Nuclear weapons are still one of the most serious threats to mankind with severe ecological impacts. Disarmament and non-proliferation remain indispensable tools to help create a secure environment favourable to ensuring human development, as enshrined in the letter and the spirit of the Charter of the United Nations. Geneva is a center for international diplomacy in this field and hosts a number of disarmament-related conferences.

The only guarantee against the use of nuclear weapons is their total elimination – but our world continues to live in the shadow of nuclear catastrophe.
We must urgently reverse course and return to a common path to nuclear disarmament.
António Guterres, UN Secretary General

There is an urgent need to stop the erosion of the nuclear order. All countries possessing nuclear weapons have an obligation to lead.
Tatiana Valovaya, Director-General of the UN Office at Geneva

75 Years After Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Seventy-five years ago, in 1945, the only two nuclear bombs ever used in warfare were detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, killing approximately 210,000 people within months and sickening tens of thousands more with cancer and lifelong diseases.

That same year, the United Nations Charter was adopted and signed. The birth of the UN is inextricably intertwined with the destruction wrought by the nuclear bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Since its earliest days and resolutions, the Organization has recognized the need to totally eliminate nuclear weapons. The prospect of nuclear weapons being used intentionally, by accident or miscalculation, is dangerously high. Nuclear weapons are being modernized to become stealthier, more accurate, faster and more dangerous. And the relationships between nuclear-armed States are precarious – defined by distrust, a lack of transparency and dearth of dialogue. Nuclear sabres are being rattled, with bellicose rhetoric not seen since the Cold War.

– Message of Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary-General, to the Nagasaki Peace Memorial Ceremony on the 75th Anniversary of the Atomic Bombing of Nagasaki

Yet today, around 13,400 nuclear warheads exist, with most being more powerful than those two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The world has succeeded at reducing some of the risks, especially after the end of the Cold War, but Izumi Nakamitsu, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, has said the danger is now higher than it has been in generations.

1970: Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)

The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which entered into force in 1970, is a landmark international treaty whose objective is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, to promote cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and to further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament and general and complete disarmament.

The Treaty is regarded as the cornerstone of the global nuclear non-proliferation regime and an essential foundation for the pursuit of nuclear disarmament. The Treaty represents the only binding commitment in a multilateral treaty to the goal of disarmament by the nuclear-weapon States. On 11 May 1995, the Treaty was extended indefinitely. A total of 191 States have joined the Treaty, including the five nuclear-weapon States. More countries have ratified the NPT than any other arms limitation and disarmament agreement, a testament to the Treaty’s significance.

1972: Principle 26 of the Stockholm Declaration to Ban Nuclear Weapons

The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment met in Stockholm on 5-16 June 1972 and considered the need for a common outlook and for common principles to inspire and guide the peoples of the world in the preservation and enhancement of the human environment. In the Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, principle 26 draws attention to the ban on nuclear weapons.

Man and his environment must be spared the effects of nuclear weapons and all other means of mass destruction. States must strive to reach prompt agreement, in the relevant international organs, on the elimination and complete destruction of such weapons.

2017: Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW)

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) includes a comprehensive set of prohibitions on participating in any nuclear weapon activities. These include undertakings not to develop, test, produce, acquire, possess, stockpile, use or threaten to use nuclear weapons. The Treaty also prohibits the deployment of nuclear weapons on national territory and the provision of assistance to any State in the conduct of prohibited activities. States parties will be obliged to prevent and suppress any activity prohibited under the TPNW undertaken by persons or on territory under its jurisdiction or control. The Treaty also obliges States parties to provide adequate assistance to individuals affected by the use or testing of nuclear weapons, as well as to take necessary and appropriate measure of environmental remediation in areas under its jurisdiction or control contaminated as a result of activities related to the testing or use of nuclear weapons.

The Treaty was adopted by the Conference at the United Nations on 7 July 2017 and opened for signature by the Secretary-General of the United Nations on 20 September 2017. On 20 September 2020, the eve of the United Nations 75th anniversary commemoration at the annual General Assembly, an open letter coordinated by the Geneva-based group International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) was released with 56 former heads of states and defense ministers imploring their current leaders to join the Treaty, which is only six ratifications shy of the 50 needed to take effect. The letter also asserted the increased risks of nuclear-weapons use.

The ratification of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will come into force on 22 January 2021, after Honduras became the 50th Member State to ratify, on 24 October 2020.

26 September: International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons

The United Nations commemorates 26 September as the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. This Day is an occasion for the world community to reaffirm its commitment to global nuclear disarmament as a priority and provides an opportunity to educate the public – and their leaders – about the real benefits of eliminating such weapons, and the social and economic costs of perpetuating them. It also addresses one of humanity’s greatest challenges, achieving the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.

