Data published by the United Nations shows that today nuclear weapons are in the hands of nine countries with the total number reaching 13,400 units (other sources state this to be 13,080). These nations are China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States.
What is a nuclear weapon?
A nuclear weapon is an explosive device that uses a nuclear reaction as its source of energy. It has far higher explosive power than traditional weapons and produces four forms of energy when it detonates: a blast wave, blinding light, heat and radiation.
A huge fireball is formed when a nuclear bomb is detonated. Everything within this fireball evaporates and rises with it, forming a mushroom-shaped cloud. Its substance cools into small particles resembling dust which can fall back to earth as fallout or be transported by the wind many kilometers away from the explosion site. Because fallout is radioactive, it can contaminate whatever it comes into contact with.
Nuclear blast simulation video
Russia and the United States have the most nuclear weapons on the planet and nearly every one of these is five times or more destructive than the bombs used by the US at the end of World War 2.
The 2011 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) established limits on how many nuclear warheads these two nations could possess. The treaty contains methods for each party to oversee and ensure adherence to the restrictions on nuclear weapons and missiles. By 2018, the two nations had fulfilled their New START requirements and the pact was extended for another five years in early 2021.
Possible US and Russian nuclear weapons locations
Source: The Conversation
Disadvantages and advantages of nuclear weapons
In a military context, the only advantage is that one nuclear missile can replace numerous conventional bombs. However, no nation possessing such weapons is willing to increase the risk of a full-scale nuclear war.
These weapons are the utmost barrier to any invasion, whether this comes from a smaller or greater force. They have the potential to wipe out entire cities and damage the opponent’s economic structure. The idea to apply new safety measures for these weapons has been discussed for some time but no serious actions have taken place.
Based on the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN):
- A single nuclear weapon can turn a whole metropolis to dust. Should there be a nuclear conflict between two major possessors of such weapons, hundreds of millions of people would lose their lives.
- Ionizing radiation from the application of nuclear weapons leads to environmental pollution and affects people exposed to it leading to acute health problems such as cancer and genetic mutations.
- One percent of the entire nuclear arsenal could destabilize the environment and lead to billions of people facing nuclear famine.
France’s tests of nuclear weapons in Algeria and its toxic consequences
- A nuclear war will lead to enforced displacement resulting in a refugee crisis unlike any other humanity has ever witnessed.
- Nuclear weapons, even if undetonated, can be the cause of massive health and environmental damage. To build these, uranium must be mined. Uranium mines are hazardous to both the employees who excavate this radioactive material and the people who live alongside the mine.
- After the end of the Cold War, many people assumed that the world would be free of nuclear weapons. However, a new threat emerged in the disarray that followed the fall of the Soviet Union, and that is nuclear terrorism. Today, there is a threat that terrorists may unleash a new level of destruction if they were to gain access to nuclear materials. It is difficult, but not impossible, to steal a nuclear weapon from a nation’s arsenal although so far none have been stolen and the majority are stored in heavily guarded military facilities.
- Nuclear weapons accidents must be considered. Throughout history, there have been several of these, from releasing bombs by mistake to fire incidents on board nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines.
Which countries have nuclear weapons?
The US possesses around 5,550 units with more than 1,300 of these being operational. It is assumed that about 50% of the 200 shorter-range weapons that the country currently has are located in five NATO nations, namely Turkey, Italy, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands.
There are 6,255 nuclear weapons in its arsenal with more than 1,400 of these ready to fire. Thankfully, the governments of the two nations (US and Russia) have agreed to renew their bilateral weapons control deal.
The UK is believed to have 225 nuclear weapons of which 120 are “operationally available” (those that are installed on their submarines or could be ready relatively quickly). All of this weaponry is sea-based.
There are roughly 290-300 nuclear weapons here with the majority being submarine-based and the remainder air-launched cruise missiles. Note that while the nation considers its approach to be solely defensive, at the same time it could strike first under “extreme circumstances of legitimate self-defense.”
Since the Cold War, the country’s experts have worked on creating more nuclear weapons and the country has kept an arsenal of around 350. China, however, does not maintain its missiles on full alert. During times of peace, most nuclear weapons are not mounted on carrying rockets. This stance is in line with China’s long-standing nuclear policy of “no first use.”
Despite signing the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 1985, the country opted to withdraw from this nearly two decades later in 2003. There has also been data regarding the country’s nuclear weapons and missile tests. It is interesting to note that North Korea has enough fissile material –the fundamental constituent of nuclear bombs – for 65 nuclear warheads according to US intelligence sources. Based on data from ICAN, there are currently 40-50 nuclear weapons stored in the country’s military facilities.
India has approximately 156 nuclear units (other sources provide a different figure of 90-100 units) and is developing more. While the nation’s nuclear program has traditionally focused on the long-simmering tensions with Pakistan, it is becoming extremely worried about Pakistan’s ties with China.
According to some estimates, the nation has around 90 of these. The calculations are mainly based on evaluations of the country’s weapon-grade plutonium and supplies of functioning nuclear-capable delivery systems.
Fig.1. Estimated nuclear warhead stockpiles, 1945 to 2022
Source: Our World in Data
Nuclear warheads are obviously some of the world’s most hazardous weapons. A single nuclear weapon could destroy an entire metropolis, potentially leading to millions of victims and causing serious damage to various ecosystems and the lives of succeeding generations.
Based on the opinions of various international organizations, approximately 13,400 nuclear weapons remain on Earth today. Between 1946 and 1999 over 2,000 nuclear tests were carried out and according to The Guardian, since 2006 North Korea has completed six nuclear tests.
Fig.2. Worldwide nuclear testing, 1945-2018
According to experts’ opinions, nuclear weapons are unlikely to be phased out until one thing occurs: mankind develops a more lethal and effective killing tool. Anything other than this scenario should almost certainly be regarded as blind optimism.