Sunday, August 3, 2008

Where Are the World's Nuclear Weapons?

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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").

Country

Warheads

United States

10,455

Russia

8,400

China

400

France

350

Israel*

250

United Kingdom

200

India**

65

Pakistan**

40

North Korea***

8

TOTAL

20,168

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

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.)
  4. 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.
  5. 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.)
  6. 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?

Tamim Ansary writes on culture and society for Encarta. He is author of the critically acclaimed memoir West of Kabul, East of New York as well as dozens of nonfiction books for children.

Also on Encarta

Background on nuclear weapons

Understanding arms control

What are weapons of mass destruction?

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