Where can nuclear weapons be found?

Where can nuclear weapons be found?

Today, there are nine nuclear weapon states in the world: the US, Russia, the UK, France and China were the five declared nuclear weapon states when the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) entered into force. Israel, India, and Pakistan, which are not NPT Member States, acquired nuclear weapons subsequently, although Israel has never acknowledged its arsenal. The Democratic Republic of Korea (North Korea) tested a nuclear device in 2006 and declared itself a nuclear weapon state, though there is no evidence of functioning nuclear weapons in the country. In addition to these nine states, US nuclear weapons are deployed in six European states: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey and the UK (although recent reports suggest that the last remaining US nuclear weapons in the UK were removed from Lakenheath Air Force Base in 2008). Nuclear weapons are also aboard warships on international water.

In total, there are approximately 25,000 nuclear weapons in the world’s arsenals. Of these, almost 24,000 are in the US and Russia, with the remaining 1,000 in the other nuclear weapon states.

44 states in the world have the capacity to develop nuclear weapons through their nuclear power reactors and research reactors. Reaching Critical Will launched a report in 2007, the Model Nuclear Inventory, that lists all states with nuclear weapons and nuclear power in the world. The report is well worth reading!

To study a map of the world’s nuclear weapons, nuclear technology capacity and fissile material holdings, please visit the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).

Nuclear weapons in the US

In January 2008, the US nuclear arsenal was estimated at 10,400 nuclear warheads. Of these, 4,075 were operational. The American nuclear programme consists of three parts – a so called nuclear triad: intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and bombers. The US also holds approximately 500 tactical nuclear weapons.

Advanced level: THE US

Nuclear weapons in Russia

Russia has reduced its total nuclear weapon stockpile by about 1,000 warheads during the past year, but it still has the largest arsenal in the world. As of early 2008, we estimate that Russia has approximately 5,200 nuclear warheads in its operational stockpile and 8,800 in reserve or awaiting dismantlement, for a total of 14,000 nuclear weapons. The Russian nuclear programme consists of three parts – a so-called nuclear triad: intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine launched ballistic missiles and bombers.

Advanced level: RUSSIA

Nuclear weapons in the UK

The UK arsenal consists of one nuclear weapon system: a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines equipped with ballistic missiles. Each submarine is equipped with 48 nuclear warheads, each of which can be fired in a separate direction. Each warhead has a firepower equivalent to 100 kilotons, which equals eight times the yield of the atom bomb dropped over Hiroshima in 1945, which killed 140,000 people. The British government announced in 2005 that it has fewer than 200 operationally available nuclear warheads, which indicates there are more nuclear warheads in a reserve.

Advanced level: the UK

Nuclear weapons in France

The French nuclear arsenal is estimated at 348 nuclear warheads. The Federation of American Scientists notes that France, like other nuclear weapon states, probably has inactive nuclear warheads in a reserve. The French arsenal consists of two nuclear weapon systems: submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) and air-launched, intermediate-distance missiles. Three of France’s nuclear submarines are equipped with 16 ballistic missiles each, each missile with a capacity to launch six warheads. A total of 288 nuclear warheads is estimated in the French submarine fleet. A fourth nuclear submarine, “Le Terrible”, was inaugurated in March 2008. France also has about 60 nuclear warheads for delivery from bombers.

Advanced level: FRANCE

Nuclear weapons in China

No one can really give an exact number of the Chinese nuclear arsenal. Estimates vary between 200-240 nuclear warheads. China’s nuclear arsenal consists of approximately 80 land-based missiles with the capacity to carry one nuclear warhead each. The state also has one nuclear submarine equipped with 12 single warhead missiles. A small number of nuclear warheads – approximately 40 – can be launched by bombers.

Advanced level: CHINA

Nuclear weapons in India

India tested a nuclear device in May 1998 and immediately following announced themselves as a nuclear weapon state. The state is not party to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and is considered a de-facto nuclear weapon state. The number of warheads in the Indian nuclear arsenal has not been made public by the Indian government, making an estimate difficult. India has produced enough weapon grade plutonium to produce some 100 nuclear warheads. It is estimated India’s arsenal consists of 50-60 nuclear warheads – mainly air borne.

