The first nuclear weapon

The Trinity nuclear test on 16 July 1945

The Trinity nuclear test on 16 July 1945

In the 1930’s nuclear research made enormous progress, and when scientists solved the mystery of uranium fission, concern grew in the US that Hitler’s Germany would create such a weapon. In American laboratories, scientists worked around the clock to be the first to finish a fissile weapon.

After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, money poured in to US military research, and above all research on fissile materials. On 16 July 1945, the so-called Manhattan project had managed to produce enough plutonium to perform a first nuclear test, code-named “Trinity”. The detonation was equivalent to the explosion of around 20 kilotons of TNT and is usually considered as the beginning of the Atomic Age.

Advanced level: AN IDEA TAKES SHAPE

Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Hiroshima and NagasakiWorld War II raged. US President Truman wanted a quick end to the war and a Japanese capitulation. He ordered a nuclear attack on Japan. At the same time, Truman wished to show Stalin what capacity the US arsenal held – despite the fact that the Soviet Union was an ally at the time.

On 6 August 1945 a specially constructed bomber was loaded with an atomic bomb to be dropped over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The attack with the so far almost untried weapon was as much a test as an attack; no problem if it would fail. But id did not fail: two thirds of Hiroshima was destroyed and more than 140 000 people killed. Three days later another atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki, killing more than 80 000.

The number of deaths in the bombings of Hiroshima varies depending on the source. An estimated 70 000 people were killed immediately. Within minutes 9 out of 10 people half a mile or less from ground zero were dead. By the end of 1945, the death toll was estimated at 140 000 as a result of bad burns and radiation related injuries, which grew worse due to the lack of health care.


Proliferation of nuclear weapons

The Soviet Union had started its nuclear research programme already in the 1930′s, but it would take until 1949 before the first Soviet atomic bomb was tested. It sparked a heated debate in the US: if the Soviet Union, the home of communism and the foremost opponent to the US, had nuclear weapons – did it mean the US had to get larger nuclear weapons?

The 1950′s was a decade of aggressive nuclear weapons investments- the US fired its first hydrogen bomb in 1951. In 1953 the Soviet Union fired its first hydrogen bomb. The UK announced itself a nuclear weapon state in 1952 and fired its first hydrogen bomb five years later. In 1958, the US and the Soviet Union agreed on a temporary moratorium on nuclear testing. It seemed like a possibility to negotiate a treaty banning nuclear testing. Political and military development, however, made the moratorium a short one. In 1960, France announced itself a fourth nuclear power and in 1961 the Soviet Union broke the moratorium and detonated 30 bombs within a short period of time, including one bomb of 58 megatons (that is 58 000 kilotons, compared to the Hiroshima bomb of 20 kiloton). The US resumed its nuclear testing in the Pacific.

Chrusjtjov and Kennedy brought the world closer than ever to a nuclear war through the Cuban Missile crisis in 1962. Two years later, the People’s Republic of China detonated its first atomic bomb. The possibility of preventing development and proliferation of nuclear weapons was lost.

Nuclear testing would go on in the 1960′s, 70′s, 80′s and into the 1990′s. In 1998, India and Pakistan joined the nuclear club by nuclear testing. India had actually conducted a so-called ”peaceful” nuclear test as early as 1974. North Korea conducted a nuclear test in 2006. Israel, known to possess nuclear weapons, has never conducted a nuclear test.

USA Russia UK France China
Atomic bomb 1945 1949 1952 1960 1964
Hydrogen bomb 1951 1953 1957 1968 1967

Table: Years of first nuclear test in the five official nuclear weapon states

Advanced level: NUCLEAR TESTING

The Cold War arms race

The Cold War arms race

Between the 1960′s and the 1980′s, an intensive arms race took place between the US and the Soviet Union. In 1986, the arms race reached its peak. At that time, the two super powers together had 70, 500 nuclear weapons in their arsenals. The total explosive power of these weapons is almost impossible to understand. It would have been enough to annihilate the world and all its living creatures approximately 25 times.

The US and the Soviet Union kept a sharp eye on each other’s nuclear arsenals. Each time the one was suspected of having increased its arsenal or acquired a new kind of nuclear weapon, the other state was soon to follow or, rather, exceed the other state’s arsenal a little. This led to a mad arms race that neither the US or the Soviet Union could stop – there would always be the risk that the enemy would have a larger, stronger and more advanced nuclear arsenal. Both states had their nuclear weapons targeted directly at each other’s territories, ready to be launched within minutes.

During the Cold War, the nuclear weapon states applied a military doctrine called Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). The doctrine assumed that both sides had enough nuclear weapons in their arsenals to annihilate the other part in the event of a hostile nuclear attack. The expected scenario was e.g. that the US attacks the Soviet Union with a smaller nuclear weapon.

The Soviet Union would immediately respond with a larger attack, which would result in an even larger counterattack by the US. The result would be exactly what the doctrine was called: Mutually Assured Destruction – absolutely mad. In fact, a large-scale nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union would not have been limited to assured destruction of the two superpowers, but of the entire world.

Advanced level: THE COLD WAR

Treaties and initiatives for disarmament

At the same time as the arms race between the US and the Soviet Union reached perilous proportions, the states were challenged and questioned – both nationally and internationally. Already in the 1970′s the first treaties were signed between the two states to limit the strategic nuclear arsenals: SALT I and II (Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty). During the latter part of the 1980′s a time of disarmament replaced a time of armament. The US and the Soviet Union (later replaced with Russia) entered negotiations on which weapons could be eliminated.

