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Back from the brink

LONDON Freelance Branch held an online "salon" event about nuclear risks and their relevance in today's world on Wednesday 15 February. As an experiment we are presenting an edited transcript of the entire session. A shorter report is here.

Salon events are relaxed occasions where we can invite speakers from a variety of fields to share knowledge with the branch and the union, since the pandemic these events have been more successful online.


Alistair Dabbs, branch secretary introduced the event and the moderator, Elizabeth Ingrams. Elizabeth is a writer and researcher who came across the stories of survivors of the 1945 nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki when she was living and working as a journalist in Tokyo. She has spoken on LBC and BBC radio and TV on Hiroshima and the intergenerational impacts of nuclear weapons and been a fixer for BBC programmes about Hiroshima. She has published an edited volume of essays with Routledge on Japan and remembering. She reminded us of a motion from this Branch passed at NUJ Delegate Meeting in 2021 committing the union to campaign for the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons by the UK. 

Kyoko Gibson

Kyoko Gibson apoloogised for reading her presentation

The first speaker was Kyoko Gibson, who was born in Hiroshima in 1948 and is a "second generation hibakusha (survivor of the atomic bombings).

Although Kyoko was not directly exposed to the atomic bomb dropped on her city on 6 August 1945, three years before her birth, her parents were exposed. Kyoko's health has been affected by that experience, and she has lived with 50 per cent immunity as well as other health problems which are similar to those commonly found among other children of directly-exposed hibakusha. She and Les Gibson have started the website One million voices for nuclear abolition, which can be found at 

Kyoko Gibson

This is my experience as someone who was born and raised in Hiroshima. I will read from my prepared notes:

Josei Toda, president of SGI [Soka Gakkai International, a Buddhist peace organisation] made a historic declaration for the abolition of nuclear weapon on 8 September 1957 before 50,000 young people.

His aim was to establish the idea that the use of nuclear weapons was an act that would deny humanity its fundamental right to exist. He hoped that by allowing this idea to penetrate deeply into the hearts and minds of people throughout the world, particularly the leaders in each country, and thereby establish the criterion of [prohibiting] the use of nuclear weapons.

He said, 'We started our task convinced of the existence of "Buddha-nature" within [all] human beings - and that this will guarantee the abolition of nuclear weapons without fail. Since a human being created the atomic bomb it must also be human beings that make possible its abolition.'

Daisaku Ikeda, Josei Toda's successor is 95 years old this year - but still works tirelessly for the sake of humanity. Everybody has the right to live a life. Life is the most precious of all things. 

On 6th August 1945 an atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima - which then had a population of around 350,000. Hiroshima was [chosen as the target] because of the clear sky overhead that day, which made it easier to observe the mushroom cloud rising out of the city, and the fireball with temperature over 5000 degrees centigrade. As we know, water boils at 100 degrees and steel melts at 1500 degrees.

Seventy thousand people died instantly -- and many more afterwards. We think that in the four months after the explosion, another 40,000 died. To this day, people continue to die. The actual dropping of the bomb took only 10 seconds but the effects have continued and will continue for generations. 

I was brought up in a community filled with suffering from the effects of the Bomb. No information was available to us on the possible consequences so people were ignorant of radiation risks. We grew vegetables in contaminated soil and ate them. People caught fish in contaminated water and also ate them. 

Even now, there is a lot of suffering behind closed doors. The Bomb's after-effects may produce babies with physical challenges. People lost hope and confidence for the future, because they felt that they didn't have the ability to provide for their families. The uncounted atomic bomb orphans are never mentioned. 

There was a high suicide rate among the victims and their families. We did not have a name for a condition called PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder] at that time although there were many people who had PTSD - many saw people melt in front of their eyes. They had witnessed the horror of bands of people whose clothes had burned off running to rivers and dying in the water. This was an absolute man-made hell.

I remember that when I was small, even though nobody told me, I knew not to stare or to ask questions about the people who had their skin melted with the intense heat. 

