Survivors and Disarmament Groups Shed Light on Nuclear Risk in Ukraine

Ariella Katz, Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative

“I want to send a message that such a beautiful country must not be destroyed by meaningless fighting,” said Tadayoshi Ogawa, a survivor of the atomic bomb in Nagasaki. Ogawa, 77, who previously travelled to Ukraine to share his experiences, expressed horror that the catastrophe of nuclear war could happen again.

Nuclear weapons survivors, humanitarian disarmament organizations, and advocates for peace around the globe have spoken out against Russia’s war in Ukraine and brought attention to the alarming role nuclear weapons have played in it. They have condemned Vladimir Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons and his order to put nuclear forces on high alert. Responding to the nuclear escalations, they have reminded the world of the devastating consequences of nuclear war and underscored how nuclear weapons perpetuate the bloodshed in Ukraine by allowing Putin to act with impunity. Survivors and disarmament groups have argued that now, more than ever, it is time for all states to join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which will hold its First Meeting of States Parties in June. Finally, they have noted that the war also poses a threat to the safety of Ukrainian nuclear power plants, including the largest powerplant in Europe, which has been seized by Russian forces.

Kunihiko Sakuma, 77, who was nine months old during the A-bomb attack in Hiroshima said: “[Putin] has absolutely no understanding of how awful nuclear weapons are.” This article brings together the voices of survivors and advocates to highlight the global response to nuclear perils in Ukraine and increase understanding of what is at stake in preventing nuclear war.  

Condemning the Threat of Nuclear Weapons

Putin’s threats have sparked outrage among humanitarian disarmament organizations and nuclear weapons survivors.

Threat to Use Nuclear Weapons

On the first morning of the invasion, Putin threatened that any resistance could be met with nuclear reprisal: “Today’s Russia remains one of the most powerful nuclear states. . . .  No matter who stands in our way . . . they must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history.”

Humanitarian disarmament organizations swiftly criticized Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Putin’s threats of nuclear escalation. Putin’s words “amount to threats to use nuclear weapons, as prohibited under the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” said the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), recipient of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. Peace Boat, a disarmament and environmental organization based in Japan called on Russia “to immediately cease all military activities, and to comply with international law.” “The horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki must not be repeated,” Peace Boat said.

High Alert

Three days later, Putin ordered Russian nuclear forces to be put on high alert, further escalating the risk of nuclear war and eliciting forceful warnings from UN officials, disarmament organizations, and peace advocates. UN Secretary-General António Guterres responded to Putin’s order: “The mere idea of a nuclear conflict is simply inconceivable. Nothing can justify the use of nuclear weapons.” According to Nobel Peace Prize Laureates ICAN and Dmitry Muratov, “Russia’s recent nuclear escalations have brought us to a more dangerous level of nuclear threat than we have witnessed since the Cuban Missile Crisis.”

Carmen Magallón of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom emphasized that Putin is reversing the course of nuclear disarmament in Eastern Europe. For example, in 1994, Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal in exchange for promises to respect its sovereign integrity in the Budapest Memorandum. But today, Russia grossly flouts the Budapest Memorandum. “Putin has violated that legally formalized promise to the detriment of the security of the whole world.” Magallón continued: “We see that, if international agreements are not upheld, instead of moving forward, we move backwards at the hands of foolish leaders.”

Hiroshima survivor and anti-nuclear advocate Setsuko Thurlow said that Putin is reckless to make such verbal intimidations and that it terrifies her that no one would know what if driven to the edge. “Any war that involves the use of nuclear weapons poses the risk of mankind’s destruction,” warned Terumi Tanaka, leader of the Japanese confederation of nuclear survivors. “It is unforgivable that [Putin] is using nuclear weapons as a tool to threaten others.”

Catastrophic Consequences of Nuclear Weapons

Nuclear war threatens the survival of humanity and the habitability of our planet. Yet, nuclear deterrence, a policy based on the idea that fear of nuclear weapons will preserve peace, has failed to prevent war in Ukraine. Instead, Russia’s possession of nuclear weapons has allowed its full-scale invasion to continue.

Human and Environmental Devastation

The scale of human suffering that would be wrought by nuclear war is overwhelming. “The use of just one nuclear weapon could kill and injure hundreds of thousands if not millions of civilians and poison the environment with radiation that lingers for generations. There is no adequate health response to this catastrophe,” ICAN and Muratov stated. Nuclear weapons “are primed to unleash a final epidemic for which there could be no effective treatment,” said a joint statement by four leading international medical organizations: International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), the World Federation of Public Health Associations (WFPHA), the World Medical Association (WMA), and the International Federation of Medical Student Associations (IFMSA). “Given the high number of victims, the destruction of infrastructure and the hazards caused by radiation, any assistance following a nuclear explosion would be impossible,” warned PAX, a Netherlands-based peace organization. Swedish Doctors Against Nuclear Weapons put it starkly: “Should Putin use nuclear weapons, there is nothing we as doctors can do.”

