Where Are the World's Nuclear Weapons?

Feb 16, 2009
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Where Are the World's Nuclear Weapons? - MSN Encarta

Tamim Ansary (Image credit: Meredith Heuer)
Where Are the World's Nuclear Weapons?
by Tamim Ansary

Recently someone asked me which countries have nuclear bombs, and how many they all have.

I was surprised to realize I didn't know. And yet I've spent most of my life actively worried about powerful states with big bombs. I was born three years after the nuclear bomb was first detonated and four years before the first thermonuclear bomb was perfected. By the time I could read, I already knew the world could end at any moment. People my age are aptly called boomers; the Armageddon Generation would fit too.

We saw nuclear Armageddon as a possibility based on two facts:

The world was divided into two hostile camps
Each side possessed enough nuclear bombs to destroy life on Earth

Once the nuclear exchange started, we were given to understand, we'd all be dead in about an hour. Even in the old days, I didn't know exactly how many bombs anyone had--just that it was some multiple of enough-to-kill-everyone. What else mattered?

The forgotten fear

Today, terrorism seems to occupy the slot that nuclear Armageddon once held in our public psyche. Yet aren't the bombs still around? When the Soviet Union broke into 15 independent countries, did its arsenal vanish? Did the nuclear powers in other parts of the world stop building new weapons? What about that rumor about South Africa ...? And didn't North Korea ...? And isn't ...? Yikes!

So which countries still have nuclear weapons?

Good question.

Dug up the answer

According to information compiled by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, an organization devoted to monitoring the status of the nuclear threat worldwide, nine countries had nukes by April 2004. The nine countries are listed below. Each figure includes the approximate number of both tactical and strategic bombs (nuclear and thermonuclear, or "big" and "really humongous").



United States










United Kingdom






North Korea***




Asterisks explained

* Israel has a policy called "nuclear opacity" or "nuclear ambiguity," which consists of refusing to confirm or deny that it has nuclear weapons at all. In 1986, however, whistle-blower Mordechai Vanunu, an Israeli nuclear weapons worker, published pictures of nuclear weapons facilities in Israel. Today, experts agree that Israel has between 100 and 300 warheads (and Israel doesn't deny it).

** India and Pakistan both admit (boast?) that they have weapons, but are cagey about how many. Estimates for India run from 40 to 90 and for Pakistan from 30 to 50.

*** North Korea is anybody's guess. At the end of 2003, U.S. intelligence experts were surmising it had three bombs, but four months later they tentatively raised their estimate to eight. They also said North Korea is geared up to build about six bombs a year from here on out.

In short, there are now some 20,000 fully operational nukes pointed at someone in this world.

The wannabes

Meanwhile, a second tier of nations loiters outside the clubhouse door, looking for ways to break in. I count seven of these Nuclear Weapons State Wannabes, based on the following criteria:

They possess nuclear reactors--and might therefore produce their own highly enriched uranium or plutonium, the indispensable ingredients of nuclear bombs
They have scientists and engineers with sufficient know-how to build bombs
They have missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads
They have indicated a hankering for nuclear weapons
The seven wannabes are: Egypt, Libya, Syria, South Korea, Taiwan, Iran, and Serbia and Montenegro.

So why aren't we more worried?
Worth a Click

Web site of the Nuclear Threat Initiative
Interactive map showing which countries have nukes, how many, and what their programs are for the future
CNN's interactive site about the current status of nuclear arsenals worldwide
Information on the ebb and flow of nuclear testing over the years

Good news/bad news

No one wants to say it for fear of jinxing the progress, and I'll deny I ever said it myself a few paragraphs from now, but the last 12 years have seen some actual good news on the nuke front. Check it out:

