Nuclear Weapons

Soviet inspectors and their American escorts stand among several dismantled Pershing II missiles as they view the destruction of other missile components. The missiles are being destroyed in accordance with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, public domain

Soviet inspectors and their American escorts stand among several dismantled Pershing II missiles as they view the destruction of other missile components. The missiles are being destroyed in accordance with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, public domain

Nuclear Weapons

This article examines the issue of nuclear weapons, or the issue of weapons proliferation in international relations. It will discuss the history of nuclear weapons in international relations, the states that currently have nuclear weapons, how many weapons each of these states have, as well as efforts to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the international system.

What is a Nuclear Weapon?

The world saw the use of the atomic bomb during WWII, with the United States dropping two atomic bombs, on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These bombs “caused widespread destruction, leveled cities, and killed between 90,000 and 166,000 people in Hiroshima (about 20,000 of which were soldiers), and between 39,000 and 80,000 in Nagasaki” (Bennett, 2016). However, the bombs today are said to be much more powerful than the bombs dropped during World War II. For example, while the technology for the bombs used during WWII and current US B83 bombs are both based on fission, the power levels vary drastically. Namely, “the blast from the Little Boy released about 15 kilotons of energy, equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT, and sent a mushroom cloud up to about 25,000 feet. The Fat Man produced an explosion of about 21 kilotons. The B83? 1.2 megatons, equaling 1,200,000 tons of TNT, making it 80 times more powerful than the Little Boy” (Bennett, 2016).

In addition, “The largest nuclear weapon ever detonated, the Tsar Bomba, set off by the Soviet Union in 1961, produced an insane 50-megaton blast—about 3,333 times more powerful than the Little Boy bomb that leveled an entire city. The Tsar Bomba is the largest manmade explosion to date, sending a mushroom cloud up to more than 130,000 feet in altitude—about four and a half times the height of Mount Everest—as it sent shockwaves around the globe three times over” (Bennett, 2016). Plus, it is possible that even more powerful nuclear weapons could be developed (Popular Mechanics, 2016).

As Conca (2014) explains in his September 24th, 2014 Forbes article entitled The Nuclear Weapons States: Who Has Them and How Many, “[a]n atomic bomb is a containerized uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction that can be made from either U-235 and Pu-239, the two elements that can be easily split apart to release a lot of energy. Since a reliable and effective bomb requires each element to be pretty pure (over 90% of either U-235 or Pu-239), one needs to choose the specific path fore each.” He goes on to explain further differences between building a uranium nuclear weapon and a plutonium nuclear weapon when he says: 

“For a U-bomb you can depend on, you just need to enrich the U-235 up to about 90%, way more then the 3% to 5% for a commercial reactor.  However, in addition to needing many highly sophisticated centrifuges and associated technologies, it takes a lot of energy to enrich U-235 to weapons grade, a lot of electricity to spin that many centrifuges that fast.

To weaponize U, you need to make a big gun assembly…, put two separate globs of U-235 not large enough to go critical alone, something like 40 lbs each but when combined is more than enough, pack propellant or explosives behind one of them, and at the right moment propel it into the other so it goes critical. This is the easiest way to make an atomic bomb…

For a Pu-bomb, you need a weapons reactor to produce enough Pu-239, which needs to be separated from the other elements. To weaponize it, you need to make an implosion assembly (see figure above), put a smaller glob of Pu-239, only 15 to 20 lbs since Pu-239 fissions better than U-235, but that is not dense enough to go critical. Then pack high explosives around it so that when they explode, the Pu is compressed to super high density and goes critical.

An implosion-type Pu-bomb is a lot more difficult to make than a gun-type U-bomb and we were uncertain enough about it working that we decided to make two Pu-bombs so we could test one at the Trinity Site in New Mexico on July 16, 1945 before we used the other one on August 9th.”

Nuclear Facilities and Nuclear Weapons

Nuclear energy is a continued energy source for many states. In fact, there are expected to be hundreds of new nuclear facilities that are expected to be built by 2050, and 70 are being developed (NEI, 2012, in Conca, 2014). However, the concern continues to be the ability of states to convert these facilities to producing nuclear weapons. As Conca (2014) explains, “[t]he connection between energy and weapons is that nuclear energy states have some of the basic knowledge and some of the infrastructure to start a weapons program, but only if they decide to obtain or develop the rest of the infrastructure and knowledge.” Thus, the question that concerns many around the world is how long it could take states with nuclear energy facilities to then have the abilities to make a weapon; the time it takes is the “latency period” (Sagan, 2010, in Conca, 2014) or “nuclear latency” (Sagan, 2010).

