Ongoing nuclear gamble in Ukraine

We recently marked six months since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; U.S. and Russia tensions are their greatest since the Cold War, and we are closer today to the brink of nuclear war than at any time in the nuclear age.

This has been real potential on two fronts for nuclear disaster in Ukraine: There have been overt threats from Russia of the potential of use of nuclear weapons as well as close-calls and attacks on the world’s largest nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia.

The Zaporizhzhia plant has been shelled by Russian forces and recently was disconnected from the power grid, which is critical to maintaining the cooling of the reactor core and spent fuel rods storage. The disconnection caused the Soviet-era diesel-powered generators to activate for the first time in history. Under normal circumstances these generators have fuel to last two weeks, though it is feared that the fuel supplies may have been reduced during the war. In the absence of cooling there’s a real possibility of a meltdown releasing radiation which could then spread over the region and potentially much of Europe. Thankfully, the power was restored, but there is significant risk of this happening again as long as there is war in the region.

Out of fear and to “prepare” for potential radioactive release, the Ukrainian government is distributing millions of potassium iodide (KI), “anti-radiation” tablets to prevent thyroid cancer from inhaled or ingested radioactive iodine. Thyroid cancer is a common cancer, along with many others, resulting from radionuclide exposure that can happen many years after exposure particularly in infants, children and young adults.

Representatives of the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) arrived at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant Thursday. After initial touring, IAEA director Rafael Mariano Grossi stated, “It is obvious that the plant and the physical integrity of the plant has been violated several times.”

Any attack on — or near — a nuclear power plant is an act of terrorism.

We are closer to the brink today than ever before. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ nuclear Doomsday Clock was at 100 seconds till midnight (representing civilization apocalypse) before the invasion occurred, and the risk has only heightened.

There are roughly 12,700 nuclear weapons in the world, of which the United States and Russia hold 90 percent. Hardly a day goes by without a nuclear threat or a reminder of the nuclear capabilities of the superpowers. This is coupled with the threat and targeting of attacks on Ukrainian nuclear power plants. Such an attack would be catastrophic in the region.

Recent scientific studies have confirmed that the long-feared dangers of nuclear war are actually much greater due to the catastrophic climate effects that would follow even a regional nuclear war, potentially causing global famine. The report, “Global food insecurity and famine from reduced crop, marine fishery and livestock production due to climate disruption from nuclear war soot injection,” published Aug. 15, outlines the effects of various nuclear war scenarios, from a regional war between India and Pakistan using roughly 100 Hiroshima size weapons — half of one percent of the global nuclear arsenals — to a nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia using 4,400 weapons. In these models, global surface temperatures would drop between 1 and 16 degrees Celsius. This would initiate massive crop loss and a global average calorie drop of 7 percent to 90 percent depending on the scenario, lasting for years to decades. Ultimately, this would result in the death of some 5 billion people and could potentially lead to the extinction of our species.

This is a situation that does not have to be. We know how to build — and we know how to dismantle nuclear weapons.

Each of us can and must play a part in demanding an end to the nuclear threat.

There is a growing national coalition called Back from the Brink comprised of individuals and 416 health, environmental, religious and scientific organizations, 329 U.S. elected officials, 61 municipalities and seven state legislative bodies calling for the United States to lead a global effort to prevent nuclear war by pursuing a verifiable, time-bound agreement among nuclear nations to eliminate their nuclear weapons while simultaneously advocating for common sense policies to secure a safer more just future.

Those policies include:

  • Renouncing the option of using nuclear weapons first
  • Ending the sole, unchecked authority of any U.S. president to launch a nuclear attack
  • Taking U.S. nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert
  • Canceling the plan to replace the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal with enhanced weapons

There is also a global Avaaz petition calling on all parties to the U.N. Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to urge the 10th NPT Review Conference happening right now to call for a ban on all fighting near any nuclear reactor, demilitarizing them, and creating a ‘safe zone’ of at least 30 km.

I encourage everyone endorse and support these efforts.

The fact that the world has not seen another use of nuclear weapons since Nagasaki — either intentionally, by accident or miscalculation — is not a result of superior knowledge, technology, nuclear control policies or skill. Rather, it has been by sheer luck, as noted by former Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara. Sooner or later, our luck will run out, and the present Ukraine conflict is increasing the odds.

The only way to avoid nuclear war is by the complete abolition of such weapons. If we survive, our children’s children will ask what did you do when the world was threatened? What will be your response?

Robert Dodge, M.D., is a family physician practicing in Ventura, Calif. He is the President of Physicians for Social Responsibility Los Angeles (, and sits on the National Board serving as the Co-Chair of the Committee to Abolish Nuclear Weapons of National Physicians for Social Responsibility ( Physicians for Social Responsibility received the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize and is a partner organization of ICAN, recipient of the 2017 Nobel Peace Price. Dodge also sits on the Steering Committee of Back from the Brink.

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