The world must be nuclear-free. It is not just a question of peace, it is a civilization struggle for our sake and above all for future generations. I’m not just talking about nuclear for military purposes – nine countries appear to have about 12,700 nuclear warheads whose destructive force is capable of leading to the extinction of humanity and even of life on Earth – but also the nuclear used for civilian purposes. “One morning I went out into the garden and I realized that something was wrong, you couldn’t hear the usual familiar noises. The bees were all gone,” a beekeeper from Chornobyl told writer Svetlana Aleksievic. “Not a single bee could be heard buzzing. How was it possible? What had happened? And I haven’t seen any fly either the next day or the day after. Then they told us that there was an accident at the nuclear power plant. The power plant is nearby, but for a long time, they kept us in the dark. The bees knew it, we didn’t. ” Civilian nuclear power may seem like a shortcut to tackling climate change, but it is not. It involves the management of plants, materials, and waste that represent a constant sword of Damocles for present and future generations.
The Ukrainian crisis shows the enormity of the step taken with the invasion of a state that has a power plant on its territory that has become a symbol of the atomic disaster. In addition to the sarcophagus of Chornobyl reactor 4, there are four other nuclear power plants in Ukraine, with fifteen reactors in operation, which supply 54% of the country’s electricity, and two new ones under construction. The possibility of fighting in their vicinity shows clear risks, so much so that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), an international organization that seeks to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy, and inhibit its use for any military purpose, including nuclear weapons, has stated that it is following the situation “with grave concern” and has called for “maximum restraint to avoid any action that could put the country’s nuclear plants at risk ”. The 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster is another painful example of such a risk.
Not only military nuclear, therefore, but clearly that too. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in fact also, and above all, puts before our eyes the scenario of possible nuclear extermination. We should reflect on why the nuclear conflict had been a distant thought so far, up to recent threats and alarms. In his speech of acceptance for the Nobel Literary prize in 1957, Albert Camus observed that those “born at the outset of World War I became twenty at the time both Hitler’s ascent to power and of the first revolutionary trial. Then, to complete their education, they were confronted in turn by the Spanish Civil War and World War Two – the universal concentration camp, a Europe of torture and prisons. Today they must raise their children and produce their work in a world threatened by nuclear destruction. Nobody, surely, can expect them to be optimists.”
The spiral of rearmament had led, at the end of the 1980s, to the deployment of as many as 70,300 atomic devices in the world. The number of nuclear weapons then dramatically decreased, but the technologies became more sophisticated and deadly. At the beginning of this year, the Federation of American Scientists (fas.org) released a report on the Status of Nuclear Forces in the world that states that “despite progress in reducing nuclear weapon arsenals since the Cold War, the world’s combined inventory of nuclear warheads remains at a very high level: nine countries possessed roughly 12,700 warheads as of early-2022.”
“Approximately 90 percent of all nuclear warheads are owned by Russia and the United States, who each have around 4,000 warheads in their military stockpiles; no other nuclear-armed state sees a need for more than a few hundred nuclear weapons for national security.”
“Globally, the overall inventory of nuclear weapons is declining, but the pace of reductions is slowing compared with the past 30 years. Moreover, these reductions are happening only because the United States and Russia are still dismantling previously retired warheads.”
“In contrast to the overall inventory of nuclear weapons, the number of warheads in global military stockpiles––which comprises warheads assigned to operational forces––is increasing once again. The United States is still reducing its nuclear stockpile slowly. France and Israel have relatively stable inventories. But China, India, North Korea, Pakistan and the United Kingdom, as well as possibly Russia, are all thought to be increasing their stockpiles.”
“Of the world’s 12,700 nuclear warheads, more than 9,400 are in the military stockpiles for use by missiles, aircraft, ships and submarines. The remaining warheads have been retired but are still relatively intact and are awaiting dismantlement. Of the 9,440 warheads in the military stockpiles, some 3,730 are deployed with operational forces (on missiles or bomber bases). Of those, approximately 2,000 US, Russian, British and French warheads are on high alert, ready for use on short notice.”
The destructive force of these devices, equal to several hundred thousand Hiroshima bombs, is capable of leading to the extinction of humanity and even of life on Earth.
How is it possible that despite this, very little of Camus’ anguish has remained in current public opinion? Nuclear war is not hyperbole, it is a possibility, albeit a remote one. The specter has been evoked several times in the course of this conflict. On February 8, the Russian president called for a “war without winners” between nuclear powers, and then launched for demonstration purposes, on February 19, three intercontinental missiles capable of carrying nuclear charges, reiterating that Ukraine’s entry into NATO would ignite a Russia-NATO conflict that could become nuclear. On February 27, once hostilities had begun, he ordered the nuclear deterrence system to be put on alert. On April 20, the Russian Defense Ministry announced the successful test launch of the Sarmat ICBM capable of a “35,000 km sub-orbital flight” and able to deliver a strike to multiple targets with one single vector.
Although SIPRI, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, is convinced that the Russian leadership has no intention of using nuclear weapons in the Ukrainian crisis, the symbolic use of the atomic threat is indicative of a possibility. The supreme power of destruction, that both sides know to be reciprocal, is currently used in a language of threat and deterrence. It seems evident how every political agenda of every country should see the abolition of nuclear weapons, not unlike what has been done for chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction, as a priority now more than ever, because there is no later. The world political elites have always centered their power on politics of death, human history is a sad witness of that. Nuclear weapons, among all human inventions, are those that, in this deadly drift, represent an apex, a policy of death taken to the extreme, the total annihilation. We need to oppose right now a new and firm culture of the right to survival of human communities, the ecosystem, and the whole planet.