-general also announced plans to visit Hiroshima, Japan, this week. Seventy-seven years ago, on August 6, 1945, the United States dropped the world’s first atomic bomb on the Japanese city, killing an estimated 140,000 people. [Three] days later, the United States dropped another atomic bomb on Nagasaki — it was August 9th, 1945 — where at least 74,000 people died.

To talk more about the threat of nuclear war, we’re joined by two guests. Zia Mian is with us, physicist, nuclear expert and disarmament activist, co-director of the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University, co-author of Unmaking the Bomb: A Fissile Material Approach to Nuclear Disarmament and Nonproliferation. Dr. Ira Helfand is with us, as well, immediate past president of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, recipient of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize, also co-founder and past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, serves on the international steering group of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapon, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017. His new piece in The Hill is headlined “Are Russia and NATO trying to wreck the NPT?”

Dr. Ira Helfand, explain.

DR. IRA HELFAND: Well, there have been multiple threats by Russia, and some threats by NATO, to use nuclear weapons in the context of the war in Ukraine. This is a totally unacceptable situation. And in response to that, my organization, the IPPNW, organized a statement with 17 other Nobel Peace laureates demanding that Russia and NATO make an explicit pledge that they would not use nuclear weapons under any circumstances in the context of this war. They’ve refused to do that.

Now they’re coming into the NPT meeting demanding, as they always do, that the countries which don’t have nuclear weapons continue to refrain from obtaining them, while they themselves will not even promise not to blow up the world this week. And it’s an extraordinarily hypocritical situation. And I think it is the kind of behavior which has put the NPT at risk.

The great powers try to blame the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. They try to identify that as a source of risk to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, because 121 countries around the world have come together and said that they will not — they will honor their obligations under the NPT and not develop nuclear weapons. But the real threat to the NPT comes from the five permanent members of the Security Council — the NATO members, the United States, the U.K. and France; Russia and China — who are obliged under the NPT to enter into good-faith negotiations to eliminate their nuclear arsenals, and who have steadfastly refused for the last 50 years-plus to honor that obligation.

And that’s the problem that we’re facing. And the behavior of NATO and Russia in the Ukraine conflict has just underlined this total failure of the permanent members of the Security Council to uphold their part of the bargain inherent in the Non-Proliferation Treaty. And I think that’s what puts the treaty at risk.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dr. Zia Mian, could you comment on your concerns about what’s going on at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, which is, of course, the largest in Europe and one of the largest in the world?

ZIA MIAN: The Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant — I mean, as Shaun Burnie mentioned in your earlier segment, and as Ira also observed, nuclear plants were never designed, intended or imagined to be in war zones. They are dangerous enough even in peace time, given the history of nuclear accidents, complex technologies, institutional and human failures that we’ve seen throughout the history of all complex technologies. But what we’ve seen for more than 40 years now are attacks on nuclear power plants.

It’s worth remembering, 40 years ago, Israel attacked a nuclear reactor in Iraq, and that was the first attack on a nuclear reactor by another state. And during the Iran-Iraq War, reactors were attacked. And the reactor in Dimona in Israel was also attacked. And now we see nuclear reactors being attacked by cyberattacks also.

So, I think what we have to ask is not so much the details of a specific reactor in Zaporizhzhia and the war in Ukraine, but the fact of: Can we feel safe in a world where these incredibly dangerous technologies coexist in a system where we can barely manage even ordinary technologies, never mind technologies with catastrophic failures, but ones in which states go to war and actually target not just cities and people, but also other kinds of industrial facilities, including nuclear reactors?

And so, one of the things to keep in mind is that India and Pakistan long have lived with the threat of attacks on each other’s nuclear facilities. And in 1988, they actually agreed a treaty between them to not attack each other’s nuclear facilities, because of fears of the consequences of such attacks. And this may be the kind of thing that other states should also pick up on and ask the question — until we can shut down all nuclear facilities safely and make sure that these problems can’t recur in the future, at least we should have agreement not to attack them.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Zia, now, you worked with your colleagues at Princeton earlier this year on a simulation looking at what might happen in the event of an escalation, how a conventional war between the U.S. and Russia could turn into a nuclear one. Could you talk about that simulation and what you found?

ZIA MIAN: So, several years ago, the Princeton Program on Science and Global Security tried to think about how to understand what would be the consequences of current U.S., NATO and Russian nuclear war plans, as far as we could understand them. And so, after thinking through what those war plans involved, using publicly open sources and what we know about the number and locations of U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons, the postures, the targets, we actually tried to then go through step by step of what would happen in a conventional war which escalated first with the use of one nuclear weapon on the battlefield to then retaliation to then escalation to a second stage of a larger use of nuclear weapons by both sides, then to all-out nuclear war and the consequences that would follow.

And it found that, you know, within a matter of a few hours, there would be the better part of 100 million casualties. And the U.S. Strategic Command accepts publicly that all of their nuclear war exercises — they are on record — all of their nuclear war exercises end in all-out global thermonuclear war. So the war plans they have always end up with the end of the world. And so, that’s what we were trying to explore, and that’s what we were trying to explain.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Zia Mian, during the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, France, the U.K. and the U.S. issued a statement saying, “Nuclear weapons, for as long as they exist, should serve defensive purposes, deter aggression, and prevent war. We condemn those who would use or threaten to use nuclear weapons for military coercion, intimidation, and blackmail.” Your response?

