On July 16th, 1945, in the New Mexican desert, the United States detonated the world’s first nuclear bomb. Less than a month later, the entire planet would witness the devastating potential of nuclear weapons firsthand, when the US dropped two atomic bombs on Japan.
The first bomb, named “Little Boy”, caused major destruction in the city of Hiroshima, killing an estimated 130,000 people. Just three days later, another bomb, “Fat Boy”, was dropped on Nagasaki, killing some 74,000 people. Though these bombings would force Japan to surrender six days later, the ethical and legal justification for the bombings is still debated to this day.
One thing is certain, however. The use of atomic weapons would usher the world into the Atomic Age, and things would never be the same. Today, there are some 9,400 active nuclear weapons spread out among a modest nine countries. What countries have nukes? Here is a short list of nuclear weapons countries.
A List of Nuclear Weapons Countries
The United States of America
As mentioned earlier, the US was the first country to possess nuclear capabilities. They developed nuclear weapons, with the help of the United Kingdom and Canada, as part of the Manhattan Project, fearing that Nazi Germany might develop them first.
At the height of the Cold War, the US has some 29,000 nuclear weapons. Today, through various treaties and disarmament efforts, they have closer to 4,000. They are the only nation on this list of nuclear weapons countries to have used a nuke in combat.
The most nuclear prolific country in the world is Russia. They became the second country to detonate a nuclear weapon, doing so in 1949 as the Soviet Union. Their nuclear capabilities developed in part from espionage obtained during and after World War II.
In 1986, it was estimated that the Soviet Union possessed nearly 40,000 nuclear weapons. Today, like the US, their total has dropped. However, their 4,300 nukes is more than any other country. Russia and the United States actually share about 93 percent of all nuclear weapons.
The United Kingdom proved to be an important player in the Manhattan Project, providing a lot of initial research for early conceptions of the atomic bomb. After World War II, the US became more secretive, and the UK wanted a nuclear weapon of their own, both as a deterrent against the Soviet Union, and to keep its status as a world power.
In 1952, they tested their first nuclear weapon, becoming the third nuclear country in the world. Today, they have some 215 nuclear weapons, the 5th most of any country.
France would become the 4th country to possess nuclear weapons, when they tested “Gerboise Bleue” in 1960. They were able to accomplish this feat using mostly their own research. Like the UK, France also wanted a nuke to secure themselves as a great power. They also got motivation from events occuring in the world around them, like the diplomatic tension created by the Suez Crisis.
Today, France has 300 nuclear weapons. That is enough to place them 3rd in total warheads held, behind the US and Russia. However, 300 seems like a meager total compared to the top 2.
China tested their first nuclear weapon in 1964, becoming the 5th nuclear country. They wanted to develop nuclear weapons as a deterrent against both the United States and the Soviet Union. Today, China is right behind France with a total of 250 nukes. However, China has officially pledged not to use nuclear weapons in warfare unless nukes are first used against them. This is known as the “no first use” policy.
India has had a nuclear program that traces back to 1944. However, it was a brief territorial dispute with China in 1962 that gave India a greater impetus for developing nuclear weapons, primarily as a deterrent against Chinese aggression. India tested their first nuclear device in 1974, calling it a “peaceful nuclear explosion”. However, because the test used plutonium produced by Canada, the test raised concerns that nuclear technology meant for peaceful purposes could be used to make weapons.
India has not made any official declarations about the size of its nuclear arsenal, but it is thought they possess around 110 nuclear weapons. India is one of four UN Member states to not have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, an international treaty whose objective is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and to encourage disarmament.
In 1971, Pakistan’s President, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was adamant that if India could build nuclear weapons, then Pakistan would too. Pakistan opened their first nuclear power plant near Karachi in the early 1970s, using materials supplied primarily by western nations. They would begin to covertly develop their own nuclear weapons, and it is believed they have been in possession of a nuclear arsenal since the mid-1980s.
Pakistan is estimated to have a stockpile of around 140 warheads. Like India, they are also not a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
North Korea was originally a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but announced their withdrawal in 2003, after the US accused them of having a secret uranium enrichment program. The country claimed to possess functional nuclear weapons back in 2005, though at the time many doubted them. They reported their first successful nuclear test in 2006. Most countries, including US intelligence officials, believe that North Korea did in fact test a nuke, but evidence suggests it was only partially successful.
North Korea has continued to boast about their nuclear prowess, and while we can’t know for sure, it is thought that they may have 10 or less warheads.
Last on our list is Israel, who may have possessed nuclear capabilities well before some of the others on this list. The issue is, Israel has never confirmed, nor denied, the existence of their nuclear stockpile.
It is thought Israel detonated their first nuclear device back in 1966, which would put them sixth on our list. Current estimates have the Israeli nuclear arsenal somewhere between 80 and 400 warheads. Israel is also a non-signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
*Nuclear Weapons Countries List Updated 2020
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