The INF Treaty was achieved in 1987 and seeks to eliminate the US and Russia’s land-based intermediate- and shorter-ranges missiles. The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I, 1991) between the US and the USSR limits the number of heavy bombers, ICBMs, and SLBM’s, and also limits launchers and warheads. It prohibits both states from deploying more than 6000 nuclear warheads on a total of 1600 delivery systems, and the ballistic missile throw-weight (lifting power) is limited to 3600 metric tons.

The second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START II, 1995) between the US and Russia limits their strategic arsenals to 3000-3500 warheads on delivery systems (tactical weapons and spares are not included in the counts). It also prohibits multiple re-entry vehicles (MIRV‘s) on intercontinental ballistic missiles, and limits the number of warheads deployable on submarine-launched ballistic missiles to 1700-1750. START II has not entered into force: when the US withdrew from the ABM Treaty in 2002, Russia declared START null and void the following day. It was replaced by SORT in 2002.

Also known as the Moscow Treaty, SORT limits the nuclear arsenal of both the US and Russia to 1700-2200 warheads each. It does not specify which warheads are to be reduced or how reductions should be made, nor does it include any verification provisions. It came into force on 1 June 2003, and is set to expire 31 December 2012.

Demands for nuclear disarmament and a world free from nuclear weaponsDemands for nuclear disarmament and a world free from nuclear weapons are constantly heard, from organisations, states and private persons. In 1995, the Carlsson Commission wanted to introduce a programme leading to abolishing nuclear weapons within 10-15 years. The Canberra Commission, the same year, demanded immediate and firm measures to abolish nuclear weapons and proposed measures for a gradual elimination of nuclear arsenals. In 1996, some 50 military officers from nuclear weapon states presented an appeal, pointing to the fact that nuclear weapons can never create security – nationally or internationally.

The 1998 New Agenda Coalition (NAC) was an initiative where seven states, among these Sweden, agreed on a declaration demanding prompt and complete elimination of nuclear weapons. In 2003, Sweden commissioned by the UN, appointed an independent Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission. The commission report from 2006 presents 60 substantial recommendations on how to rid the world of weapons of mass destruction. In January 2007, with a follow-up a year later, former US Foreign and Defense Ministers George Schultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn, published two surprising articles on a world free from nuclear weapons. A number of senior militaries and statesmen have supported the article and its message, among these former Soviet leader Michail Gorbachov.

There are also examples of states that have had nuclear weapon programmes but eliminated them. South Africa is the only state to possess nuclear weapons and then voluntarily give up the nuclear weapons option to join the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear weapon state.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, nuclear weapons were deployed in four new independent states: Belarus, Ukraine, Russia and Kazhakstan. All former Soviet nuclear weapons were transported to Russia, while Belarus, Ukraine and Kazhakstan chose to join the NPT as non-nuclear weapon states.

Since the development of nuclear weapon sin the 1940′s, there has been strong opposition throughout the world to a weapon that can annihilate all the world and its living creatures. States have made demands in negotiations. Organisations and engaged activists have marched, rallied, protested and demanded the right to live in a world free from nuclear weapons.


Nuclear arsenals today

In the late 1980′s and early 1990′s, major changes took place in Europe. The Eastern and Western parts of Germany were united and the Soviet Union dissolved into independent states. The terror balance between the two former superpowers ended. The Cold War was over. Are nuclear weapons really of any use today, so long after the end of the Cold War and with no longer an enemy in the East or the West to defend from?

The number of nuclear weapons in the world’s arsenals is difficult, not to say impossible, to pin down exactly. There are many different numbers to be found, depending on whether you chose to count nuclear weapons that are inactive, placed in reserves or awaiting dismantlement. Here, we use numbers from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Nuclear Notebook, volume 62, issue 4, 2006: Global Nuclear Stockpiles 1945-2006.

More than 128 000 nuclear warheads have been produced since 1945. Of these, the Nuclear Notebook estimates the US to stand for 55 percent and the Soviet Union/Russia for another 43 percent. In 1986, toward the end of the Cold War, there were 70 500 nuclear warheads in the world’s arsenals1.

The five official nuclear weapon states (the US, Russia, the UK, France and China) appear to have no plans for ridding themselves of their nuclear weapons in the near future. They still consider it necessary to maintain a nuclear deterrent. Today, close to 97 percent of all nuclear weapons are found in the US and Russia. Approximately 12 500 of the nuclear weapons in the US and Russia are operational, while the rest are placed in reserves or awaiting dismantlement. The total world arsenals – including deployed weapons and reserves – was estimated by the Nuclear Notebook in 2006 at 26 854 nuclear warheads. That equals about 2000 times the total firepower used during World War II – hence a capacity of destroying the world and all its living creatures many times over, despite the reductions already made.

The continuous development and upgrading of nuclear weapons by nuclear weapon states is frightening, and sends the wrong signals to non-nuclear weapon states. The habit of first telling the world that no other states may possess nuclear weapons since it would threaten international security, only to go back home to research centres to upgrade their own arsenals gives a very bad signal. Allowing more states to possess nuclear weapons certainly is not the solution. The solution is for the nuclear weapon states, in particular the US and Russia with the largest arsenals, to admit that nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation are two sides of the same coin. They need to admit that weapons in ones own country will immediately lead to other states wanting nuclear weapons as well. They need to admit that disarmament in the nuclear weapon states signals to non-nuclear weapon states that nuclear weapons are not an attractive alternative.


1. Norris, Robert C and Kristensen, Hans M. Russian Nuclear Forces 2006. Nuclear Notebook, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist vol 62, Nr. 2 2006

This page was last revised: 2012-08-08