Image ID F2AX2C A mushroom cloud forms from a atom bomb test 'Baker' in 1946. 25071946 CREDIT Everett Collection Historical,Alamy Stock Photo.jpg
A cloud forms from the underwater atom bomb test 'Baker' in 1946, which created a 500ft wall of radioactive mist and spray (Picture: Everett Collection Historical/ Alamy Stock Photo).
Nuclear

Analysis: Threat of nuclear attack never higher and could kill five billion

In his own words, Hamish de Bretton Gordon explains why the threat of nuclear attack or accident has rarely been higher.

Image ID F2AX2C A mushroom cloud forms from a atom bomb test 'Baker' in 1946. 25071946 CREDIT Everett Collection Historical,Alamy Stock Photo.jpg
A cloud forms from the underwater atom bomb test 'Baker' in 1946, which created a 500ft wall of radioactive mist and spray (Picture: Everett Collection Historical/ Alamy Stock Photo).

A new report from a US university, Rutgers, claims this week that five billion people could die in a full-blown nuclear confrontation.

This is a timely report but is not new. The policy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) is well understood by US, UK and Russian leaders, and ironically, has kept the nuclear peace for the last 50 years.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty conference has just happened for the first time in a number of years, as the threat of nuclear attack or accident has rarely been higher.

UN President Antonio Guterres warns of the threat of a nuclear attack. "Humanity is just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation", he said.

The UK Security advisor Sir Stephen Lovegrove is similarly concerned, saying Britain had "clear concerns" that Beijing was expanding and modernising its nuclear arsenal, adding that China's "disdain" for arms control agreements was a "daunting prospect".

All this is against a backdrop of President Putin threatening NATO and Ukraine with nuclear weapons, the Chinese increasing their stockpile by a threefold factor, Iran claiming to be nuclear weapon capable and North Korea working hard to get there, and offering help to Russia to fight in Ukraine.

The fact Russia appears to be keen to accept this help, shows how desperate things may be getting for Putin, and perhaps another step towards the unthinkable use of tactical nuclear weapons?

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned Russia and reminded us Ukraine handed over its Soviet-era nuclear weapons in 1994, after receiving assurances of its future security from Russia and others.

"What message does this send to any country around the world that may think that it needs to have nuclear weapons  – to protect, to defend, to deter aggression against its sovereignty and independence?" he asked. "The worst possible message."

Image ID 2JKG9P8 The 10th NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) Review Conference held at UN HQ in New York 01082022 CREDIT Xinhua, Alamy Stock Photo.jpg
The 10th NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) review conference was held at at the UN Headquarters in New York at the start of August (Picture: Xinhua/ Alamy Stock Photo).

The juxtaposition between nuclear power saving the planet from global warming or destroying it by nuclear attack or accident, could not be more starkly illustrated than by the current war in Ukraine.

We must not allow events in Ukraine to frighten us off nuclear power; it really is the most viable way to save the planet from global warming and most environmental groups now agree.

President Putin has in the past attacked the UK with nuclear material, Polonium 210 and the deadliest chemical weapon in Novichok; is it so unlikely that he would use a nuclear weapon, even a small one, to achieve his goals?

Indeed, Soviet doctrine, which the Russians seem to be following in Ukraine, allows commanders to use battlefield nuclear weapons to stave off defeat, which is looking more likely by the day in some areas.

But for our own nuclear arsenal, I think he would; at least based on his complete disregard for collateral damage and civilian casualties he's inflicted in Ukraine and Syria.

Russia is now using the largest nuclear power station in Europe, Zaporizhzhia, as a base to launch missiles around Ukraine; reckless in the extreme and creating the spectre of another globally significant nuclear accident.

They have stationed 500 troops in the power station and their commander is a 'Major General Vasilyev' who is the head of the Russian Army CBRN Forces.

The same role I had in the British Army, but I am trained to counter and prevent CBRN attack; I expect the General's expertise is more in its offensive use, and he is threatening to blow up the plant if Ukraine tries to retake it. The global contamination this would cause does not bear thinking about.

HMS Vengeance Trident ballistic missile 070907 Credit MOD .jpg
Vanguard-class submarine HMS Vengeance, which carries the UK's nuclear deterrent (Picture: MOD).

During the Cold War, there was much education and training for the public on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack.

Some will remember the black and white education films, far from terrifying our parents and forebears it gave them some reassurance. A threat one plans for and develops resilience against will be diminished and hence be a deterrence to an aggressor.

Some argue that much of the Fukushima evacuations were unnecessary, but the authorities did not have the information, expertise or structures to hand at the time.

We can be resilient to nuclear attack and we must not be allowed to be terrified by ignorance. Our resilience and fortitude may make Putin think twice about use?

The US government seems better prepared than most, and a number of government websites still contain details on how to prepare for a nuclear attack and what to do in the event of such an attack. This seems to me to be prudent contingency planning and not over-the-top scaremongering.

At this time of heightened nuclear threat, it is crucial that all the checks and balances are in place to ensure that mistakes or miscalculations do not trigger Armageddon, and the US and NATO must work directly with Russia and China to ensure this.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is and has been our best hope to contain this threat but needs our undivided attention, among the noise of lesser events currently focusing our leaders.

The war in Ukraine and the nuclear conundrum must be resolved as the priority for our leaders; if not everything else vexing us at the moment will simply be irrelevant.

After all, inflation and the cost-of-living crisis is now, almost exclusively, being caused by Putin's illegal invasion of Ukraine and the nuclear threat, creating global uncertainty and financial turmoil.

By Hamish de Bretton-Gordon OBE, a former soldier. He was commanding officer of the UK Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Regiment and NATO's Rapid Reaction CBRN Battalion and  is one of the world's leading experts on chemical and biological counter-terrorism and warfare.