SCND homepage

The World's Nuclear Weapons

In 2001 there are thousands of atomic bombs with systems for delivering them held by the eight nuclear states. These weapons are kept in a state of alert causing fear to all. If even a small fraction were exploded, enormous destruction would be caused. Their existence may encourage other states to aquire their own. Their manufacture and upkeep costs billion of pounds. The disposal of scrapped weapons is likely to involve a hazard for generations to come. The wealth of material and talent expended in the possession of nuclear weapons could be used for socially beneficial purposes.

Many treaties try to ensure some control of nuclear weapons. The Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 is under threat because the US is proposing to set up a National Missile Defense which would be contrary to the treaty.

Year US Russia UK France China Israel India Pakistan
1999 10,698 10,451 185 450 400 100 12 12
2002 10,640 8,600 200 350 400 100-200 30-35 24-48

The countries which say they have nuclear weapons are US, Russia, China, France, Britain, Pakistan and India. Israel does not admit its possession of them. Almost all countries are signatories to the Non Proliferation Treaty which allows the first five of those named to have nuclear weapons but denies them to all other countries. The weapons possessed by Britain and France could destroy most of Russia. Those held by Russia and the US could destroy Russia and the US. The weapons held by Britain and France would be launched from submarines, those held by Russia and the US would be delivered from land, sea and air. China has land, sea and possibly air capacity.

The number and size of weapons worldwide have been reduced and their accuracy has been increased since the end of the cold war. There are presently more than sufficient to interrupt if not terminate civilisation.

Why does any country have nuclear weapons? Because other countries have them. For many years the fear of attack was used to justify the possession of these weapons. There was a general agreement that the enormous power to destroy meant that they could not be used without the likelihood of an atomic war starting which could destroy the world. Nations claimed that although they possessed nuclear weapons they did not intend to use them. A Theory of Deterrence was developed: you had to be able to convince a possible enemy that if he attacked you were prepared to respond with nuclear weapons. This led to an arms race between the US and the USSR in which larger atomic bombs were constructed with more and more elaborate ways of delivering them. The existence of the weapons became the principle reason for aquiring more.

The Start I Treaty signed in 1991 by the US and the Soviet Union began the process of cutting back on long-range missiles and bombers. The nuclear powers, while agreeing further cuts in nuclear arsenals are desirable, still argue that they are justified in retaining nuclear weapons.

A nuclear-weapon free zone is made up of countries which have agreed by treaty not to arm themselves with nuclear weapons and not to allow the use of their territories for nuclear weapon purposes by other states.

This map shows what parts of the world are nuclear-free zones. The stars show where the five main nuclear powers are.

The southern hemisphere is now covered by nuclear-free zones - Latin America, Africa, the South Pacific, and Southeast Asia, coupled with the long-standing demilitarisation of Antarctica. In 1995 the Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Treaty was signed in Bangkok. There has been progress in Central Asia. A Central/East European zone would reassure Russia and prevent Moscow from redeploying nuclear weapons. Zones in the Middle East and Northeast Asia would also be highly desirable.

back to top