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
So which countries still have nuclear weapons?
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").
| || |
| || |
| || |
| || |
| || |
| || |
| || |
| || |
| || |
In short, there are now some 20,000 fully operational nukes pointed at someone in this world.
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 , and Iran and Serbia . 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--
now has about 8,400. The Russia is also way down from its peak weapons stockpile--in 1975 it had a total of 26,675; now it has 10,455. United States
- 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
. Phew! (One hair trigger is presumably safer than 15.) Russia
- The biggest stockpiles are still shrinking.
and Russia have agreed to reduce their strategic (thermonuclear a.k.a. really humongous) bombs to a maximum of 2,200 each by the year 2012. ( America currently has about 5,000 and the Russia about 7,000.) United States will probably make its reductions. That's because Russia no longer has any use for its nuclear bombs. War with Russia 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. America
- 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
is not one of the latter.) United States
One country has dropped out of the nuclear club.
had nuclear bombs but dismantled them and shut down its nuclear weapons program--proving that total disarmament can be done. South Africa
Want More Tamim?
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.
Meanwhile, in the Middle East,
And let's not forget
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.
In preparation, Congress has lifted
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,
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?
Also on Encarta