There are three groups of people in Hiroshima: in the first group are those still very angry about what happened to their loved ones; in the second group, it is too painful, and it's in the past, so they don't do wish to talk about it; in the third group there are those like us in the SGI and other genuine people who have dedicated their lives to ensure the peace and security of the world. 

My family was no exception. All are affected physically and mentally in one way or another. I was affected more than my siblings and had the most difficulty. The only explanation was the after-effects of radiation; and also the mental or emotional stress that each one of us bore because we didn't know what was in our bodies and whether we could pass it on unknowingly to our children or grandchildren. Can you imagine if you had to watch those you care for and love undergoing excruciating suffering? 

I was told by my doctor that I had only a 50 per cent of my immune system was effective. A few years ago, I saw a documentary on TV about the bombing of Hiroshima, in which the interviewer asks a member of the crew that dropped the Bomb that day over Hiroshima: would you do the same thing again? His answer was 'yes'. There are no words that express how I felt hearing that. 

In September 2000, the doctors gave my mother two weeks to live. My sisters and I stayed with her. One day I heard a voice as if from the dead, coming from the next room beside my mother's: a lady repeating over and over and again, "mummy, it hurts". She was a little girl again, calling out to her mother. She was a survivor of the atomic bombing, who had to deal with that for so long. When the sound stopped after two days, I wanted to scream on her behalf. 

I often used to feel overwhelming sorrow and I know now how to transform the anger and foolishness that controls human beings - into compassion, courage and wisdom to encourage others. 

In October 2006, I visited the atomic bomb museum in Hiroshima, which I and my family had never been able to do. I entered the building by myself. Then I knew my vow to work for world peace on behalf of my late parents, my sister, and people over here - to ensure that this must never be repeated again. 

Hiroshima is now the most beautiful and peaceful city because they are many thousands of people practising peace. My hope is no child ever goes through what I went through ever again. So I will keep going in this humanistic work of abolishing nuclear weapons. Thank you for listening.

Milan Rai

Milan Rai

Milan Rai followed on from Kyoko Gibson. He has been editor of Peace News since 2007. Before that he was focused on nonviolent direct action, including coordinating Voices in the Wilderness UK. This campaign broke the economic sanctions on Iraq by taking children's medicines to Iraqi hospitals. Milan has been to prison four times for his peace actions. and he shared the Transport and General Workers Union's Frank Cousins Peace Award in 1993. He is the author of several books including Tactical Trident: The Rifkind Doctrine and the Third WorldChomsky's PoliticsWar Plan Iraq: 10 Reasons Against War with Iraq and 7/7: The London Bombings, Islam and the Iraq War, published in 2006.

Milan Rai

I am a proud NUJ member and I edit Peace News, which has been going since 1936, standing up for nonviolence and for nonviolent movements for social change. 

My topic is how nuclear weapons actually function in British foreign policy - how they are used

The common picture of British nuclear weapons is that they are there to prevent the UK coming under nuclear attack. This is a propaganda construction, designed to distract us from some ugly realities of our nuclear history and of British nuclear doctrine past and present. 

There's a parallel history in the US summed up well by Daniel Ellsberg, who was a nuclear war planner inside the Pentagon at the highest levels, before he became the whistleblower who leaked the Pentagon Papers - documenting the secret history of the Vietnam war. Ellsberg wrote in 1981 that again and again US nuclear weapons have been used for quite different purposes, in the precise way that a gun is used, when you point it at someone's head in a direct confrontation. Generally these uses are kept secret from the US public, 

I argue that British nuclear weapons have not just been about "defending the British homeland". They are being used right around the world. They have been aimed at non-nuclear weapon states, as well as at nuclear-armed enemies.

British nuclear policy has been about nuclear intimidation and coercion - as well as threatening retaliation against nuclear attack. Britain, in my view, has used its nuclear weapons to threaten other countries during direct confrontations in the sense that Ellsberg described, as well as in other ways.