Advanced level: INDIA

Nuclear weapons in Pakistan

In May 1998, after India’s nuclear weapon tests, Pakistan tested a series of nuclear weapons in two days to show its nuclear capability. Like India, Pakistan is not a member of the NPT. The country is quickly developing and upgrading its nuclear arsenal. It is difficult to state the exact size and composition of the Pakistani arsenal, as the government has not made any information public. It is estimated that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal holds approximately 60 warheads, for delivery by bombers and land-based ballistic missiles.

Advanced level: PAKISTAN

Nuclear weapons in Israel

Israel’s nuclear weapons have been called ”the world’s worst kept secret”. It is generally accepted that Israel possesses nuclear weapons, although Israeli officials have never confirmed their existence. The nuclear doctrine of Israel is based on the concept of ambiguity – if nuclear weapons exist, where they are, how many there are, and under what circumstances Israel would consider using them. The exact size of the Israeli nuclear arsenal is unknown, Estimates range from 75 to 400 warheads. The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) estimates the Israeli arsenal holds approximately 80 warheads.

Advanced level: ISRAEL

Threshold states

Apart from the states that have already proved their nuclear capacity, there are states considered threshold states. Threshold states have the technical capacity to produce nuclear weapons , or are suspected to have made preparations for nuclear weapons production. The cases given the most attention in the press lately have been Iran and North Korea.

The Democratic Republic of Korea (North Korea)

There is great uncertainty surrounding the North Korean nuclear weapon programme – whether it has produced nuclear weapons; if so, how many; and whether they work are all unresolved questions. The country has operated a reactor producing nuclear weapons-grade plutonium since 1986. Independent experts claim it has produced about 43 kg (+/- 10 kg) of separated plutonium. Depending on technical knowledge and the desired yield, North Korea may have produced between 5 and 10 nuclear warheads. It is uncertain if North Korea has produced nuclear warheads that actually can be delivered by a missile1.

North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test on 9 October 2006. The expected yield was less than one kiloton, which can be compared to the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 with a yield of 19 kt. The test did not achieve the expected yield, yet showed that North Korea had mastered the nuclear fuel cycle and has the capacity to produce at least primitive nuclear weapons.

North Korea was a member of the NPT but announced its withdrawal in early 2003. Only a few months later, North Korean officials revealed for the first time, during a round-table talk with the US, that the country had produced nuclear weapons. Furthermore, North Korea said it possessed and would consider exporting plutonium rods unless the US accepted bilateral negotiations with North Korea. The so-called Six Party Talks among North Korea, the US, Japan, South Korea, China, and Russia have been ongoing for many years despite long periods of standstill and other problems.

The North Korean nuclear programme gives the country and its dictator attention throughout the world and works as a kind of blackmail to get deliveries of oil and grain. Currently, in 2008, negotiations are still ongoing, aiming at dismantlement of all facilities in North Korea that can be used to produce nuclear weapons. There are no peace negotiations. After the North Korean nuclear test in 2006, the Six Party Talks were hastily resumed. North Korea could use its limited nuclear capacity to increase pressure on the rest of the world, thereby strengthening its position in negotiations for financial aid and a normalized relationship with the US2.

Advanced level: NORTH KOREA


Iran claims its right as a member of the NPT to enrich uranium for its nuclear reactors, so-called peaceful use of nuclear technology. The process of enriching uranium is the same, however, for both weapons and energy production. Many states with the US in the lead, suspect an Iranian intention to develop nuclear weapons. The 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate concluded, with a high degree of certainty, that Iran today does not have nuclear weapons, and will not have the technical capacity to develop nuclear weapons until 20153.

Iran for centuries has considered itself one of the major powers in the Middle East, and has sometimes had antagonistic relations with neighbouring Arabic countries. Agents for democratisation in Iran during the 20th century were repeatedly let down by governments in Western Europe and the US. In later years, some groups in Iran have turned hostile towards Israel. After the Islamic revolution in 1979, a large fraction if Iran’s army was dissolved and when Iran was attacked by Iraq in 1980, the country could initially not offer much resistance. The war lasted for eight years, with a high number of Iranian casualties and refugees. Iraq used large amounts of chemical weapons with no reaction from the international community.

