The world is only “one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation”.

That was the stark warning of UN Secretary-General António Guterres at a global meeting Monday on nuclear weapons.

Officials highlighted the geopolitical risks of Russia’s war in Ukraine and simmering tensions in Asia and the Middle East – as they scrutinized a landmark 52-year-old treaty that aimed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons .

“From nuclear-simmering crises, from the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and many other factors around the world,” the UN chief told officials and diplomats at the General Assembly Hall in New York.

“Nuclear danger has not been seen since the height of the Cold War” showed the need for the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, he said.

Nearly 13,000 nuclear weapons are held in arsenals around the world, according to António Guterres. He said states “seek false security by stockpiling and spending hundreds of billions of dollars on doomsday weapons that have no place on our planet.”

Echoing his warnings, a Stockholm-based weapons research group said in June that it saw a “very worrying trend” of all nuclear-weapon states to modernize their stockpiles and that the era of post-Cold War decline in nuclear arsenals could end.

The world’s nuclear arsenal is expected to increase for the first time since the Cold War

Russia’s war in Ukraine also lays bare the risks of fighting on a battlefield dotted with nuclear sites.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Moscow of “making reckless and dangerous nuclear saber noises” and referenced Russian President Vladimir Putin’s past comments that countries interfering in Ukraine risk consequences “like you never seen them in all your history”.

In a more conciliatory message, Putin wrote to treaty members on Monday that “there can be no winners in a nuclear war and it must never be fought.”

An extension last year of the New START nuclear weapons agreement until 2026 extended the limits of the arsenals of the United States and Russia. Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, told Telegram the world was “in a different place” after President Biden called for talks on the deal on Monday.

At the UN meeting, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said the conflict in Ukraine was “so serious that the specter of a potential nuclear confrontation, or an accident, has lifted its terrifying head again”.

Rafael Grossi said security was at risk at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant – Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, which is under Russian control – and called for support for his so far unsuccessful efforts to visit the installation with a team from its UN watchdog.

What to know about Ukrainian nuclear sites and the risks Russian invasion could pose

Speakers from countries including Japan said the heightened nuclear rhetoric should not undermine the treaty’s mission.

The four-week conference devoted to reviewing its progress presents “an opportunity to define the measures that will avoid a certain disaster”, said António Guterres. He urged countries not to forget the “terrifying fires” of Hiroshima, when the United States dropped an atomic bomb in 1945 that wiped out much of the Japanese city, and Nagasaki days later – the second and last time this bomb was used in war.

The Non-Proliferation Treaty, which entered into force in 1970 and allows the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, has 191 members, more countries than any other arms control agreement.

According to its terms, the five nuclear powers – the United States, China, the Soviet Union, Great Britain and France – agreed at the time to negotiate to eventually eliminate their arsenals, while the countries without nuclear weapons pledged not to acquire them.

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