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14th Aug 2022

UN chief warns of 'nuclear annihilation' by mistake

  • The Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February triggered widespread concern about nuclear global security (Photo: iaea.org)
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The world is one miscalculation away from "nuclear annihilation" and faces risks not seen since the Cold War, UN chief António Guterres said on Monday (1 August), citing threats in Ukraine, the Korean peninsula and the Middle East.

"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," Guterres said during the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) conference in New York.

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  • 'Luck is not a strategy', warned UN secretary general António Guterres in New York (Photo: EU Commission)

"Eliminating nuclear weapons is the only guarantee they will never be used," he added.

Nuclear stockpiles have been reduced since the Cold War, but the risk of using nuclear weapons remains high.

Russia, the US, the UK, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea have a combined inventory of nearly 13,000 nuclear weapons — but current geopolitical tensions have increased fears of further proliferation and risks of nuclear escalation.

The 10th review conference of the NPT is an opportunity to strengthen the treaty and "make it fit for the worrying world around us," Guterres said, urging nations to set up efforts to deliver a world free of nuclear weapons.

In January, the US, China, France, Russia, and the UK all affirmed that "a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought."

But the Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February triggered widespread concerns about nuclear global security.

In his speech, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi, said Europe is facing a conflict "so grave" that the risk of a potential nuclear confrontation, or accident, has risen again.

Grossi also said that if an accident occurs at Zaporizhzhya, Europe's largest nuclear power plant in eastern Ukraine, currently occupied by Russian soldiers, there will be no natural disaster to blame.

"Following Russia's unprovoked and unlawful war of aggression against Ukraine, we call on Russia to cease its irresponsible and dangerous nuclear rhetoric and behaviour," France, the US and the UK said in a statement.

As Russian president Vladimir Putin launched attacks in Ukraine, he warned the West that any attempt to interfere would "lead you to such consequences that you have never encountered in your history".

Nevertheless, Russia reaffirmed on Monday that there would be "no winners" in a nuclear war.

"We proceed from the fact that there can be no winners in a nuclear war and it should never be unleashed, and we stand for equal and indivisible security for all members of the world community," Putin said in a letter to the participants of the NPT conference.

The NPT, which is reviewed every five years, aims to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and contribute to achieving nuclear disarmament. 

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Europe set up a rapid decontamination team to protect Ukraine and EU member countries against chemical, biological or nuclear attacks, and sent three million potassium iodide tablets to Ukraine, amid worries over the safety of the country's nuclear facilities.

UN chief demands access to nuclear plant after new attack

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on Monday for international inspectors to be given access to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant after Ukraine and Russia traded accusations over the shelling of Europe's largest atomic plant over the weekend.

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