I would argue that this policy of nuclear bullying is deeply embedded in British military planning and policy. I'll take the example of Iraq. We're coming up to the 20th anniversary of the war. 

US President George W. Bush signalled that there was going to be a war against Iraq in his State of the Union address in January 2002, and in the "Axis of Evil" speech a couple of months later. The following on-the-record statements were made by the British Defence Secretary Jeff Hoon, who appeared in front of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee on 20 March 2002. He was asked by a Labour member of the Select Committee, Jim Knight, whether states such as, let us say, Iraq would be deterred by our deterrent from using weapons of mass destruction against our forces in the field. That is, against UK forces that were about to invade Iraq. 

Hoon said of countries such as Iraq: they can be absolutely confident that in the right conditions we would be willing to use our nuclear weapons. A few days later Hoon appeared on ITV's Jonathan Dimbleby show and insisted that the government reserved the right to use nuclear weapons if Britain or British troops were threatened by chemical or biological weapons. 

You can read the remarks to the Commons Defence Select Committee in Hansard online. For Hoon's remarks on TV my source is an article in the Guardian by Richard Norton Taylor.

The month after that, on 29 April, Hoon was in a debate in Parliament and was pressed about his recent comments concerning the possible use of nuclear weapons against Iraq by a couple of Labour MPs. He said that ultimately, and in conditions of extreme self-defence, nuclear weapons would have to be used. He was pressed: What do you mean by "extreme self-defence"? 

He didn't clarify. He said it was important to point out that the government has nuclear weapons available to it and that "in certain specified conditions to which I have referred, we would be prepared to use them". He didn't actually explain what those conditions were; but they were indicated by his earlier evidence and appearance on TV. 

In June, Guardian columnist Hugo Young wrote one of the very few mainstream media comments on these very public nuclear threats, titled "Hoon's talk of pre-emptive strikes could be catastrophic" and with the standfirst "the defence secretary's defiance makes nuclear war more likely". Young went through the various nuclear threats that Jeff Hoon had been making that year. 

Hugo Young was a mainstream journalist who was willing to refer in print to and comment on British nuclear threats. In the run-up to the 1991 war on Iraq, he had written about something about the British threats. On 13 November 1990 he reported that he had heard a minister say that a prolonged tank war might have to be ended by a Western attack with tactical nukes. 

There are many other examples of nuclear threats against Iraq in 1990 and 1991. I don't have time to go into them. These were nuclear threats against a non-nuclear-weapons state. They were not aimed at deterring an invasion of, or nuclear attack on, the British homeland. They were threats made to protect British troops on a military expedition to a resource-rich area. 

There are other examples of nuclear threats being made against non-nuclear-weapon states, including Indonesia in the mid 1960s which was connected to British nuclear doctrine from beginning of Britain's nuclear history. 

Later this year will mark the 30th anniversary of a speech by Malcolm Rifkind, then Tory defence secretary who said it was important for the credibility of our deterrent, that the United Kingdom should possess the capability to undertake a more limited nuclear strike in order to induce a political decision to halt aggression, by delivering an unmistakable message of our willingness to defend our vital interests to the utmost. It became clear from briefings that Rifkind was talking about threatening to fire a single Trident missile, carrying a single low-yield, Hiroshima-scale, warhead to deliver an unmistakable message of our willingness to defend our vital interests, not just the British homeland, but our vital interests around the world, to the utmost. 

Janet Fenton

Janet Fenton

Janet Fenton then spoke. She is director of Words and Action for Peace. Her CV can be found here.

Janet Fenton

I wanted to acknowledge the significance of opening this meeting in the way that we did with Kyoko's very powerful reminder of the reality of what happened in Hiroshima which is why many of us got engaged. 

I'm 75. I was first convinced of the need for nuclear disarmament when I read Hiroshima, John Hersey's account of what happened there. John Hersey was a journalist and I was thinking about the importance of your role as journalists in communicating these very significant messages. 

