Nuclear weapon use saw daylight on August 6, 1945. This day was, for an estimated 60,000-80,000 Japanese people, blinding light and total destruction. Tens of thousands more witnessed the same disaster three days later, and tens of thousands have fallen victim to the radiation sickness that followed. That was almost 70 years ago, and now blast waves and mushroom clouds from nuclear weapons are great material for pop culture. During the same 70 years, the nuclear weapons industry has developed far from the crude Little Boy and Fat Man bombs that were used on Japan.
In total, 32 Little Boys (with a blast yield of 15 kilotons of TNT each) and 120 Fat Mans (blast yield of 21 kilotons of TNT each) were manufactured in the United States. These bombs have long since been decommissioned, but new ones have taken their place. Nuclear armament could be said to have gotten out of hand as the current number of nuclear weapons in the world stands at about 16,000. The numbers on world’s nuclear weapons are estimates, since the exact numbers are strictly kept state secrets. Some numbers have leaked, though, and some educated guesses estimate that Russia has most nuclear weapons in the world at the moment: 1,643 strategic warheads, 2,000 tactical nuclear warheads and “several thousand” non-deployed strategic warheads – perhaps as many as 8,000 nuclear weapons all in all! The U.S. holds second place with an estimated 7,300 weapons, including 1,642 strategic warheads, 500 tactical nuclear warheads and 2,800 non-deployed strategic warheads. The Federation of American Scientists believes that the non-deployed warheads in both countries are awaiting dismantlement. Smaller, official, nuclear weapons states include France (290 deployed warheads), China (250 warheads) and the United Kingdom (160 deployed warheads, stockpile of 225). ‘Deployed’ means that the weapon is ready to use on launch-ready alert whereas ‘non-deployed’ weapons are stored. As far as we know, China, India, Israel and Pakistan do not have their nuclear weapons on high alert. The U.S. has an estimated 920 alert nuclear warheads on high alert at all times, ready to be launched within five minutes from launch order, and Russia an estimated 890, “[…] ready to complete their mission every minute and every second.”
Opened for signature in 1968, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) promotes disarmament and has the object of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology. There are four countries that have never signed it: India, Israel, Pakistan and South Sudan. Out of these four, only South Sudan is not a known nuclear power. North Korea withdrew from the NPT in 1993, but the country is considered incapable of weaponizing its current nuclear weapons capability. Israel is considered a de facto nuclear weapon state despite their opaque policy, according to which they neither admit nor deny nuclear weapons capability. When The Sunday Times of London reported on Israel’s plans to deploy nuclear land mines, following their withdrawal from Golan Heights, Israeli Deputy Defence Minister Ephraim Sneh commented, “[…] this report is truly stupid. The person that wrote it not only doesn’t know, but also doesn’t understand anything.”
Nuclear weapons are usually warheads that are delivered by a missile, rocket or torpedo. In most cases, nuclear warheads are delivered by ICBMs (inter-continental ballistic missiles) or SLBMs (submarine-launched ballistic missiles). Submarines’ tactical nuclear weapons can have a range of 3,000 kilometers, like in the new Russian Yasen-class nuclear submarine whose “supersonic missiles behave like wolves” according to Russia Beyond the Headlines. Furthermore, nuclear weapons are categorized as strategic, tactical and portable. Strategic nukes are carried by ICBMs, SLBMs or bombers, and are targeted against an enemy’s nuclear capability and war infrastructure. With their blast yield, they can destroy cities. The U.S. currently uses a silo-launched ICBM nuclear warhead as their main land-based strategic nuclear weapon. It has a blast yield of up to 475 kilotons, an equivalent of 31,6 Little Boys. Tactical nuclear weapons have a smaller blast yield than strategic nukes, as they are designed to be used in the battlefield, and are not regulated by arms control treaties.
With the world’s super powers possessing the capacity to eradicate human life from earth, one would imagine that nuclear weapons and nuclear weapon material is tightly controlled. This is not the case. The future of human kind could be jeopardized in a relatively ‘small’ and ‘contained’ nuclear strife – for example one between Pakistan and India. Spreading radioactivity from one nuclear war would be a major risk, but an even larger risk would be the carbon thrown into the air. This could change the climate drastically.
Risks to man kind are not limited to wars between states – nuclear security itself poses a risk. An uncertainty lingers over whether all weapon-usable material was properly repatriated to Russia from former Soviet countries in Eastern Europe during the turmoil following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 2009, 100 grams of enriched uranium was discovered in a scrap-metal plant in Rotterdam, probably originating from a Soviet nuclear facility. The amount of ‘loose uranium’ in the world is unclear. The situation is not much better in the nuclear silos where unmaintained blast doors do not close – or are left open while the officers in charge of the weapons of mass destruction are found sleeping on duty.