Europeans are terrified of nuclear war — and should be
Fortune reported in early March that 30,000 Belgians went to pharmacies to retrieve iodine tables, and in Finland there was a hundredfold increase in demand for this mitigator for thyroid cancer that is recommended after radiation exposure. In Switzerland, the public health agency tweeted assurances that the national alarm center would inform them when a nuclear event abroad necessitates that they take the pills. Geneva, where I live, added an iodine table “Frequently Asked Questions” page to their website.
The use of nuclear weapons is not abstract in Europe. People are scared. And they should be.
Even one “small” 100-kiloton nuclear weapon — one of the least destructive in Russian and U.S. nuclear arsenals — detonated over a major city would have catastrophic immediate consequences. Hundreds of thousands or millions of people would be dead or injured. A recent ICAN report that I co-authored shows that there is no medical response capacity. In Moscow and in Washington, every surviving doctor would have to treat dozens of patients, often without supplies, electricity or running water. Major cities’ burn beds number in the single digits. Many people would perish in the weeks, months and years to come from sickness caused by radiation.
The threat of use of nuclear weapons and the real risk that they might be used is not new; it’s called nuclear deterrence. Books have been written about the problems with this theory. But its inherent risk is quite simple. Establishing a security policy based on threatening to use nuclear weapons means always being prepared to use them. It means their use is just one accident, miscalculation or rash decision away.
But every country that prepares to use nuclear weapons doesn’t prepare for what comes next. A Princeton University simulation shows the millions who would die in any scenario in which the United States would respond to Russia’s use of a nuclear weapon.
Nuclear weapons are not the solution. They are the problem.
Some international agreements, including the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, seek to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons or ban nuclear testing. But there is only one that bans nuclear weapons use: the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), adopted in 2017 at the United Nations by 122 countries. This treaty is the only one to hold the line against our worst fear. It is a resounding condemnation of the use of nuclear weapons anywhere, by anyone.
Despite the terror of their populations and widespread popular support for a ban, nuclear-armed states and most European countries have not joined nations across the Americas, Africa and Asia in signing and ratifying this treaty. They refuse to stigmatize the use of nuclear weapons because their adherence to nuclear deterrence depends on their willingness to unleash hell on earth. Every country that boycotts this treaty legitimizes and enables nuclear weapons use.
It’s time to correct the course. The first meeting of states that have joined this treaty will take place June 21-23 in Vienna. This will be the first international conference to address the nuclear weapons threat since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its explicit threat to use nuclear weapons. It provides an opportunity for the international community to send a strong signal that nuclear weapons use is never acceptable, under any circumstances.
A one-day conference explaining the humanitarian consequences and risks of nuclear weapons use and presenting significant new scientific studies will precede the treaty meeting on June 20. The survivors of nuclear weapons use in Japan and of nuclear weapons testing globally will provide expert testimony on what nuclear weapons are and what they do. This is not a hypothetical discussion. No country should miss it.
Members of Congress and other elected officials can attend the official conference, as well as an International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) meeting for elected representatives who have joined ICAN’s pledge to bring their country on board with the TPNW. They can also push the United States to send an official delegation.
The real risk of nuclear weapons use in this conflict is terrifying civilians around the world, especially in Europe. But we have an answer. We have an international treaty that bans and stigmatizes nuclear weapons use. Countries around the world will come to Vienna in June to take it forward. It’s time for all elected representatives to decide where they stand.
Alicia Sanders-Zakre is the policy and research coordinator of the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons and the author of more than 100 articles, reports and editorials on nuclear weapons.
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