I started out as a nuclear disarmament campaigner and other aspects to the thing soon fell into place for me: the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) is a very important strand. I was reminded today when our Scottish First Minister [Nicola Sturgeon] stood down - that she joined CND before she joined the Scottish National Party.

When I went to Geneva in 2011 to speak for WILPF at a side event at a Non-Proliferation Treaty preparatory conference, one of the people I was staying with showed me pictures of the mission in Geneva that was a home for WILPF. The image that struck me was of a bunch of women with prams with their children, protesting outside the very room at the UN in Geneva where we were holding the meeting. The caption of the picture was: "we have had enough" which was written on the banners these women were carrying. This protest was in relation to atomic testing by France in 1962. And you think, well, if they had had enough then where are we? Why are we still doing this? 

It's very easy to imagine that somehow something was missed in history and we got it wrong. But in fact, something was missed, and it was ignored, which is a much more dangerous and wrong-headed situation. 

WILPF was founded at the beginning of the First World War. It grew out of the women's suffrage movement, who wanted the vote in order to stop the whole notion of war as a means of attempting to resolve transnational or international differences, ideological differences, or attitudes towards resources; they were absolutely right. They were absolutely on the button at that time - and that is that still the struggle that we're engaged in. 

I am aware that those women with their prams in Geneva, were totally aware of risk. 

Risk has two dimensions to it: one is the probability of the thing happening; and the other is the severity of what will take place. So when you're talking about risk, you need to constantly look at what makes it acceptable to take a particular risk. One of the things that was very forceful in gaining the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons [which entered into force on 22 January 2021] was looking at the reality of the humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons. As soon as you do that, it becomes very apparent that is a risk that should never be taken. 

There's a huge amount of resources available to journalists to really explore that, if they're willing to open their minds to it. In addition to what parliamentarians are saying, there's the history of the research that's been done on risk - such as Patricia Lewis' papers for Chatham House. 

In Scotland, we've been looking at the risk that that attaches to the nuclear convoys that are tracked, taking warheads between Faslane and Coulport on the Clyde, and to Burghfield in Berkshire in England. The risk that's attached to that is unexamined, even in Scotland by our Scottish Government, which has responsibility under the Civil Contingencies Act for protecting people in the event of something terrible happening. 

I cannot imagine that there are many things more terrible than a nuclear accident. And yet, the risk that that brings is assessed by the Ministry of Defence, it's not realistic. So please, please take advantage of the work that's been done on that. There's also a report from Nukewatch UK

Dr Philip Webber

Dr Philip Webber

Our next speaker was Dr Phil Webber: chair of Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR) since it was formed in 1992. His CV can be found here.

Dr Philip Webber

I grew up during the Cold War, starting off thinking that deterrence was quite a good idea. However, once I became aware of the reality of nuclear conflict and what that would mean, I came to the conclusion that nuclear weapons were pretty much unusable in reality: the idea of nuclear deterrence is a myth, they are supposed to keeps us safe but they don't. 

If you think of the firebombing of Tokyo or Dresden, those horrific, apocalyptic scenes of people dying in cellars due to the oxygen was taken out of the air. War is hellish: nuclear war is concentrated hell and threatening it makes us all more unsafe. [At this point Phil started to speak to a slide presentation which is available on the SGR website.]

Just recently, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists panel decided that 2023 is the most dangerous moment in humanity's history. They a"">set their nuclear clock or "doomsday clock" to 90 seconds to midnight, which is the worst it's ever been. They gave the following reason: a heightened risk of nuclear war; the growing climate emergency; and crumbling political systems. 

One reason is [also] a mainstream media riven with dangerous and deliberate misinformation. I think of Steve Bannon's mission to "flood the zone with shit" [to reach his goal of undermining the very idea that there are true reports]. 