According to Sagan (2012) a significant factor in understanding latency periods has to do with knowing the specific “fuel cycle technology” that  a state has with regards to being able to make fissile material which in turn could then be used for a nuclear weapon (90). Within this, Sagan (2010) raises very important questions that will help us understand how able a country is to be able to produce a nuclear weapon. For example, one should know how capable a state is to produce plutonium (large reactors are needed for this). In addition, “How large are its research reactors, and do they run on low enriched uranium (LEU) or HEU? Does it have the technological capability to produce, separate, or reprocess plutonium? Does the state have an enrichment facility to produce HEU? How long would it take to build such facilities and then to build a nuclear bomb with the materials” (90). To Sagan (2010), these are the sorts of questions that will help us better understand just how close a country is to producing a nuclear weapon. However, this is not enough. We must also understand domestic political factors (such as patronage networks, sanctions, corruption, internal political divisions etc…, the time it take from fissile material to weapons testing, and the effect how successful the international community has been to limit nuclear growth, all of which may offer further information as to how long it would take a state to develop nuclear weapons (Sagan, 2010).

There are two types of nuclear proliferation with regards to states and nuclear weapons. There is what is called “horizontal” nuclear proliferation, as well as “vertical” nuclear proliferation. Regarding these definitions, ““Horizontal” proliferation refers to nation-states or nonstate entities that do not have, but are acquiring, nuclear weapons or developing the capability and materials for producing them. “Vertical” proliferation refers to nation-states that do possess nuclear weapons and are increasing their stockpiles of these weapons, improving the technical sophistication or reliability of their weapons, or developing new weapons” (Sidel & Levy, 2007).

History of Nuclear Weapons

The first major discussions surrounding the idea of nuclear weapons began int he late 1930s. Albert Einstein, along with Szilard, and others, were concerned about the rise of the actions of the Nazi party in Germany, and thus, in 1939, Einstein wrote a letter to United States President Franklin Delano Roosevelt regarding the use of uranium as nuclear energy. Einstein pointed out the possibility of this, and the quickness in which it could be achieved (Einstein, 1939). Shortly after this letter, the United States began building nuclear weapons. In fact, just a handful of years later, the United States tested a nuclear weapon in New Mexico. Then, after a month of the testing, two atomic nuclear bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The two bombs together killed or hurt over 230,000 people, and devastated the two cities, taking out buildings and infrastructure.

Following the United States’ development of nuclear weapons, it was not long after that the Soviet Union also began developing nuclear capabilities. It was in 1949 that the Soviet Union built their own nuclear weapon. This in turn concerned the United States, which furthered their nuclear program by building a hydrogen bomb in the early 1995. However, their unique hold as the only state in the world to have access to such as bomb did not last long, as the Soviet Union also developed one in 1953. Furthermore, “[t]aking advantage of captured German technology on rocketry and German scientists, the Soviets began mass production of medium-range ballistic missiles in 1955” (Payne, 2013: 121). Furthermore, in 1957, they sent off the satellite Sputnik, which convinced many that the Soviet Union could send nuclear weapons to his the United States (Payne, 2013).  Thus, following this development, the United States quickly continued their nuclear weapons capabilities, to the point of both the United States and the Soviet Union having thousands of nuclear weapons each.

However, the United States was far from the only states to have an interest in developing a nuclear weapons program. For example, Britain developed a nuclear weapon in 1952, France in 1960, and China shortly after in 1964. For China, the leaders developed their nuclear program because of what they felt was a threat by outside states. For example, they saw the United States use two nuclear weapons against Japan. In addition, they saw the nuclear weapons race between the United States and the Soviet Union, and they felt that they needed nuclear weapons of their own to challenge any possible outside aggression (Payne, 2013). And if we look at the international relations of these states today, scholars argue that China has continued to maintain an interest in nuclear weapons in the past decades, partly because of its rise as an economic state (which in turn is leading China to be one of the major powers in the world), and China also recognizes that nearby states such as India and Pakistan also have nuclear weapons (Payne, 2013).

India’s interest in nuclear weapons existed following its independence from Britain in the 1940s. And while Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, did not want to test nuclear weapons, many leaders throughout India’s history have believed it to be highly important to have nuclear weapons. For example, disputes with China in the 1960s led many within the state to believe that they needed to develop nuclear weapons. Furthermore, some leaders in India have been unwilling to sign onto non-proliferation agreements such as the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, believing that such agreements only help states that currently have nuclear weapons (Payne, 2013).

