Nuclear weapons are weapons of mass destruction that derive their destructive force from nuclear reactions, the fission or fusion of the atom. To make a nuclear weapon, either highly enriched uranium (containing more than 90 per cent of uranium) from uranium enrichment plants or plutonium separated in reprocessing plants from spent fuel rods is needed. Depending on the size and location of the explosion (on the ground or in the air), one single nuclear bomb can destroy large areas and kill many tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of people. So-called radiological dispersal devices ("dirty bombs") that scatter radiological material when they are detonated with conventional explosives are no nuclear weapons as they do not trigger a nuclear chain reaction.
Use of nuclear weapons
The US nuclear weapons programme began during World War II of fear that Hitler-Germany might be able to develop such a weapon. After the surrender of Adolf Hitler, when war was still going on in Asia against Japan, the United States dropped one atomic bomb on Hiroshima (6 August 1945) and one on Nagasaki (9 August of the same year). At least 100,000 people were killed in both cities on the day the bombs were dropped. In the following four months, another 100,000 to 150,000 people died from medium-term effects, such as burns and radiation-induced illnesses (Radiation Effects Research Foundation, 2007).
The US government justified its deployment of nuclear bombs by asserting that lives - in particular of US nationals - could have saved as they would have been able to force Japan to surrender without having to launch a ground offensive. Some experts, however, contradict this stating that Japan was close to surrending anyhow . They also commented that the deployment of the atomic bomb was intended as a show of US force towards the Soviet Union. In later conflicts, too, such as the war in Korea, the Vietnam War, leading US military officials and politicians advocated the use of nuclear weapons. Yet, for political, ethical and military reasons, the US administration has always decided against such suggestions.
Proliferation of nuclear weapons
After the United States, the Soviet Union was the second country that in 1949 conducted a nuclear weapons test. In 1952, the US ally Great Britain followed suit, then France in 1960 and China in 1964. A little later, these states had developed operational nuclear weapons. India conducted nuclear weapons tests in 1974 and 1998; Pakistan followed suit in 1998. Israel is said to be in possession of nuclear weapons since 1967 without ever officially having conducted a nuclear weapons test. North Korea carried out nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009 and apparently has weapons-grade nuclear material but no operational nuclear weapons. Iran is another country that is suspected of having a nuclear weapons programme.
Why do states aspire to possess nuclear weapons? Threat perception is playing a decisive role in this. Nuclear weapons are considered to be a 'guarantor for security'—be it against conventional superiority or against arsenals of nuclear weapons of other states. This, for instance, was the major reason for the United States to develop these weapons (against Hitler-Germany), for the Soviet Union (against the United States), for China (against the United States and, later, the Soviet Union, too), for India (against China), for Pakistan (against India), for Israel (against the Arabic countries) and for North Korea (against the United States and South Korea).
Another reason is the view that nuclear weapons increase the esteem and prestige of one's country, combined with the hope that this will increase one's influence. This motivation is likely to have been one of the decisive factors for Great Britain and France wishing to own nuclear weapons.
Numerous other states have at times considered developing their nuclear weapons or have conducted their nuclear weapons programmes, such as Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Egypt, the Federal Republic of Germany, Iraq, Japan, Libya, Norway, South Africa, South Korea, Sweden and Switzerland. While Iraq only stopped its nuclear weapons programme after its military defeat in the Gulf War in 1991, all other states stopped their programmes for domestic policy reasons, due to their relations of alliance with a nuclear weapons state ('nuclear umbrella') or in the context of diplomatic efforts.
The states that had stopped their deliberations and programmes on nuclear weapons estimated that nuclear weapons were not necessary for or even detrimental to their security and prestige. The fact that Israel and North Korea have become a nuclear power has so far not led to further nuclear proliferation in the respective region, even though the conflicts there are serious. So in fact, the veritable nuclear proliferation has turned out to be less pronounced as often suspected.
Number of nuclear weapons
The rapid increase in the number of nuclear weapons until the mid-1980s was mainly due to the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. Then, there were 70,000 nuclear weapons in the world; the majority of which was owned by the United States and the Soviet Union: more than enough to blow up the world numerous times.
In 2012, the number of nuclear warheads had come down to about 19,000 (cf. Federation of American Scientist). This was still enough for a multiple overkill. Russia possessed a total of 10,000 nuclear weapons of which 1,800 were immediately operational, 3,700 were kept as a reserve, and another 4,500 were destined to be dismantled. The United States possessed a total of 8,000 nuclear weapons of which 2,150 were immediately operational, 2,850 were kept as a reserve, and another 3,000 were destined to be dismantled.
Other states had far less nuclear weapons. France owned 300, China 240, Great Britain 225, Pakistan 90 to 110, India 80 to 100 and Israel 80. North Korea had weapons-grade nuclear material for less than ten warheads.
Criticism regarding nuclear weapons
Nuclear weapons have been criticised for as long as they have existed. The horrors of the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the effects on the health of those who participated in nuclear weapons tests, but above all the dangers of the arms race between the nuclear superpowers during the Cold War have given rise to protests by the peace movement and have fostered states' efforts regarding the control and disarmament of nuclear weapons. After having come close to a worldwide nuclear war in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis between the United States and the Soviet Union, the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty between the United States, the Soviet Union and Great Britain in 1963 was a first success of these efforts. The Non-Proliferation Treaty followed in 1968, just as various bilateral treaties between the Soviet Union / Russia and the United States as of 1972. The last treaty was signed in 2010.
Despite the end of the Cold War, the number of nuclear weapons remained high, and the operational doctrines have hardly been changed. Since around 2008, the discussion on a nuclear weapons free world has intensified. On the one hand, doubts over the military and political usefulness of nuclear weapons increased. On the other, the fears increased of not being able to successfully stem the dangers of a proliferation without having to drastically cut the nuclear arsenals of the superpowers and without the goal of a global zero option. The goal of a nuclear weapons free world, however, remains controversial. The nuclear powers, just like NATO does, still consider nuclear weapons to be the last guarantors for their security and are currently in the process of modernizing their arsenals.
Already in 1996 did the International Court of Justice in The Hague state in an advisory opinion "that the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law". Yet, the Court could not conclude definitively "whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defence, in which the very survival of a State"(International Court of Justice).
Sources and further information:
- NATO and NATO-Russia Nuclear Terms and Definitions
- German Federal Foreign Office (2010) : 26, Forum Globale Fragen ‚Global Zero’ - Herausforderungen auf dem Weg zu einer kernwaffenfreien Welt. (German)
- Federation of American Scientists (2012): Status of Nuclear Forces 2012.
- International Court of Justice. Reports of Judgements, Advisory Opinions and Orders (1996): Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, Advisory Opinion.
- Kristensen, Hans M. (2012): Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons; in: FAS Special Report No 3.
- Radiation Effects Research Foundation. A Cooperative Japan-US Research Organisation: Frequently asked questions
- Potter, William C. und Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova (2010): Forecasting Nuclear Proliferation in the 21st Century, Vol I und Vol II, Stanford/USA.