Nuclear disarmament needs a push

The city of Hiroshima hosted two international conferences in a row last week to discuss efforts to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons — the fourth conference of the Group of Eminent Persons for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the 25th United Nations Conference on Disarmament Issues. These meetings coincided with the 70th anniversary of the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as the founding of the United Nations. But they were held in an atmosphere not necessarily conducive to nuclear disarmament — in the wake of the collapse in May of the 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).

Former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry, a member of the group pushing the CTBT who took part in both conferences, said moves to abolish nuclear weapons have been on the decline and warned against a growing complacency, citing dwindling worldwide concern about a potential nuclear conflict. Given such a situation, it is all the more important for Japan, the sole country to suffer nuclear attacks, and all other nations and civil society to consider what they should do to remove the danger of such a conflict and take concrete steps to abolish nuclear arms.

A draft for the final document of the NPT review conference, which was held under U.N. auspices, contained positive measures, including steps to increase transparency by nations possessing nuclear weapons and setting up a working group to efficiently push for nuclear disarmament. But the conference ended without adopting the document as the United States, Britain and Canada opposed a proposal in the draft by Egypt and other Arab countries to hold a regional conference on banning weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East because it was viewed as being aimed at Israel’s nuclear arsenal. The aborted document would have expressed for the first time a serious concern over the catastrophic effects of nuclear weapons. It contained this phrase: “The Conference expresses its deep concern at the continued risk for humanity represented by the possibility that these weapons could be used and the catastrophic humanitarian consequences that would result from the use of nuclear weapons.”

Fortunately, no nuclear weapons have been used in an attack since the Aug. 9, 1945, atomic bombing of Nagasaki. Still, the world has not been free from the danger of a nuclear conflict for the past 70 years. In the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the U.S. and the Soviet Union came to the brink of nuclear war. In 1979, a false alarm came at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) in Colorado that the Soviets had launched a barrage of nuclear missiles at North America, leading the U.S. to temporarily contemplate a retaliatory attack before the alarm was blamed on computer error.

Hiroshima Gov. Hidehiko Yuzaki told the conference on disarmament: “There is a myth that the very existence of nuclear arms ensures peace. But a 100 percent fulfillment of theory is impossible. What will happen when the theory collapses?” Leaders of both the nuclear and non-nuclear weapons countries should pay heed to such questions.

Nuclear-armed nations have justified their possession of the weapons in the name of deterrence. But the risk of human error that could trigger accidental use of nuclear arms cannot be eliminated, nor can the danger of terrorist attacks using nuclear materials. The possibility also exists of hackers penetrating the management and control system for nuclear weapons and triggering their use with false information.

Now is the time for the nuclear weapons powers — and countries like Japan and some NATO member that rely on the nuclear umbrella provided by the U.S. — to seriously consider whether they should continue to depend on nuclear deterrence, which cannot be separated from the risk of nuclear war, for their security.

The declaration issued by the Group of Eminent Persons for the CTBT should provide a clue for these countries. It called the CTBT “one of the most essential practical measures for nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation.” It also urged North Korea, which has conducted three nuclear tests, to “join the international community’s efforts toward nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation by refraining from conducting any further nuclear tests.”

The treaty, which aims to establish a verifiable global ban on tests of all types of nuclear explosives, has been signed by 183 countries and ratified by 164. For it to enter into force, the treaty must be signed and ratified by the 44 countries that have nuclear reactors for research or power generation. Of these countries, eight, including the U.S., China and India, have not yet ratified it. It’s the U.S. that holds the key for the CTBT to take effect. However, ratification there remains difficult due to opposition by Republicans in Congress.

As Perry pointed out, the moves to eliminate nuclear weapons have been on a decline because people do not know or understand the catastrophic consequences of their use. Government leaders, especially the heads of nuclear weapons powers, should go to Hiroshima to listen to the firsthand experience of atomic bombing survivors and visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum to learn more about the horrors of nuclear attacks.

Participants in the disarmament conference also discussed subcritical nuclear experiments from the viewpoint of putting a brake on the modernization of nuclear arms. Japan will serve as co-president of the Conference on Facilitating the Entry Into Force of the CTBT to be held in New York late this month. Together with fellow co-president Kazakhstan, which suffered radiation damage from more than 450 nuclear tests carried out in its territory by the Soviet Union and is serious about nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation, Japan should make strenuous efforts to lead international efforts to put the treaty into force and clearly oppose subcritical nuclear tests. This is a necessary step in the effort to eliminate nuclear weapons.