Continued destruction in the natural world creates the ideal conditions for new, dangerous viruses and other pathogens such as Covid-19 and bird flu. At the same time, we're exceeding planetary survival boundaries. And we have the technical ability to create incredibly lethal pathogens.

I would concur with previous speakers' excellent presentations that nuclear weapons create damage just by existing. The war in Ukraine is an example of that. 

We've had a serious nuclear near-miss every three years - occasions when people have nearly fired nuclear weapons. The only reason it hasn't happened is because people disobeyed their orders. In one case it was a Russian submarine commander; in another, a Russian colonel. We have avoided nuclear holocaust by luck, I would say, for the last 70 years.

Nuclear policy debate is filled with misleading language, which I call Newspeak: such as a "minimum nuclear deterrent" or a "nuclear umbrella". It's not an umbrella: I think it would be better to say we have an unstoppable mega-death threat. 

Nuclear deterrence is a misleading and slippery concept. You can't deter accidents, equipment failure, or false alarms. Having nuclear weapons leads to a false sense of security, it means you under-fund real defences. 

In every scenario, where people do a simulation of a nuclear conflict, everybody loses. That's why both [Russian leader] Putin and [US leader] Biden, and their predecessors have all said that nuclear war cannot be won and it must never be fought. 

Nuclear weapons are very dangerous - [even] when you don't use them. But, in a sense, they're being used all the time. 

The Hiroshima weapon was, by today's standards, tiny, at about 15 kilotons. Modern weapons are 10 to 20 times larger. There are more up-to-date studies about what would happen to a modern city and you're talking about terrible, immediate deaths and injuries, - the equivalent of shelling a place for months and months. [A nuclear explosion would] create a situation like that of many towns in Afghanistan, Syria and Libya, for example - but it would do so in a few seconds. There would be no possibility of humanitarian response. Medical facilities would be completely overwhelmed. 

We've seen just now with the earthquake in Turkey, that medical facilities can't cope with that. One nuclear weapon could create more casualties than that in a few seconds and then on top of that, you've got radiation. 

If you consider a "regional war": scientists have looked at the possibility of a conflict between India and Pakistan using about 100 "small" Hiroshima-sized weapons. The results are horrific. Hundreds of millions would be killed immediately and long-term impacts would include a 10-year "nuclear winter", leaving two billion people at risk of starvation across the world. 

Back in 1983, people were starting to think that nuclear weapons could cause such a nuclear winter. More recent, more accurate climate models have confirmed that - and it's worse than we thought. Regional nuclear war would affect the whole world, not just the region - so don't think you can have a war somewhere else and it doesn't bother you. 

And then if you're talking a global nuclear war... the USA and Russia have 2000 to 4000 warheads ready to fire in minutes. They are set up practically to "launch on warning". You'd be talking of hundreds of millions to over a billion people killed - and radioactive fallout over huge areas, especially if nuclear reactors were damaged. 

You'd see much worse, longer-term nuclear winter and destruction of the ozone layer; the death of many species, possibly including humanity, and our so-called civilisation certainly at risk. 

Nuclear winter is extreme climate change caused by nuclear weapons because the fires they create inject smoke much higher into the atmosphere than, say, fire-storms ignited by conventional weapons. And that causes extreme cooling due to soot at high altitudes. There's very robust evidence for this, based observing the effects of many volcanic eruptions, for example, which throw large amounts of soot into the air. 

One example was the Krakatoa eruption [in 1883], which meant there weren't any summers for the next year or two across the northern hemisphere. Nuclear winter could be equivalent to a sudden an ice age lasting 10 years at least. The shocking thing is that one Trident submarine firing its warheads at major cities [could do this]. 

Cities are Trident's intended target. The reality is - whatever we're told - that they've always been designed to obliterate Moscow, Leningrad, and other big cities in Russia, plus a few military targets. Cities are military targets, because that's where a lot of ground controllers are. 