ZIA MIAN: This is basically the U.S., France and the U.K. saying, “Our nuclear weapons are good. Your nuclear weapons are bad,” even though, as we all know, the U.S. and the U.K. and France make nuclear threats. It’s called nuclear deterrence. The very practice of nuclear deterrence is military coercion, intimidation and blackmail. It’s just that when we do it, we call it deterrence; when they do it, you call it for what it is, which is coercion, intimidation and blackmail. And Daniel Ellsberg — bless him — pointed this out back in 1950s in a famous lecture on coercion and blackmail in the nuclear age, saying that nuclear weapons, fundamentally, except during times of active war, when they are exploded, are instruments for the threat of nuclear war. They are intended to be instruments of coercion, intimidation and blackmail. So, all I think we need to do is to accept the fact that for the first time these three weapon states have recognized at least the fact that nuclear weapons are about coercion, intimidation and blackmail. It’s just the rest of us understand this applies to everybody’s nuclear weapons.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Zia, finally, earlier this year, you attended the Vienna Conference of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Talk about the significance of that treaty, why it was formed to begin with, and what the substance of the discussions were.

ZIA MIAN: So, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is the first international treaty that bans nuclear weapons absolutely and unconditionally. And it also is the first and only treaty that bans the use, and even the threat of use, of nuclear weapons. If we had actually had the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in force with the U.S. and Russia and so on involved, there would have been no question of the threat of use of nuclear weapons by anybody. And the origins of this treaty go back to the beginning of the nuclear age. This was the first decision ever made by the United Nations in 1946. Before anything else, they said we need a plan for the elimination of nuclear weapons. What this treaty does, which entered into force in 2021, was to basically fulfill that first goal of the United Nations system. We now have an international legal instrument that bans nuclear weapons and bans the use and the threat of use of nuclear weapons.

And in Vienna, the countries that came together as members of this treaty actually made a statement specifically talking about the threat and use of nuclear weapons as we see it today. And they said that this threat and use of nuclear weapons, including by Russia and by anyone under any circumstances, is a violation of international law, is a violation of the U.N. Charter, and should be condemned explicitly and implicitly and irrespective of the circumstances. So, you couldn’t ask for a clearer statement against the threat of nuclear weapons — unlike the kind of statement that we saw that you asked about from France, the U.K. and the U.S., which says, “Our nuclear threats are OK. Everybody else’s threats are bad.”

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Dr. Helfand, the U.N. secretary-general heads to Hiroshima for the 77th anniversary of the U.S. dropping the first atomic bomb in the world on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, followed by the dropping of the second bomb on Nagasaki on August 9th, ’45. If you could comment on his comment saying we are closer to nuclear annihilation than ever? He’ll be meeting with hibakusha — that’s Hiroshima bomb survivors — and young activists. And also, whether you think what’s happening with the increased tensions with Ukraine, Russia and China are — and now bringing Finland and Sweden into NATO, are escalating tension?

DR. IRA HELFAND: Well, I think the tensions clearly are escalating, and we are closer to nuclear war than we’ve ever been. And we need to recognize that. You know, the song that you played earlier in the show, “You don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction,” that’s the problem. We don’t believe it, because it is such a horrible reality that we’re confronting. But we better start believing it, because it’s true.

Fortunately, we have to also understand this is not the future that needs to be. There’s nothing that makes nuclear destruction inevitable. It’s not as though, you know, we’re dealing with some force of nature that we have no control over. We know how to take these weapons apart. And we need to do that.

And — excuse me — here in the United States, we’ve launched a national campaign called Back from the Brink to try to force the United States government to change its nuclear policy in a fundamental way, to recognize that nuclear weapons do not make the world secure, they are the greatest threat to security, and they need to be eliminated, and to get the United States to play the role which it should, initiating negotiations with the other nuclear-armed states for the specific verifiable, enforceable, time-bound agreement, so they will come to eliminate their weapons, so they will meet their obligations under Article 6 of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and meet their obligations under the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

And at the current session at the NPT in New York, I think it’s incredibly important that the non-nuclear weapon states hold the permanent members of the Security Council accountable, that they demand that NATO and Russia in fact issue a statement pledging they will not use nuclear weapons in the context of the war in Ukraine, and they go beyond that and demand that all five members of the Security Council’s P5, the permanent members, begin now, during this meeting in New York, the negotiations to eliminate their nuclear weapons, as they have promised to do for 50 years, and that they bring in the other four nuclear-armed states into that process. And that can happen. This is not some fantasy. This is, practically, what needs to happen if we are going to survive.

And the leaders of the great powers — Biden, Xi and Putin — need to sit down with themselves and recognize the fact that the policies they are pursuing are going to lead to the end of the world that we know. They’re playing this game of chicken, this game of king of the mountain, to see who’s going to come out on top of this struggle for power and wealth in the world. And they don’t seem to understand that while there may be a winner, the mountain that that person ends up sitting on is going to be an ash heap, what’s left of our civilization, because they’re going to be destroying it. And they need a totally different approach. They need to understand that to deal with the nuclear threat, to do with the climate crisis, to deal with the future pandemics that we will experience, they need to cooperate. They need to work together, or else none of us are going to survive.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Ira Helfand, we thank you for being with us, immediate past president of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, Nobel Prize-winning organization. We’ll also link to your piece in The Hill, “Are Russia and NATO trying to wreck the NPT?” And thanks also to Zia Mian, the co-director of the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University.

Coming up, we look at why the American right is embracing Hungary’s authoritarian leader, Viktor Orbán, who is addressing CPAC today. That’s the Conservative Political Action Conference, which is taking place in Dallas, Texas. Stay with us.

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