Iran has run a nuclear programme since the early 1970s. At that time, there were plans to acquire a large number of nuclear reactors. After becoming an Islamic republic, Iran met difficulties in importing technology and fuel for the reactors, which is why the desire to run a complete nuclear fuel cycle was born. With the capacity to enrich uranium for nuclear power comes the capacity to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. Iran could possibly leave the NPT and prohibit International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections of its facilities.

Different power groupings in Iran seem to agree on the development of a nuclear programme. This, however, does not necessarily indicate a plan to develop nuclear weapons. An important factor is the declaration by the religious leadership of Iran that nuclear weapons are not in line with the Holy Qur’an. The position as a threshold state that relatively quickly could produce a nuclear weapon would probably give Iran enough status. Today (April 2008), Iran is assessed to need many years to acquire a considerable nuclear arsenal.

Advanced level: IRAN

Nuclear capacity and nuclear plans around the world

Japan is the world’s third largest user of nuclear power, meaning the country also has a considerable amount of plutonium as a by-product of nuclear power production. Japan also has a nuclear enrichment facility. Japan, therefore, has the material, the technical capacity and the financial capital to produce nuclear weapons within a year if desired. Article IX of the Japanese constitution, which was written by the US and its allies at the end of World War II, renounces war and the threat of armed force, and states that Japan shall not have military forces. Japan did not even have a defence ministry until 1997, and the establishment of one at that time can be perceived as a revaluation of its security strategy and a willingness to give up its anti-war position. Despite its declared pacifism, Japan has one of the world’s largest military budgets — 43,701 million US dollars in 2006.

Brazil and Argentina are both states that, in the past, had nuclear programmes. The military regime in Argentina during the 1970s initiated a nuclear weapon programme that was suspended in 1983 when democracy was reintroduced. The country still has an ambitious nuclear power programme, and together with neighbouring Brazil plans a common facility for uranium enrichment. Brazil also initiated a nuclear programme during its 1970s military regime. The programme was suspended in 1990 when the nuclear test site was officially closed and the secret nuclear weapon plans of the military were revealed. Brazil has its own uranium enrichment facilities and has some of the world’s largest uranium deposits.

Advanced level: NUCLEAR CAPACITY

Terminated nuclear weapon programmes

In 2003, Libya revealed that it had a far-reaching nuclear weapon programme and enough uranium centrifuges to produce enough highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons within a few years. Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi, however, made clear that his country would give up its nuclear weapons plans. With the assistance of the US, the UK, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Libyan nuclear weapon programme has been dismantled.

Iraq also had a clandestine nuclear weapon programme during the 1990s, which was revealed by IAEA inspectors. The nuclear weapon programme was dismantled and, in its final report of 1998, the IAEA announced that no material or technological prerequisites existed for Iraqi resumption of its nuclear weapon programme.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, nuclear weapons were deployed in four new independent states: Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. The latter three decided to surrender the nuclear weapons on their territories and joined the NPT as non-nuclear weapon states. All former Soviet nuclear weapons were inherited by Russia.

South Africa is the only state ever to possess nuclear weapons and voluntarily give them up in order to join the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state. The country had a nuclear weapon programme during the 1970s and 1980s. It produced six nuclear devices and had a seventh under development when it abandoned the nuclear option in the 1990s.


NATO – nuclear weapons in Europe

Under the NATO nuclear sharing programme, the US today has about 350 nuclear weapons deployed in six European NATO Member States. One of these, the UK, is a nuclear weapon state, while the other five (Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany and Turkey) are non-nuclear weapon states. The NATO nuclear doctrine has hardly changed during the last decades, despite the changes in the security situation after the end of the Cold War. NATO conducted a review of its nuclear policy in 2003 and concluded that the nuclear weapons deployed in Europe were still necessary to protect European security.

Nato nuclear in Europe

NATO nuclear bases in Europe. Source: Nuclear Threat Initiative. Note! The base in Greece no longer exists (2008)

NATO’s non-nuclear members are, to different extents, involved in the nuclear policy of the military alliance. Some states do not allow the placement of nuclear weapons on their territories in times of peace; other states have US nuclear weapons deployed on their territories to be used if needed by the US and/or its own air force. All NATO member states participate in the NATO Nuclear Planning Group, where implementation of the nuclear policy and organisation of exercises are discussed. France is an exception, having pulled out of the NATO military structure in 1966.