However, India’s interest in nuclear weapons, and their testing of a nuclear weapon in 1974 (, 2014) has also led neighboring Pakistan to build nuclear weapons. Pakistan has had a hostile relationship with India, and security issues have also been a top priority with regards to one another. In the case of Pakistan, much of the reason that they developed nuclear weapons when they did was because of a Pakistani scientists named Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan. Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan “was employed as a metallurgist by Physics Dynamic Research Laboratory, a subcontractor working with Urenco. Khan had access to top-secret information. Following India’s nuclear test, Khan stole the blueprints of the world’s best centrifuges, hollow metal tubes that spin very fast to enrich natural uranium into bomb fuel, and returned to Pakistan to develop the bomb” (Payne, 2013: 124). Moreover, he also helped aiding other countries such as Iran and North Korea with their own nuclear programs (Payne, 2013). Both being political rivals, there has been a high level of concern regarding the duel nuclear capabilities of these states. This became even more evident in 1998, when both states each tested a nuclear weapon, and in 2002, when the two were close to military conflict that could have involved nuclear weapons (Payne, 2013). There are also reports that Pakistan is continuing to looking into “advancing toward a sea-based missile capability and expanding its interest in tactical nuclear warheads…”(Craig & DeYoung, 2014). These nuclear weapons would be able to be shot from sea, either above or underwater, in the case that Pakistan’s land nuclear weapons were either hit in a nuclear war (Young & DeYoung, 2014). This is not without concern, of course, given some extremist groups operating in the country (Craig & DeYoung, 2014). 

States That Have Nuclear Weapons

There are currently nine states in the international system that are believed to have nuclear weapons in their military arsenal. These states are: Russia, The United States of America, The United Kingdom, France, China, Pakistan, India, Israel (unconfirmed), and North Korea. Below is a breakdown of the number of weapons that each state had in 2013,(CNN, 2013).

  • Russia: 8,420
  • United States: 7,650
  • France: 300
  • China: 240
  • Great Britain 225
  • India: 80-100
  • Pakistan:90-110
  • North Korea: 4-8
  • Israel: (unconfirmed)

Here is a breakdown of more recent September 2015 figures with regards to the number of nuclear weapons in the world by country.

  • Russia: 7,500 (“March 2016 New START declaration: 1,735 strategic warheads deployed on 521 ICBMs, SLBMs, and strategic bombers.(Note: In March 2016, the U.S. State Department issued the latest fact sheet on its data exchange with Russia under New START, sharing the numbers of deployed nuclear warheads and New START-accountable delivery systems held by each country.) The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) estimates: roughly 2,700 non-deployed strategic and deployed and non-deployed tactical warheads. And 3,200 additional warheads awaiting dismantlement” (Arms Control Association)
  • United States: 7,200 (“March 2016 New START declaration: 1,481 strategic nuclear warheads deployed on 741 ICBMs, SLBMs, and strategic bombers. FAS estimates 2,570 non-deployed strategic warheads and roughly 500 deployed and non-deployed tactical warheads. In May 2016 the Defense Department announced that as of September 30, 2015, the United States possessed4,571 active and inactive nuclear warheads]. (Note: This number does not include warheads awaiting dismantlement.) The State Department announced in April 2015 that approximately 2,500 warheads are retired and await dismantlement” (Arms Control Association).
  • France: 300
  • China: 260
  • United Kingdom: 215
  • Pakistan: 120-130
  • India: 110-120
  • Israel: 80
  • North Korea: under 10 (FAS, 2015).

States that Used to Have Nuclear Weapons

In addition to the states listed above that have nuclear weapons, there have also been states that used to have nuclear weapons, but do not any longer. For example, South Africa decided to rid of their nuclear weapons following the end of the apartheid regime (they disabled a half-dozen nuclear weapons before the ANC came to power) (Payne, 2013: 134). And following the fall of the Soviet Union, and the end of the Cold War, there were many nuclear weapons throughout what are now the former Soviet Union states. These states decided to not keep such weapons.  Iraq was another state that had a nuclear weapons program, but after the Persian Gulf War, through the monitoring of the United Nations, their weapons were disabled (, 2014). There were also many other countries who showed a strong interest in acquiring nuclear weapons, but for various geopolitical and economic reasons, did not go through with the building of a nuclear weapon (Payne, 2013).

The Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons

Recognizing the seriousness of nuclear weapons, and the devastation that they could cause the entire world, many have attempted to put into place bilateral and multilateral agreements to limit the development and testing of nuclear weapons. In fact, this non-proliferation process has been in existence for decades (Payne, 2013). There are a number of ways that the international community has tried to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the testing of nuclear weapons, as well as the contraction of new weapons. Interestingly, the idea behind nonproliferation of nuclear weapons was advocated by states who had nuclear weapons at the time (the United States, The Soviet Union, China, France, and the United Kingdom), hoping to ensure that other states would not seek them. And to convince the world of their intentions, they in turn pledged to, one day, rid of their nuclear program, not use such weapons that do not have similar nuclear capabilities, as well as other points such as aiding countries in nuclear technology for energy purposes (Perkovich, 2003, in Payne, 2013: 130).