So if you think you're defending yourself with nuclear weapons, they're actually suicidal. Using them is ecocide. 

One Trident submarine contains 40 of these warheads, at least. Each one has the explosive power of 100 kilotons [100,000 tonnes of TNT explosive]. That's eight times the Hiroshima bomb, each. The total explosive power is greater than that delivered in the six years of World War Two, including the two weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

The fact is, though, that most countries don't want nuclear weapons and some have got rid of them - notably South Africa and New Zealand.

Current UK military policy is pretty much wedded to nuclear weapons as a symbol of power. That means in fact that we don't have defences that we could use. For example, we can see that in Ukraine right now that the defences that work are people on the ground and armies defending themselves: threats of nuclear use don't help anywhere and don't go anywhere.

Elin Doyle

Elin Doyle

The next speaker was Elin Doyle, a playwright, actor and comedian whose play Guinea Pigs premiered in London last year and is due to go on tour soon.

Elin Doyle

I'd very much echo what Janet said about how incredibly moving and powerful Kyoko's testimony was: it really is a reminder of the individual human consequences [of nuclear weapons]. 

I guess that was the reason also why I wrote Guinea Pigs. In the mid 1950s, my mum was a teenage girl, just having left school with a couple of O-levels. She lived in Reading, she came from quite a humble working-class background, and she was very keen on science. She got a job with a firm near Aldermaston - until she discovered that over the fence from that firm was AWRE, the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment. AWRE was paying more - and also offering night classes, and she wanted to continue her studies. 

So her best option as a teenage girl back then was to get a job where you could take night classes. So and found herself as a 17-year-old working as a lab technician on the production of the atomic bomb. 

She tells a story about her job working to calculate the critical mass of uranium. They would set up the experiment and watch two uranium components approach each other and record measurements. She said there was one occasion where she was saying to her boss, that the measurements were still climbing - and they all went off for lunch and came back to find that actually, they'd just missed what could have been quite a serious nuclear disaster. Her boss was very quickly sidelined elsewhere. 

That job is where she met the love of her life, a 19-year-old from a similar background, a young lad who was interested in science. He was working in the detonation side of things. That was my dad and they met in an evening class, studying for Physics A-level exams. 

As part of his National Service my dad was given the opportunity to go as a civilian to work as a technician on the nuclear tests at Christmas Island in 1957. He witnessed the explosion of "Grapple X" on 8 November 1957, part of the Operation Grapple series of tests. It was the first UK hydrogen bomb explosion. 

To give you an idea of size, the Grapple X explosion was 104 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. He stood there with no protection whatsoever, along with roughly 22,000 British young men, mostly sent as part of their National Service. So the average age would have been about 18 or 19. A lot of them didn't have much choice, nor even know what they were going for. Of the 20,000 I believe 3000 or 4000 are still alive. 

What a lot of them discovered in the intervening years was, as you might expect, health issues related to having been exposed to radiation - also in their descendants. We've been affected as a family. In the 1980s my dad was very much involved in the early campaign for justice and recognition. He did so as part of the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association (BNTVA ) that was set up by a very feisty, admirable man called Ken McGinley, who's now an equally feisty 86-year-old, from Johnstone near Paisley. 

They mobilised for compensation and recognition from the British government. That's still ongoing, because the UK is the only nuclear nation that still refuses to acknowledge any correlation between having been at the nuclear tests and the health impact on the families and their descendants. 

I grew up in the 1980s and this experience hugely influenced who I am. I wanted to write Guinea Pigs because although it's not directly about my family, it is very much rooted in in my family's experience. I wanted to do it against the backdrop of the 1980s, when it felt like people were mobilising, and to include things like the fight against Apartheid in South Africa, which was seen in times gone by seen as quite niche. Now we would all absolutely agree that Apartheid was a terrible thing and had to be ended. 

