As tensions grow between Russia and Ukraine, the threat of nuclear war is ‘closer now than at any time since the 1970s’
ByAnne Gulland, GLOBAL HEALTH SECURITY DEPUTY EDITOR and Sarah Newey, GLOBAL HEALTH SECURITY CORRESPONDENT22 February 2022 • 5:15pm
The growing conflict between Russia and Ukraine has put the threat of nuclear war back on disaster planners’ agenda.
While the threat remains a distant one, it is closer now than any time since the 1970s, say experts, and Whitehall’s civil contingency plans are once again coming under the spotlight.
Russia has the greatest number of nuclear warheads in the world – nearly 4,500 compared to the United States’ 3,750. The UK is a minnow in comparison with just 225.
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, fellow at Magdalene College, Cambridge and a former British Army chemical and nuclear weapons expert, believes the last few weeks have shown we are “closer to a Third World War than at any point since the 1970s” – the threat is tiny, he says, but one that we must be prepared for.
“In the depths of the Cold War we were very prepared and there was a realisation an attack was a reality. We had hundreds of bunkers around the country. But fast forward to 2022 and a lot of the planning and infrastructure has gone into abeyance and crumbled,” he says.
“These things are incredibly expensive to maintain so much of the infrastructure has gone,” says Mr de Bretton-Gordon.
As the threat of the Cold War receded, the UK’s nuclear defence infrastructure was decommissioned: former nuclear bunkers have become museums and one in Wiltshire even ended up being used as a cannabis factory.
Underneath the Ministry of Defence on Whitehall sits Pindar, a several storeys deep complex that will house the UK’s government and military leaders in the event of a nuclear strike.
There is also a command-and-control complex at RAF Corsham in Wiltshire as well as several others.
“They probably need a bit of a dust off but they would be viable. I don’t have any insider information but there are probably a lot of civil servants running around at the moment making preparations,” says Mr de Bretton-Gordon.
These chores could range from checking how many potassium iodide tablets – an antidote to radiation – the UK has in stock to going through our stockpile of protective equipment.
For civilians, however, it is likely that we will have to fend for ourselves. In the 1970s and 1980s the government devised a public information campaign called Protect and Survive, whose nadir was a chilling pamphlet delivered to all households detailing how to prepare for armageddon: from the construction of a fall out shelter to how you would be informed of a nuclear attack to what to do with any dead bodies (wrap them in polythene).
The campaign had a huge impact on 1980s popular culture: from Raymond Briggs’ graphic novel When the Wind Blows – turned into a film – to the BBC drama Threads, which imagined the fall out of a nuclear strike on the city of Sheffield.
The Frankie Goes to Hollywood single, Two Tribes, featured the clipped tones of Patrick Allen, who narrated the government’s public information films.
Today, the National Risk register lists a nuclear attack as a potential threat, alongside a chemical, biological or radiological attack, however the publicly available information on what advice should be given to the public in the event of a strike is hard to find.
It is vague, stating that plans to deal with a nuclear “incident are kept up to date and regularly tested in exercises”. It adds that national stocks of medical treatments are maintained with “arrangements in place for how these would be distributed in an emergency”.
There are also plans “to ensure effective civil government can continue throughout and after an incident” – it claims.
Dr Patricia Lewis, head of the international security programme at the Chatham House think tank, says the nuclear deterrent theory has “dominated defence thinking” over the last few decades.
“It has always been assumed that nuclear weapons won’t be used because the horror of them are too great,” she said.
This is the doctrine of “mutual assured destruction” – if two nuclear powers go to war they would annihilate each other. But this defence philosophy has always relied on both sides being led by rational human beings.
Mr de Bretton-Gordon says: “Vladimir Putin has shown in the last few weeks he is not necessarily a rational person and Monday’s performance made that clear.”