The Ukraine war has reignited fears of a global nuclear catastrophe. Nuclear weapons might not be used deliberately, but the possibility of mistakes and miscalculations in this war is so high that the world cannot ignore the impending disaster.
Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant — Europe’s biggest — is in the frontline since March. Its safety has become such a concern that UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres repeated his call last week for military withdrawals from the nuclear plant area and warned that any harm to the facility would be ‘suicide’. The alarms expressed worldwide persuaded Russia to agree to a visit by UN officials to inspect the nuclear power plant.
Any accidental nuclear disaster at Zaporizhzhya might not take the size and shape of what the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe had endured with the accident in the Chernobyl nuclear plant in 1986. Still, it will be no less catastrophic than the accident at the Fukushima-Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan in 2011.
The Nuclear Ban Treaty does not provide much assurance for the world to feel safe and secure from a looming nuclear disaster.
Nuclear power provides 10 per cent of the world’s electricity. The world has 441 operable nuclear reactors in 36 countries with the capacity to produce 369 Gigawatt electricity per year. Around 50 nuclear reactors are under construction. Nuclear power plants are said to be the safest and most secure in the world, but accidents happen. Even the US had witnessed the meltdown of its Three Mile Island reactor in 1979.
While nuclear power plants are designed to be safe from any malfunction or accident, they are not immune to being intentionally or inadvertently targeted during a war or civil strife. The global security architecture is currently transiting through a very high degree of uncertainty. Thus, it will be utterly irresponsible to ignore the threats to hundreds of nuclear power plants in an insecure and hostile global political environment.
The growing threat of cyber attacks
Moreover, cyber threats to these nuclear facilities are becoming more sophisticated, and the technological capacity to provide protection is limited. With the expanding global footprint of atomic energy, the threat of cyber attacks also grows. The international community is far from formalising common principles, regulatory standards, and operational guidelines to protect nuclear power plants from fast-evolving cyber risks.
The number of nuclear power plants is increasing. The nuclear arsenal in the world will also increase in the coming years, for the first time since the end of the Cold War. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) warned about this possibility in June, mainly due to heightened global tension because of the Ukraine war.
The world has 12,705 nuclear warheads, of which 9,440 are under the military stockpile for potential use. Russia and the US possess more than 90 per cent of the world’s nuclear warheads, while China, India, and Pakistan are expanding their stockpile. The UK has 180 nuclear warheads, and in 2021, it reversed the nuclear disarmament policy to increase the number of its nuclear warheads.
All the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, despite stating in 2021 that “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” are increasing or modernising their nuclear weapons. These weapons have become much smaller, more accurate, and far more devastating than the ones the US used 77 years ago on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to force Japan to surrender. Despite their less explosive power, these two bombs had killed more than 200,000 Japanese civilians, mostly women and children.
Today’s nuclear weapons can wipe out a major metropolis within minutes. Now, it does not matter who attacks whom, but a full-scale nuclear war is likely to cool the whole planet by at least 13-degree F and force it into the ‘Little Ice Age’, and within the first hour, it can potentially kill 100 million people. As geopolitical tensions rise, the world cannot continue to ignore the threats of a nuclear war.
On August 6, the UN Secretary-General was in Hiroshima to mark the 77th anniversary of the atomic bombing. From there, he beseeched the world: “We must keep the horrors of Hiroshima in view at all times, recognising there is only one solution to the nuclear threat: not to have nuclear weapons at all.”
On January 22, 2021, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), commonly known as the Nuclear Ban Treaty, came into force after 51 countries ratified or acceded to the treaty. The treaty bans the use, threat of use, development, testing, production, manufacturing, acquisition, possession, or stockpiling of nuclear weapons and makes it illegal to assist, encourage or induce anyone to do so.
The number of countries parties to the treaty has already increased to 66. However, the countries possessing nuclear weapons or suspected of having that ambition have kept themselves out of it. The Nuclear Ban Treaty strengthens the taboo against using nuclear weapons, but it is just the beginning.
The international norms, values, and principles have become extremely vulnerable in recent years, and the threats of using nuclear warheads and nuclear power plants as weapons of war have become quite common. Thus, the Nuclear Ban Treaty does not provide much assurance for the world to feel safe and secure from a looming nuclear disaster.