I wanted to show how attitudes change. Sometimes, actually, the people who are seen as being a little bit outside of the mainstream are the people who have the right message. The idea of the play centres around a young girl called Coral, and her dad, a nuclear test veteran. And they are like two peas in a pod; but the one thing that they can't agree on is Hiroshima and the need for nuclear weapons. Sparks fly. 

My hope, then, is that we'll be able to tour it next year. We opened in London and it was really well received by the people that saw it. It was lovely that we had people from all sides of the nuclear community and with different interests. 

We had some fantastic women who were protesters at Greenham Common come and see the show and be really supportive. In the same audience we had people who were nuclear test veterans and their descendants. It was great to have that debate, as well as people who didn't know anything about the story at all. 

I think it's absolutely appalling that we are still waiting for recognition and an apology, when other nations have done that, to a degree even including Russia.

Ben Donaldson

Ben Donaldson

The final speaker was Ben Donaldson, Head of Campaigns at the United Nations Association UK in 2011. His CV can be found here.

Ben Donaldson

I feel there's already been such a rich debate on this issue tonight and it reminds me how many different angles there are and how equally valid they are. I wanted to use my slot to highlight a trend which isn't getting much pickup in the UK mainstream media and also to debunk a notion that some of the speakers before me have touched on - the notion that the UK's nuclear weapons do not have any victims associated with them. 

For a long time, the UK has gotten away with very little media scrutiny of its nuclear weapons. There's this accepted narrative that they "keep us safe"; they're prestigious, they make us a respected country and that they're a deterrent - and as long as we don't fire them, they're not doing anyone any harm. 

There's this hyper-masculine fetishisation of [nuclear weapons]. Would a responsible Prime Minister be willing to press the red button? This question always rears its ugly head during Prime Ministerial hustings debates and it's a tragedy that this is what the UK debate on nuclear weapons has been reduced to. 

While the UK media treatment of the UK's nuclear weapons seems to be locked in a kind of stasis, opposition to any state owning a nuclear weapon is rising - as are the risks of nuclear weapons being used. Ban Ki Moon, the then Secretary General of the United Nations, said just over 10 years ago that the world is over-armed and peace is under-funded. Then global military spending was just over 1 trillion dollars per year then; ten years on it has more than doubled to well over 2 trillion. We know from history that this story does not end well. 

All countries with nuclear weapons are currently modernising and upgrading their weapons. In the UK, a conservative estimate of how much this is going to cost the taxpayer is £179 billion over the next 30 years. A recent parliamentary committee report, published before the Ukraine war, confirmed what analysts across the world have been saying: that nuclear risks are rising. 

As a response to this disturbing direction of travel, there's a huge global effort to counter this trend. This is the bit that, with one or two exceptions, is getting almost no pick-up by the UK media: the fact that 139 countries - 70 per cent of the states in the world - support the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. 

These countries all believed that Russia's illegal invasion of Ukraine makes the Treaty even more important and means that a renewed effort for nuclear disarmament is something we should work on far more urgently. The UN Secretary General has also stated something similar to this - but media organisations, if they do report on it at all, and they tend not to, tend to dismiss it and pick easy targets like civil society, individual activists - often individual female activists - to label them as peaceniks, or even apologists for Russia or Putin. They ignore the wealth of global support for this powerful Treaty and the wealth of support from nations allied to the UK, such as Austria and Ireland, and many other powerful countries in the world, including for example Mexico, Nigeria, New Zealand and South Africa: they all support this Treaty. 

Instead of going to these countries and listening to statements by New Zealand's Prime Minister or Austria's Foreign Secretary about why disarmament is so important in the context of Ukraine, reports tend to pick on civil society activists. It's also worth pointing out that from a pragmatic perspective, it's often countries that the UK is trying to do post-Brexit trade deals with, such as New Zealand and Mexico, that are supportive of this Treaty. That puts the UK in a certain tension with them.

Then there's a large part of the nuclear ban story, which is actually happening outside the national level. We've already heard from Janet about what's going on in Scotland, and how the Scottish First Minister and government is unambiguously committed to supporting the nuclear ban, and hopes to be in a position to curtail all involvement in nuclear weapons policy in the future. 

