G7 summit in Hiroshima highlights urgency of addressing growing nuclear threat

World leaders should tackle the menace of proliferation by setting an agenda for stockpile reductions, experts say

The Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima. The city will host the G7 leaders' summit on Friday. AFP
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The skeletal dome of Hiroshima’s city council building provides the backdrop for a G7 summit as the threat of nuclear catastrophe is at its highest in decades.

The building survived the cataclysmic blast of an atom bomb that killed thousands of humans on August 6, 1945. Two days later the death toll reached 226,000 when Nagasaki was similarly bombed.

The setting of Hiroshima reminds the world of the horror of nuclear war, as President Vladimir Putin makes nuclear threats and other countries increase their warhead stockpiles, or try to join the nuclear club.

Of the world’s 13,400 nuclear warheads, Russia possesses nearly 6,000 and America 5,400. A decade ago the two greatest nuclear world powers were on a path to reduce their nuclear stockpiles, with former US president Barack Obama pushing for a reduction.

But then Russia invaded Ukraine, first in 2014 and then on a greater scale last year, and dreams of a nuclear-free world have diminished.

Instead the nuclear threat has deepened. China is building more warheads, Britain has considered a 40 per cent increase in its stockpile, Iran is on the cusp of producing weapons-grade uranium and North Korea is producing ever more sophisticated missiles.

Given the vivid backdrop of the G7 summit, what can the leaders of the democratic world do to curtail nuclear proliferation?

Hiroshima legacy

The summit can at least start a conversation about tackling the growing global nuclear threat.

The poignancy of loss will be well related by Japan’s Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida. His family come from Hiroshima and, born 12 years after the A-bomb attack, he grew up hearing the stories of those who suffered incurable radiation sickness or whose flesh was seared by atomic burns.

“There's such a strong link with Hiroshima which gives the meeting huge symbolic importance,” said Dr Matthew Harries, director of Proliferation and Nuclear Policy at the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi) think tank. It is “a moment to re-open the discussion on proliferation.”

The enduring Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty still offers hope in a world edging towards catastrophe with 191 countries signed up to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.

When the NPT was proposed in 1965, it was predicted that within two decades the number of nuclear-armed states would rise from five to 30. It currently stands at nine.

The treaty has served to curtail membership of the nuclear club, with only North Korea, Israel, India and Pakistan ignoring it.

Nuclear warfare expert Hamish de Breton Gordon said the G7 should therefore pressure the UN Security Council to urgently address reducing the size of nuclear arsenals.

“Hiroshima should be the starting point to reign this all back in because China, Iran and North Korea are completely ignoring the treaty and are developing their nuclear capabilities,” he said.

The cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki should remain “a really harrowing reminder of what happens if nuclear weapons are used,” Marion Messmer, of the international security programme at Chatham House think tank, told The National.

“The Japanese government can do a lot to remind the world that the norm of not using nuclear weapons that has held strong for many decades should continue to be strengthened.”

The key is persuading the US and Russia to discuss reduction. It’s a big ask.

Treaties fade

Treaties that seemed to set the world on a nuclear-free path have faded. “International agreements regulating nuclear weapons have either got weaker or collapsed,” said Dr Harries.

Former president Donald Trump withdrew the US from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty in 2018, protesting against alleged Russian deployment of land-based cruise missiles.

In one of his last acts as president he then withdrew the US from the Open Skies treaty in 2020, with Russia following suit a few months later. The agreement allowed unmanned aerial surveillance over foreign territory.

Then in February this year Putin announced that Russia was suspending the New START treaty, the last remaining nuclear arms control agreement between Washington and Moscow that allows 18 stockpile inspections a year.

Meanwhile, the North Korean nuclear arsenal is getting “larger and more diverse” and Iran’s nuclear agreement is “pretty much unrecognisable at this point”, Dr Harries said.

“The problem is that states are beginning to lose trust in various arms control agreements, because some of the really important existing ones have fallen apart,” said Ms Messmer.

“There are a lot of states that previously were not that interested in nuclear weapons that might now have changed their minds.”

Nuclear domino effect

Proliferation can have a troubling domino effect. When an aggressive neighbour goes nuclear adjacent countries realise that the only real deterrence is to be similarly equipped. Hence Pakistan’s nuclear programme following India’s.

Similarly, prominent voices in South Korea have urged their government either to develop nuclear weapons or invite US devices on to their soil.

The US has agreed to bolster its support with increased submarine patrols but South Korea has still set up a committee for nuclear planning.

If Iran does develop a nuclear weapon – as its enemy Israel has, with an estimated arsenal of 90 warheads – how will the rest of the Middle East respond?

China currently possesses a modest 400 warheads but its current nuclear programme could see this expand to 1,000 by 2035 as its superpower competition with the US intensifies.

Britain has said it will expand its warheads by 40 per cent to 260, although this is regarded as a “hypothetical” number, used only if the international security situation further deteriorates.

“The problem that the world is confronting now is that more and more states see deterrence as a central part of their security,” said Dr Harries.

Mr de Breton Gordon said the principle of mutual assured destruction, based on the notion that a nuclear attack by one superpower would be met with an overwhelming nuclear counterattack, such that both the attacker and the defender would be annihilated, “has kept the world at peace for 80 odd years and that’s for very good reasons.”

Fissile treaty?

Dr Harries wants the G7 to announce a “political recommitment” to the NPT to highlight that it was still in a state's national interest to “go without nuclear weapons because the world is safer if your neighbour does not have nuclear weapons.”

Part of that would be getting momentum behind the proposed Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, that would prohibit production of enriched uranium and plutonium, the two main components for nuclear bombs.

But both China and Pakistan object because they want fissile material to strengthen their arsenal.

“Hiroshima is an opportunity to show a level of support for this treaty and to put more pressure on,” said Dr Harries.

There is also a curious irony in President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear threats as they may have intensified the desire for more controls.

His intimidation tactics may also have focused minds on the devastation of nuclear war.

Bright spot

Ultimately it is down to the US and Russia to find a way to reduce their massive nuclear armoury.

Given the fallout over the Ukraine war, that appears a more insurmountable task. So what can the G7 hope to achieve?

“It’s a question of what they can work out and what conditions they want to set for an international agreement,” said Ms Messmer. “But because Russia isn't at that table, it's really difficult to think about new arms control, because Russia needs to be a willing participant and that won't happen if they're not involved in treaty conversations from the start.”

Despite Iran and North Korea’s actions, the NPT still holds with 191 countries, which, said Ms Messmer, “in a very bleak landscape of international security is a rare bright spot.”

“It shows that the majority of states are able to evolve their security without the huge risk and expenditure that nuclear weapons entail,” she added.

Updated: May 18, 2023, 5:38 PM