The Role of Geneva

Disarmament and non-proliferation remain indispensable tools to help create a secure environment favourable to ensuring human development, as enshrined in the letter and the spirit of the Charter of the United Nations. Geneva is a center for international diplomacy in this field and hosts a number of disarmament-related conferences.

Conference on Disarmament (CD)

The Conference on Disarmament (CD), established in 1979, is the single multilateral disarmament negotiating forum of the international community, following the first Special Session on Disarmament (SSOD I) of the United Nations General Assembly held in 1978. The Director-General of the United Nations Office in Geneva (UNOG) is the Secretary-General of the Conference on Disarmament as well as the Personal Representative of the UN Secretary-General to the CD.

It succeeded other Geneva-based negotiating fora such as the Ten-Nation Committee on Disarmament (1960), the Eighteen-Nation Committee on Disarmament (1962-68), and the Conference of the Committee on Disarmament (1969-78).

The terms of reference of the CD include practically all multilateral arms control and disarmament problems. Currently, the CD focuses on the following issues:

  • Cessation of the nuclear arms race and nuclear disarmament
  • Prevention of nuclear war, including all related matters
  • Prevention of an arms race in outer space
  • Effective international arrangements to assure non-nuclear-weapon States against the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons
  • New types of weapons of mass destruction and new systems of such weapons including radiological weapons
  • Comprehensive programme of disarmament and transparency in armaments

The CD and its predecessors have negotiated major multilateral arms limitation and disarmament agreements such as:

  • Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons
  • Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques
  • Treaty on the Prohibition of the Emplacement of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction on the Sea-Bed and the Ocean Floor and in the Subsoil thereof
  • Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction
  • Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction and Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty

International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)

Also based in Geneva is the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a coalition of non-governmental organizations in 100 countries promoting adherence to and implementation of the United Nations nuclear weapon ban treaty. This landmark global agreement was adopted in New York on 7 July 2017. ICAN also won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017.

Other Disarmament Meetings

In addition, Geneva occasionally hosting other meetings related to disarmament and non-proliferation instruments such as certain sessions of the Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters, and certain sessions of the Preparatory Committee of the Review Conferences of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), expert panels and seminars.

Photo: ICAN

Ecological Impact

Since the early development of nuclear technology it has been clear that there are strong links between civil and military applications of nuclear power. However, the deployment of nuclear power and related technologies has been highly controversial, with among the key concerns the ecological impacts of nuclear accidents and the radioactive waste disposal. Scientists and anti-nuclear activists warn of the dangers of the radiation released during every stage of a nuclear weapon production and eventual detonation, referring to reports from workers of nuclear power stations and the survivors of the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters.

Land

Isotopes released during a meltdown or related event are typically dispersed into the atmosphere and then settle to the surface through natural occurrences and deposition. Isotopes settling in the top soil layer can remain there for many years as a result of the half-life of said particles involved in nuclear events. Due to the long term detrimental affects on agriculture, farming and livestock, it carries further potential to affect human health and safety long after the actual event.

Fukushima Daiichi 2011

After the Fukushima Daiichi accident in 2011, surrounding agricultural areas has been contaminated with more than 100,000 MBq km−2 in cesium concentrations. As a result, eastern Fukushima food production saw massive limitations. Due to the topographical nature of Japan, as well as the weather pattern for the prefecture, cesium deposits as well as other isotopes reside in top layer of soils all over eastern and northeastern Japan.

Chernobyl 1986

The Chernobyl disaster in 1986 caused approximately 125,000 mi2 of land across the Ukraine, Belarus and Russia to be exposed to radiation. The amount of focused radiation caused severe damage to plant reproduction, resulting in most plants being unable to reproduce for a minimum of three years. Many of these occurrences on land can be a result of the distribution of isotopes through water systems.

Water

Fukushima Daiichi 2011

In 2013, contaminated groundwater was found in-between some of the affected turbine buildings in the Fukushima Daiichi facility, including locations at bordering seaports that led into the Pacific Ocean. In both locations, the facility typically expulses clean water to feed into further groundwater systems. The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the entity that manages and operates the facility, further investigated the contamination in areas that would deem safe to conduct operations. They found that a significant amount of the contamination originated from underground cable trenches that connected to circulation pumps within the facility. Both the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and TEPCO confirmed that this contamination was a result of the 2011 earthquake. Due to damages like these, the Fukushima plant released nuclear material into the pacific ocean and has continued to do so. After five years of leaking, the contaminates reached all corners of the pacific ocean from North America, to Australia, to Patagonia. Along the same coastline, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) found trace amounts of Fukushima contaminates 100 miles (150 km) off of the coast of Eureka, California in November 2014. Despite the relative dramatic increases in radiation, the contamination levels still fall below the World Health Organization’s (WHO) standard for clean drinking water.

In 2019, the Japanese government announced that it was considering the possibility to dump contaminated water from the Fukushima reactor into the Pacific Ocean. Japanese Environmental Minister Yoshiaki Harada reported that TEPCO had collected over a million tons of contaminated water, and by 2022 they would be out of space to safely store the radioactive water.