There's also something happening in terms of financial divestment: major international banks and financial institutions across the world are divesting from nuclear weapons. I think 58 major financial institutions are doing so.

There are also cities across Britain, including Manchester, Edinburgh, Oxford, Brighton, Norwich and Leeds, that have signed up to the Treaty and are committed to advocating that the national government join it. 

What's the UK government's reaction been? When the nuclear ban was being negotiated in New York and when the Pope and Hiroshima survivors were gathering in a room in New York to discuss how to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons, a UK diplomat wheeled a lectern up outside the negotiating room, stood next to Donald Trump's diplomat Nikki Haley, and branded everyone going into that room as "misguided". 

This looks incredibly petulant, and uncompassionate, and juvenile. It was an international embarrassment to our country - one that was not widely picked up by the UK press. Since then the UK has been releasing statements, including joint statements with Russia and China, as well as with France and USA, about how the rest of the world is so misguided in their views about nuclear weapons, and how we will never join this treaty. It's been dismissive of civil society, and really anyone that supports the treaty. 

The last thing I want to mention is the sort of colonial dynamic that this whole issue brings up. We've just heard about some of the things that went on, on Christmas Island, where the UK tested a lot of its own nuclear weapons, where it developed thermonuclear bombs. What is now a sovereign country [was bombed] nine times between 1957 and 1958 while it was on the UK colonial control. 

It's always important to ground discussions on this in humanity and the humanitarian impact - the real-life consequences. I'm so grateful to Kyoko Gibson for bringing us together, and really thinking about how this affects human beings - because first and foremost, these are weapons that cause harm. They're not political tools.

There were 500 people living on Christmas Island who all received very little protection during the nuclear weapons tests. Of these islanders I think there are about 48 first-generation survivors and a further 800 children and grandchildren of the survivors. Many have health problems consistent with radiation effects: blindness, hearing problems, cancers, heart disease, soft bones, reproductive difficulties... the list goes on. This is a massively under-studied group with and under-assessed needs. Some of the islanders were taken offshore during tests, but not always. One islander that I spoke to, who now lives in the UK, was too young to remember the test itself - but recounted what her older sister experienced. She said it was a very scary time. During those tests they were either taken on board a ship, and put in the bowels of the ship, or they were put on a tennis court and covered with a tarpaulin. 

"My sister had a baby son," she said: "And when the Bomb exploded, the light was so bright, she could see all the bones in her baby's body as she held him. When she looked at the other people sitting next to her, they all looked like skeletons. My sister didn't live long. She died in her mid 40s, her husband died in his 50s. And my nephew died in his 40s. We wonder why my sister and her family died so young." 

Work on victim assistance and environmental remediation is a major part of the nuclear ban treaty. Again, UK diplomats boycott all these meetings, and they get a very easy ride for doing so. 

So the last thing I want to say is that there are two very specific opportunities for the UK media to scrutinise the UK government on this issue that will come up over the next couple of years. These will be key moments for mass media engagements. 

The first is a scientifically comprehensive assessment of the environmental damage and the health effects of the UK nuclear tests. The UK will be asked to participate in this because of course, it holds classified and privileged information as to what went on. So it's a crucial component in this assessment. If the UK refuses to participate, and every indication is that it will, of course, that's something the government should be called out for. 

The second thing is that there'll be a trust fund set up for states to pay into in order to facilitate this programme of work. If the UK refuses - and it has said that it will refuse to engage in this process - that's another opportunity for media engagement. Thank you.

After the panel discussion, the salon was opened up to questions with branch members and committee members asking very relevant questions about the potential use of nuclear weapons in the war in Ukraine and the links between nuclear weapons and nuclear power. The discussion can be viewed on the Branch Youtube channel. Please subscribe to catch up and view more events like this in the future.