The Gadget device being prepared for testing. Image: Wikimedia
In August 1945, the United States military dropped the most devastating weapon ever built on Hiroshima, Japan. Then it dropped another one on Nagasaki. Nearly 60 years later, the impact of those two bombs is still seared into our collective consciousness; they stirred up a persistent nuclear nightmare we have yet to awaken from. But we haven't stopped building the bombs.
A new report from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, "Global nuclear weapons inventories, 1945–2013," says that since that fiery event at the tail end of World War II, human beings have built 125,000 more nuclear warheads. And 97 percent of them were built by the US and Russia. The report offers a fascinating synopsis of how many warheads are out there, who built what, and how far we have to go before we approach true nuclear disarmament.
There are nine nations with confirmed nuclear stockpiles, and those with smaller arsenals—or those, like Israel, that haven't really fessed up to having any at all—are harder to count.
The US alone built 65,500 warheads since 1945, 59,000 of which have been disassembled. France, the third-biggest nuclear weapons holder, has built approximately 1,260 warheads since the '60s, but now has only 300 active ones. Britain has, over the course of its nuclear program, produced around 1,250 nuclear weapons, but now holds less than 400. China has built about 650 since its program began in 1964, and Israel is estimated to have built 80. Both India and Pakistan have produced around 100 warheads. Russia produced the rest of the 125,000 total.
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
The number of active nuclear arms is certainly down since the end of the Cold War, when the total stockpile reached 70,000; a stunning figure that is supported by multiple sources. But it's still remarkably high, given that the Cold War ended decades ago.
Tens of thousands that were built have since been dismantled, but the total worldwide inventory, counting those en route to retirement, is still about 17,200. Each of which, of course, is capable of leveling a major city. And while each of the nations with Cold War-era nuclear programs have reduced their arms since 'peak nuke', there remain a massive amount of ready-to-launch nuclear weapons across the globe.
"The nine nations with nuclear weapons now possess more than 10,000 nuclear warheads in their military stockpiles, the authors estimate, with several thousand additional US and Russian retired warheads in storage, awaiting dismantlement," the report states.
B-61 nuclear warhead, disassembled. Image: Wikimedia
Of those, "Approximately 4,400 warheads—nearly half of all stockpiled warheads—are deployed on missiles or at bases with operational launchers," BAS says, "we estimate that roughly 1,800 US and Russian warheads are on high alert atop long-range ballistic missiles that are ready to launch 5 to 15 minutes after receiving an order."
To reiterate: there are nearly 2,000 warheads pointed at critical targets at this very moment, and with the yanking of a lever or two, they could be launched in about the time it takes to listen to a pop song. Some 2,000 more are ready to roll with a bit more prep work.
That's still a lot of warheads. Despite the high-profile New START agreement between the US and Russia—and most recently, the follow-up agreement to keep agreeing to that agreement—little movement has been made towards nuclear nonproliferation. As the BAS report notes, little progress has been made to acknowledge or deal with the "retired" nuclear arms—arms that aren't in launch position, but that are still very much deadly, explodable, usable weapons.
Northrop's Snark, a pilotless nuclear missile. Image: Flickr
With the world on the brink of entering into yet another war, it's more important than ever that we address the scope of our nuclear arsenals; there's still a long way to go before we can hope to shake the ashen specter of Hiroshima.