Multiple private agencies as well as various North American governments monitor the spread of radiation throughout the pacific to track the potential hazards it can introduce to food systems, groundwater supplies, and ecosystems. In 2014, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a report stating that radionuclides, traced from the Fukushima facility, were present in the United States food supply, but not to levels deemed to be a threat to public health – as well as any food and agricultural products imported from Japanese sources. It is commonly believed that, with the rate of the current radionuclide leakage, the dispersal into the water would prove beneficial as most of the isotopes would dilute into the water as well as become less effective over time, thanks to radioactive decay. Cesium (Cs-137) is the primary isotope released from the Fukushima Daiichi facility.

Chernobyl 1986

Evidence can be seen from the 1986 Chernobyl event. Due to the violent nature of accident in Chernobyl, a sizable portion of radioactive contamination resulted from the atmosphere were particles what where dispersed during the explosion. Many of these contaminates settled in groundwater systems in immediate surrounding areas, but also Russia and Belarus. Due to the resulting radiation in groundwater, the ecological effects of the disaster can be seen in various aspects down the environmental process line. Radionuclides carried by groundwater systems in and around the areas of Chernobyl have resulted in the uptake to plants in the region and up the food chains into animals, and eventually, humans – as one of the largest exposure points of radiation was through agriculture contaminated by radioactive groundwater. Again, one of the largest concerns to the local populaces within the 30 km exclusion zone is the intake of Cs-137 through the consumption of agricultural products contaminated with groundwater. Comparatively, thanks to the environmental and soil conditions outside the exclusion zone, the recorded levels are below those that require remediation based on a survey in 1996. During this event, the groundwater transportation of radioactive material carried over borders in to neighboring countries. Belarus, lying to Chernobyl’s northern border, was subject to approximately 250,000 hectares of previously usable farmland being held by state officials until deemed safe.

Off-site radiological risk may be found in the form of flooding. Many citizens in the surrounding areas have been deemed at risk of exposure to radiation due to the Chernobyl Reactor’s proximity to floodplains. A study conducted in 1996 was conducted to see how far the radioactive effects were felt across eastern Europe. Lake Kojanovskoe in Russia, 250 km from the Chernobyl accident site, was found to be one of the most impacted lakes traced from the disaster area. Fish collected from the lake were found to be 60 times more radioactive than the European Union Standard. Further investigation found that the water source feeding the lake provided drinking water for approximately 9 million Ukrainians, as well as provided agricultural irrigation and food for 23 million more.

A cover was constructed around the damage reactor of the Chernobyl nuclear plant. This helps in the remediation of leaking radioactive material from the site of the accident, but does little to help aid the local area with isotopes that were dispersed in its soils and water ways more than 30 years ago. Partially due to the already abandoned urban areas, as well as international relations currently affecting the country, remediation efforts have minimized compared to the initial clean up actions and more recent accidents such as the Fukushima incident.

Depleted Uranium

Depleted uranium (DU) is the main by-product of uranium enrichment and is a chemically and radiologically toxic heavy metal; it is mildly radioactive, with about 60% of the activity of natural uranium. This dense metal is used in munitions for its penetrating ability and as a protective material in armoured vehicles.

In the wake of conflicts in the 1990s, increased attention has been paid to the possible health and environmental effects of the use of armaments and ammunitions containing DU. The General Assembly first addressed the matter in 2007 and, since 2008, has taken it up on a biennial basis.

Various international organizations, including the WHO and UNEP, have undertaken studies on the potential effects of DU on human beings and the environment. The health effects resulting from DU exposure depend on the route and magnitude of exposure and the characteristics of the DU, such as particle size, chemical form and solubility. Where DU munitions have been used, DU penetrators, penetrator fragments and jackets/casings can be found lying on the surface or buried at varying depth. When DU penetrators hit a target’s surface target or the ground, only a small percentage of the penetrator’s mass will transform to DU dust. Air, soil, water and vegetation can potentially be contaminated and affected by DU residues.

From 1999 to 2003, UNEP conducted environmental assessments and measurements on targeted DU sites in KosovoSerbia and Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Additionally, based on the findings of the 2003 UNEP Desk Study on the Environment in Iraq, UNEP initiated a DU project in Iraq.

Events

UN General Assembly: High-level Meeting to Commemorate and Promote the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons
2 October | 10:00 – 18:00 (EDT)

This high-level plenary meeting of the General Assembly to commemorate and promote the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons aims to advocate for resuming dialogue and negotiations for nuclear arms control and disarmament and to consider how States can return to a common path to nuclear disarmament. The meeting also seeks to articulate solutions for the elimination of nuclear weapons and highlight the need for renewed engagement for building sustainable peace and security for all.

Resources