The environmental harm would be similarly devasting. “[C]ontaminated land would be unusable,” said PAX. “Long after a nuclear explosion, radioactive fallout will spread both in the area around the blast and, depending on weather and wind, far away from the blast site. Burning cities also cause soot particles to settle in the stratosphere, blocking both sunlight and rain, with far-reaching consequences for global agriculture,” stated Swedish Doctors Against Nuclear Weapons. According to Ira Helfand, cofounder of Physicians for Social Responsibility, large- scale use of nuclear weapons could plunge North America and Europe into an ice age.

If Russia were to use only 300 of its 1,600 deployed nuclear warheads against cities in the United States, “[a]l of the things necessary to sustain life would be gone, and in the months following this attack the vast majority of the US population would succumb to starvation, radiation sickness, exposure, and epidemic disease” said Helfand pointing to a 2002 study. “We must not forget that even a supposedly ‘small’ nuclear war will mean the end of human civilisation as we know it,” the Middle East Treaty Organization stated.

Failures of Deterrence

The war in Ukraine has shown that nuclear deterrence is a flawed policy that perpetuates bloodshed instead of ending war. “We are told that nuclear disarmament is a bad idea because in the future an ‘irrational actor’ might violate international law and norms and build a nuclear bomb,” wrote Ray Acheson of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Yet, “‘Irrationality’ is here and now.”

ICAN also criticized nuclear deterrence. “Right now, the dangerous policy of so-called nuclear deterrence is used to enable the continued invasion of Ukraine by Russia. It does not keep the peace, it allows for war to be carried out against Ukrainian people,” ICAN said. “Any theory which is based on the willingness to mass murder civilians and is kept in check by little more than sheer luck will eventually lead to a horrific humanitarian catastrophe.”

Nuclear Weapon Ban

The perils of nuclear war and Putin’s nuclear threats that allow the invasion of Ukraine to continue with impunity foreground the urgency of a universal ban on nuclear weapons. “The only way to reduce the risk posed by nuclear arms is to dismantle them,” stated PAX. “[C]atastrophe can only be completely prevented by the elimination of nuclear weapons,” declared the joint statement from international medical organizations. The International Committee of the Red Cross called for the elimination of nuclear weapons: “What we cannot prepare for, what we cannot respond to, we must prevent.”

Survivors and civil society organizations have responded to the war in Ukraine with a renewed call for nuclear states to join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. As of March 24, 2022, 60 countries have already ratified the treaty, which entered into force in January 2021. According to PAX, “[t]his is a strong signal from non-nuclear states to countries that do have nuclear weapons to put an end to the global and unacceptable threat inherent in those weapons.” ICAN and Muratov said: “As long as nuclear weapons exist, the threat of their use persists. The world cannot continue to hold its breath and count on the good sense of the handful of world leaders with the power to destroy us all . . . We urge all governments to join the TPNW without delay.”

Hibakusha Setsuko Thurlow called on nuclear states “to take responsibility to start working toward the total elimination of nuclear weapons.” People must realize that “13,000 nuclear weapons exist in the world” and remind their leaders that “they have a responsibility to save humanity.”

Threats of Conflict to Nuclear Power

The war also poses a grave threat to the safety of nuclear power in Ukraine, heightening the risk of repeating the catastrophic meltdowns of Chernobyl and Fukushima. On the first day of the invasion, Russia seized the Chernobyl nuclear plant and reportedly took the staff hostage. The joint statement of 108 global civil society organizations at the United Nations Environment Assembly warned that “there are serious concerns over the state of Ukraine’s nuclear facilities. Critical staff struggle with maintenance of the Chernobyl nuclear site, currently under control of Russian forces, and other nuclear waste storage sites are at risk from nearby shelling.”

Risk of nuclear catastrophe worsened when Russian forces captured Zaporizhzhia, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. On March 4, the Zaporizhzhia power plant caught on fire, apparently as a result of Russian attacks. The fire “demonstrates the threat to everyone posed by this conflict,” wrote Stuart Casey-Maslen, professor of international law. After the seizure, Rafael Mariano Grossi, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, expressed grave concern that Russian forces were undermining the safety of the reactor by putting pressure on the Ukranian staff operating the site and cutting off channels of communication. “In order to be able to operate the plant safely and securely, management and staff must be allowed to carry out their vital duties in stable conditions without undue external interference or pressure,” he warned.

Chernobyl survivor and Ukraine historian Serhii Plokhy said: “Chernobyl shows that the combination of design issues and mistakes can explode a nuclear plant under peaceful conditions. Fukushima showed that the only thing needed for a meltdown is to cut off electricity. War and nuclear—this is not the right combination.” He emphasized: “The war has to be ended now, if only to avoid the threat of 15 new Chernobyls.”