The world total has plummeted! The Soviet arsenal alone peaked at 39,197 in 1985--Russia now has about 8,400. The United States is also way down from its peak weapons stockpile--in 1975 it had a total of 26,675; now it has 10,455.
The Soviet arsenal remains in the hands of a single state. The breakup of the Soviet empire could have given birth to 14 new nuclear powers: a disaster! Instead, all the other Soviet republics opted to cede their bombs and missiles to Russia. Phew! (One hair trigger is presumably safer than 15.)
The biggest stockpiles are still shrinking. Russia and America have agreed to reduce their strategic (thermonuclear a.k.a. really humongous) bombs to a maximum of 2,200 each by the year 2012. (Russia currently has about 5,000 and the United States about 7,000.)
Russia will probably make its reductions. That's because Russia no longer has any use for its nuclear bombs. War with America is off the table for this ramshackle loser of the Cold War, so the bombs are just an expensive burden now. They'd be gone already if getting rid of them didn't cost money too.
Nuclear testing is way down. If you average it out, a nuclear bomb went off every 9 days for 50 years (1945-1995). In the last 8 years, it's dropped to one every 380 days. That's mostly because of the 1996 treaty that prohibits nuclear explosions anywhere, period. So far, 164 countries have signed the treaty and 84 have ratified it. (Sadly, the United States is not one of the latter.)
One country has dropped out of the nuclear club. South Africa had nuclear bombs but dismantled them and shut down its nuclear weapons program--proving that total disarmament can be done.

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Mutually assured destruction

Nuclear arsenals grew like cancers during the Cold War because the world was divided into two hostile camps, both of which pursued a policy of mutually assured destruction--MAD for short. Each side knew that it would seal its own doom if it attacked the other. During the Cold War this strategy led to a certain stability.

Now there is only one superpower. But instead of a single fault line dividing the world, there are cracks, cracks, everywhere.

And what d'ya know: The dynamics that provoked a global divide during the Cold War now engender local tensions along the many smaller fissures. But with so many parties interlinked and interlocked, mutually assured destruction may no longer be a formula for stability.

Proliferation chains

China wanted a bomb because it stopped trusting the Soviet Union.

Then India wanted a bomb because it had bad blood with China.

Then Pakistan wanted a bomb because it had bad blood with India.

Meanwhile, in the Middle East, Israel built nuclear weapons for protection against the Muslim states.

Egypt, Syria, Libya, Iran, and Iraq then decided they needed the security of mutually assured destruction vis-a-vis Israel.

And let's not forget North Korea versus everybody.

Or Taiwan versus China. Or the government of the Philippines versus the insurgents of Mindanao.

You can keep going like this for a long time. The harder you look, the more pairs of (ever-smaller) opposing parties pop into view throughout the world, each a potential Petri dish for mad thinking.

Want more?

The United States may soon begin building a new generation of nuclear bombs called bunker busters. Designed to destroy concrete bunkers buried deep inside the earth, they may also be "small enough" for actual use in battle.

In preparation, Congress has lifted America's self-imposed moratorium on testing and Nevada nuclear testing sites have been revamped so they will be ready for use in 18 rather than 36 months.

Meanwhile, shadowy sub-state groups we call terrorist organizations are interested in small nuclear weapons too. This makes the collapse of the Soviet Union a problem after all, for in addition to the bombs already deployed, Russia has enough highly enriched uranium and plutonium for at least 60,000 more bombs!

The thousands of scientists in charge of these lethal stockpiles work for low salaries and sometimes get no paycheck at all. And organized crime syndicates exert tremendous power in the Russian economy. Shadowy arms dealers surely see opportunities here.

The nightmare possibility we boomers grew up with--that single apocalyptic flash that ends it all--has receded dramatically, I would say. The chance that nuclear weapons will actually be used in wars to come has, however, probably increased.

If it unfolds slowly, is it still Armageddon?


well the numbers are kinda old; the new estimates for Russia and US are lower

U.S., Russia Seek to Reduce Nuclear Warheads - Political News - FOXNews.com

LONDON -- President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Wednesday announced a renewed effort to cut back their stockpiles of nuclear warheads, after their first face-to-face meeting ahead of the G20 economic meetings.