NATO’s nuclear cooperation has been criticized for violating the NPT, or at least going against the spirit of the treaty. Article I of the NPT lays down that the five nuclear weapon states parties (the US, Russia, the UK, France, and China) are not allowed to transfer nuclear weapons to “any recipient whatsoever”. According to Article II of the NPT, non-nuclear-weapon states are not allowed to produce or in any other way acquire nuclear weapons. Many States Parties to the NPT believe that NATO nuclear cooperation is a violation of these provisions of the NPT. The US and NATO contest this conclusion. NATO states are also criticized for violating the NPT, as European non-nuclear weapon states under the NATO nuclear sharing can be allowed access to and control over US nuclear weapons placed in Europe.

Advanced level: NATO

Nuclear Weapons Free Zones

Nuclear Weapon Free Zones (NWFZs) at a minimum prohibit the stationing, testing, use, and development of nuclear weapons inside a particular geographical region, whether that is a single state, a region, or an area defined solely by international agreements. NWFZs have been described in many fora, including the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the UN General Assembly, as positive steps towards nuclear disarmament. Today there are NWFZs in Latin America and the Caribbean, the southern Pacific, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and Africa. More than 50 % of the Earth’s surface today comprises NWFZs (99 % of all land in the Southern Hemisphere). 119 of the world’s approximately 195 states belong to an NWFZ, as well as 18 other areas. 1.9 billion people live in NWFZs. States that belong to an NWFZ are prohibited from producing, testing, stockpiling, or acquiring nuclear weapons. They cannot have nuclear weapons deployed in their territories.


Nuclear weapons in space

There is a big difference between militarization and weaponization of outer space. Space has been militarized since the first communication satellite was launched, and today armed forces all over the world rely on satellites for surveillance, warning systems and navigation. While space is heavily militarized, so far it is not weaponized.

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 prohibits the placement of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction in orbit in outer space. Nuclear weapons testing in outer space is prohibited, and celestial bodies such as the moon and the planets may only be used for peaceful purposes.

Even if the existing legally binding agreements limit deployment of weapons, use of force and military activities in certain parts if outer space to some extent, these are seen by some states as too limited to prevent weaponisation of outer space. Scientific development and technological progress calls for strengthening existing instruments or negotiating new treaties. The Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission recommended a Review Conference of the Outer Space Treaty, to strengthen it and extend its scope. Some states argue for a new treaty on the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS). The United States systematically argues that an arms race in outer space does not yet exist, and it is therefore unnecessary to take action on the issue. Some delegations and experts have thus argued that PAROS is not the most relevant term or treaty to pursue. Discussion in the Conference on Disarmament has recently focused instead on Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space. Changing the language in this way circumvents the US argument against PAROS.


Scenarios to understand

It can be difficult to grasp the full consequences of nuclear weapons use. It doesn’t really matter if we get the information that a nuclear weapon has a yield of one megaton, because it is impossible to understand what that implies. Looking at maps and pictures can help us make comparisons with the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – the only time in history that nuclear weapons have actually been used against an enemy state. Modern nuclear weapons often have a fire power about ten times that of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs that together killed some 200,000 – to give some perspective on what we are dealing with.

A nuclear bomb over a US city

The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) has created a tool that can give an idea of the devastating blast effects of ground-level, shallow subsurface and low-altitude nuclear weapon detonations. It is applicable to traditional nuclear weapons, and to potential terrorist attacks.

Click here to give it a try

Advanced Scenarios

1. Nuclear Notebook, vol. 62, Nr. 4, s. 64-67: Norris, Robert S, Kristensen, Hans M.
2. Nuclear Notebook, Vol 63, Nr. 3, s. 44-49: Norris, Robert S, Kristensen, Hans M.
3. National Intelligence Estimate: Iran – Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities (November 2007)
4. SIPRI Military Expenditure Database, 14 May, 2008

This page was last revised 2012-08-07