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World is ‘one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation,’ U.N. says

U.N. Secretary General António Guterres speaks in New York on Aug. 1 at a global meeting on nuclear weapons. (Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images)

The world is just “one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation.”

That was the dire warning from U.N. Secretary General António Guterres at a global meeting Monday on nuclear weapons.

Officials underscored the geopolitical risks from Russia’s war in Ukraine and simmering tensions in Asia and the Middle East — as they review a 52-year-old landmark treaty that sought to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.

“Crises with nuclear undertones are festering, from the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula to the invasion of Ukraine by Russia and to many other factors around the world,” the U.N. chief told officials and diplomats at the General Assembly Hall in New York.

“Nuclear danger not seen since the height of the Cold War” showed the need for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, he said.

Nearly 13,000 nuclear weapons are held in arsenals worldwide, according to Guterres. He said states were “seeking false security in stockpiling and spending hundreds of billions of dollars on doomsday weapons that have no place on our planet.”

Echoing his warnings, a Stockholm-based arms research group said in June that it saw a “very worrying trend” of all nuclear-armed states upgrading their stockpiles and that the post-Cold War era of declining nuclear arsenals may be ending.

Global nuclear arsenal expected to grow for first time since Cold War

Russia’s war in Ukraine is also laying bare the risks of waging combat in a battlefield scattered with nuclear sites.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Moscow of “reckless, dangerous nuclear saber rattling,” and referred to past comments from Russian President Vladimir Putin that countries interfering in Ukraine risked consequences “such as you have never seen in your entire history.”

In a more conciliatory message, Putin wrote to treaty members on Monday that “there can be no winners in a nuclear war, and it must never be fought.”

An extension last year on the New START nuclear arms accord until 2026 has prolonged limits on the arsenals of the United States and Russia. Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, said on Telegram that the world was “in a different place” after President Biden called Monday for talks on the deal.

At the U.N. meeting, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said the conflict in Ukraine was “so grave that the specter of a potential nuclear confrontation, or accident, has raised its terrifying head again.”

Rafael Grossi said safety was at risk at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in Ukraine — Europe’s largest nuclear plant, which is under Russian control — and urged support for his so far unsuccessful efforts to visit the facility with a team from his U.N. watchdog.

What to know about Ukraine’s nuclear sites and the risks the Russian invasion could pose

Speakers from countries including Japan said the heightened nuclear rhetoric should not jeopardize the treaty’s mission.

The four-week conference to review its progress presents “an opportunity to hammer out the measures that will help avoid certain disaster,” Guterres said. He urged countries not to forget “the terrifying fires” of Hiroshima, when the United States dropped an atomic bomb in 1945 that obliterated much of the Japanese city, and of Nagasaki days later — the second and last time that bomb was used in war.

The Non-Proliferation Treaty, which went into force in 1970 and allows for nuclear energy for peaceful uses, has 191 members, more countries than any other arms control agreement.

Under its terms, the five nuclear powers — the United States, China, the Soviet Union, Britain and France — had agreed at the time to negotiate to eventually eliminate their arsenals, while countries without nuclear weapons pledged not to acquire them.