Obama, whose administration is attempting to "reset" relations with Russia, also accepted an invitation to visit Moscow in July.

"We, the leaders of Russia and the United States, are ready to move beyond Cold War mentalities and chart a fresh start in relations between our two countries," the two leaders said in a joint statement released by the White House. Obama was also meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao Wednesday.

The U.S. and Russia announced a "comprehensive, legally binding" effort to cut the number of stockpiled nuclear warheads and warhead delivery systems under the Reagan-initiated START Treaty framework.

START stands for Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and was signed on July 31, 1991, five months before the collapse of the former Soviet Union. Former President Reagan began the process in 1982.

The treaty capped nuclear warheads at 6,000 for each nation and limited to 1,600 the number of delivery systems required to use nuclear warheads as offensive weapons. The covered delivery systems were Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched warheads, and long-range bombers. The treaty became fully implemented in 2001. It reduced warheads by 80 percent from pre-START totals. The treaty is set to expire on Dec. 5.

Obama and Medvedev pledged to negotiate a new warhead and delivery system reduction before the treaty expires. Current estimates place the number of warheads at roughly 4,100 active warheads and about 5,600 total for the U.S. and roughly 4,100 for Russia.

The goal for both countries is to reduce stockpiles of warheads to no more than 1,500 per side.

A joint statement said the agreement would "mutually enhance the security" of both countries and would include "verification measures."

The new, or renewed, START talks could soften or possibly forestall movements Medvedev announced March 17 to undertake a "large scale" rearmament of Russian military might -- including nuclear warheads and delivery systems.

"This looks like a small achievement," a senior Obama official said. "But I assure you, getting the words right, ensuring this was a verifiable treaty covering warheads and delivery vehicles was very difficult and very important. This is the first big thing."

The U.S. made no commitments to have "defensive" systems covered by the new START talks. Russia has attacked U.S. plans to install ballistic missile defense systems in parts of Eastern Europe. That issue will be dealt with separately, officials said.

In addition to the START commitment, the U.S. and Russia released a declaration on future agenda items including non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and their underlying technology; Afghanistan; Iran; global trade and WTO compliance; and, importantly, democracy and the rule of law in Russia.

The new Russian push for a global reserve currency to supplant the dollar is not part of the future agenda because, as one official said, "it came up pretty late in the preparations and we're not interested in it."

Officials said it reflected Obama's and Medvedev's realistic appraisal of the danger of diplomatic drift and intensive pre-diplomacy to make the first face-to-face encounter more than a set of cosmetically pleasing handshakes for the cameras.

"This is very comprehensive as far as the agenda is concerned," one official said. "This is not just declaratory language. This will not be a get-to-know-you meeting. It won't be just pleasantries."

The new Obama team takes the view that it was difficult for the two countries six months ago to even agree on which issues divided them and which to try to negotiate and which to set aside for a later day.

"But we have no illusions about it being easy," the official said. "This doesn't mean suddenly everything falls into line. There will still be a lot of work."

Obama and Medvedev have talked twice by phone, and their conversations laid the groundwork for the diplomacy leading up to the START moves and the bilateral agreement on future negotiating issues. The conversations were followed up by a letter from Obama to Medvedev promising serious U.S. engagement on a variety of issues. Further, Russia presented its issues agenda in a private communication delivered by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in early March.

"They handed over an agenda, they engaged seriously," the official said. "We are cautiously optimistic we are off to a good start and we can, in fact, reset this relationship."


United States of Hindu Empire
May 29, 2009
Is America is really interested in nuclear non proliferation? when Russia has officially said that only Pakistani nuclear acquisition is threat to world peace, why Obama, Clinton and party is be fooling Indians and preaching non proliferation and to trust USA? USA has forged a monster named Pakistan with a potential to destroy India. what your opinion on that?
Andrew Cockburn: How the U.S. Has Secretly Backed Pakistan's Nuclear Program From Day One

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