There have been a number of nonproliferation agreements in the international community. For example, in 1963, The Limited Test Ban Treaty prevented any testing of nuclear weapons in the air, in space, or in water. In July of 1968 was one of the most known nonproliferation agreements, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which is supposed to stop states from moving nuclear weapons, or aiding other states achieve nuclear weapons production, or in receiving nuclear weapons. If a state is a member of the NPT, but is breaking the safeguard agreement conditions, “Article III B. 4. of the statute states that the IAEA is to submit annual reports to the U.N. General Assembly, and “when appropriate,” to the U.N. Security Council. If “there should arise questions that are within the competence of the Security Council,” the article adds, the IAEA “shall notify the Security Council, as the organ bearing the main responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security”” (Kerr, 2014: 9). In addition to the NPT, there have also been the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT1), the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START1), the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (STARTII), the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (in 1996) which “[p]rohibits all nuclear weapons test explosions” (Payne, 2013: 132), the U.S. Russian Nuclear Arms Treaty, as well as the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START)” (Payne, 2013: 132). With some of the treaties, such as the Nonproliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty apply to all states, other treaties are more specific to the nuclear weapons with regards to the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia.

But while there is a host of international agreements that are expected to help prevent nuclear weapons programs, and the prevention of testing nuclear weapons, some of the challenge in ensuring the success of these agreements is that states have not always been supportive of these treaties and initiatives, and are seen as running counter to the overall goals of these treaties. One of the most noted cases is that of the United States with regards to issues of nuclear weapons and nonproliferation. To many, the United States of America has had what looks to be a duel policy; advocate for the minimization of nuclear proliferation around the world, and in particular with states that are seen as posing a military threat, and at the same time put in preparation the possibility of increase nuclear capabilities. For example, when looking at the United States, they have been active in non-proliferation issues. However, they have not signed onto the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (Payne, 2013). Furthermore, when George W. Bush was in office, “the Bush administration sent Congress is Nuclear Posture Review, in which it advocated a revitalized nuclear weapons complex capable of designing, developing, manufacturing, and certifying new nuclear warheads in response to emerging global treats” (Payne, 2013: 126). Payne (2013) goes on to explain that “In sharp contrast to the traditional reluctance to advocate actually using nuclear weapons, the United States embraced the unprecedented view that nuclear warheads could be used preemptively against potential or actual adversaries. Specifically, the Pentagon regarded the development of the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, a nuclear weapon capable of hitting reinforced concrete bunkers as deep as 40 feet underground, as an effective deterrent against the development of weapons of mass destruction by countries as well as terrorist groups” (127). Moreover, countries such as the United States have arguably also said little towards allies who have (or are believed to have) nuclear weapons (Payne, 2013).


Scholarly Books on the Topic of Nuclear Weapons in International Relations

Scott Douglas Sagan & Kenneth Waltz: The Spread of Nuclear Weapons. An Enduring Debate (Third Edition)

Joseph M. Siracusa, Nuclear Weapons: A Very Short Introduction

 Joseph Cirincione: Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons

 Graham Allison: Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe

Maria Rost Rublee: Nonproliferation Norms: Why States Choose Nuclear Restraint



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Bennett, J. (2016). Today’s Nukes Are Thousands of Times More Powerful Than WWII A-Bombs. Popular Mechanics. October 10, 2016. Available Online: 

CNN (2013). Nuclear Weapons: Who Has What? March 2013. Available Online:

Conca, J. (2014). The Nuclear Weapons States: Who Has Them and How Many. Forbes. September 25th, 2014. Available Online:

Craig, T. & DeYoung, K. (2014). Pakistan is eyeing sea-based and short-range nuclear weapons, analysts say. The Washington Post. September 21st, 2014. Available Online:

Einstein, A. (1939). Letter from Albert Einstein to FDR, 8/2/1939, Available Online:

Kerr, P. K. (2014). Iran’s Nuclear Program: Tehran’s Compliance With International Obligations. Congressional Research Service. April 28, 2014. Available Online:

NEI (2012). Global Nuclear Power Development: Major Expansion Continues. July 2012 White Paper. Available Online:

Payne, R. (2013). Global Issues. New York, New York. Pearson.

Perkovich, G. (2003). Bush’s Nuclear Revolution, Foreign Affairs, No 82, Vol. 2, March/April 2003.

Sagan, S. D. (2012). Nuclear Latency and Nuclear Proliferation. Chapter 5, pages 80-101. Available Online:

Sidel, V. W. & Levy, B. S. (2007). Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons: Opportunities for Control and Abolition. American Journal of Public Health, September, Vol. 97, No. 9, pages 1589-1594.

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