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illustration by Hanna Barczyk

In January, five of the world’s nuclear-armed states – China, Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom and France – released a rare joint statement affirming the principle “that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Those words repeat a famous joint statement made by Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan in Geneva in 1985, as the two world leaders embarked on a historic series of arms-control talks.

The noble words from the five countries do not disguise the fact that the world has kind of gone to hell in a handbasket, peace-wise. The arms agreements of past decades did succeed in reducing nuclear stockpiles for a while, but those agreements are either stagnant or, worse, abandoned. China, Russia and the U.S. are in the midst of modernizing their nuclear arsenals and developing new weapons.

Russia may have signed onto that statement, but what good is a piece of paper when its authoritarian leader has invaded Ukraine, and made not-so-oblique threats to use the weapons that allegedly must never be used? In the wake of his invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has put the country’s nuclear forces on high alert (Russia’s nuclear stockpile consists of more than 4,000 weapons, of which nearly 1,600 are deployed, or ready to go.) Even more alarming, Russian military strategy since 2000 has included the possibility of a limited nuclear strike if the country felt its existence was threatened.

Would Mr. Putin take such a drastic, planet-altering step? Russia expert Fiona Hill thinks that he would, pointing to the country’s transgressive use of banned weapons like chemical agents: “If anybody thinks that Putin wouldn’t use something that he’s got that is unusual and cruel, think again,” she told Politico. Other researchers point to the fact that a nuclear exchange could happen by accident, or as the unexpected result of an escalation in conventional warfare.

The point is, we don’t know. We can’t know. It’s uncharted territory, outside of two terrible incidents in 1945 and a vast number of theoretical exercises. And that’s the core of the problem: It is lunacy that the planet’s future rests on the murky psychology of a handful of men. The American President, for example, has sole launch authority for his country’s nuclear weapons. He may consult advisers, but he does not have to.

You may be wondering at this point how you’re ever going to sleep again. The good news is that you’re not alone. The terror that plagued children of the Cold War is back with a vengeance. People joke about finding iodine pills to survive the fallout. Nukemap, which demonstrates the effects on your city if it’s hit, is dealing with record traffic. The Daily Telegraph asked “How many nuclear bunkers are there in Britain, and who would get in?” and Business Insider published a guide to surviving a nuclear strike that included the profoundly useful advice, “avert your eyes and shield your face.”

Now, I’m not Marie Curie, but I’m pretty sure that throwing your hands over your eyes is not really going to help if that multimegaton bomb detonates above your city. And isn’t that the problem, anyway? We’ve looked away for far too long. For the past 40 years, since the height of the anti-nuclear movement in the 1980s, we’ve let the threat of nuclear weapons fade from our consciousness. Out of sight, out of mind.

But that may be changing. There’s a new sense of urgency around these weapons and the undemocratic decision-making around their use. “At least now we’re talking about it again,” said Patricia Lewis, director of the International Security Program at Chatham House, during a Twitter Spaces discussion this week about nuclear threats. “It’s a silver lining.” The experts in the chat also talked about the need for new thinking about deterrence, and a recognition that threats are vastly different now than they were during the Cold War.

Perhaps we will be moved, once again, to debate why we have these weapons, and why we’re kept in the dark about how they might be used. I hope so. The best way to deal with nuclear anxiety would be to have no nukes to be anxious about. Unfortunately, there’s a more dangerous path ahead as well: There are military and political leaders around the world using this critical moment to call for more weapons buildup, not less.

The former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, for example, has suggested that Japan should be open to nuclear sharing, that is, hosting U.S. weapons in its territory.

This was a shocking statement coming from the former leader of a country once devastated by nuclear weapons. In response, the Japanese-Canadian disarmament activist Setsuko Thurlow, who survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, sent a letter to the current Japanese prime minister, Fumio Kishida.

“It is of course understandable that in the face of ongoing war, more people will feel uncertain about their lives and the security of their country,” Ms. Thurlow wrote. “However, what is needed in such a time is not bringing in nuclear weapons, nor preparing for war. Now is the time to strengthen international law prohibiting nuclear weapons, and to abolish them.”

Ms. Thurlow was joined by other hibakusha, the survivors of the atomic bombings, expressing their fears about the increasing threat posed by nuclear weapons. You can imagine their weariness: After almost 80 years, do they still have to continue this fight? The least we can do is wake up and continue the struggle on their behalf.

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