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How Many Nuclear Weapons Still Threaten Humanity?
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) is one of the most authoritative institutes in the world on issues of war and peace. The recently-released 2011 SIPRI Yearbook provides estimates of the number of nuclear weapons in the world. It finds that only four countries have deployed nuclear warheads, by which it means warheads placed on missiles or located on bases with operational forces. Two of these countries are the US and Russia, which have 2,150 and 2,427 deployed nuclear weapons, respectively. Under the terms of the New Start agreement, ratified in 2010, each country is required to reduce the number of deployed strategic warheads to 1,550 by the year 2017. The other two countries with deployed nuclear weapons, according to SIPRI, are the UK with 160 deployed weapons and France with 290 deployed weapons.
The total number of deployed nuclear weapons in the world stands at 5,027 in 2011. Of these, SIPRI estimates that some 2,000 are kept on high operational alert, ready to be fired within moments of an order to do so.
In addition to its deployed nuclear weapons, the US has 6,350 additional weapons for a total of 8,500. Russia has 8,570 additional weapons for a total of 11,000. The UK has an additional 65 weapons for a total of 225. France has an additional 10, for a total of 300. Four other countries have only non-deployed nuclear weapons, according to SIPRI: China with 240; India with 80-100; Pakistan with 90-110; and Israel with 80.
SIPRI does not list North Korea among the countries having a stockpile of nuclear weapons, although relatively small nuclear devices have been tested by North Korea in 2006 and 2009. SIPRI acknowledges that there is a widespread belief that North Korea has separated enough plutonium for a small number of nuclear weapons, but indicates there is controversy over the amount of plutonium they have separated and the yield of their nuclear tests. They also point out that “doubts persist about whether North Korea has the design and engineering skills needed to manufacture a fully functional operational nuclear weapon.” It seems highly likely to me, however, that North Korea possesses a small number of nuclear weapons and is the ninth nuclear weapon state.
Between 2010 and 2011, the US reduced its nuclear stockpile from 9,600 to 8,500. During the same period, Russia reduced its stockpile from 12,000 to 11,000. While the US and Russia were reducing their arsenals, the UK, France, China and Israel were holding steady at lower levels. India and Pakistan, on the other hand, were increasing the sizes of their arsenals: India from 60-80 to 80-110, and Pakistan from 70-90 to 90-110. Overall, the total number of nuclear weapons in the world decreased from 22,600 to 20,530.
The trends are these: modest reductions by the US and Russia, indicating a continuing commitment to maintaining their nuclear arsenals at a relatively high level of overkill; no reductions by the UK, France, China and Israel, indicating a continuing commitment to retaining their arsenals at current levels, at least until more substantial progress in reductions is made by the US and Russia; and increases in the arsenals of India and Pakistan, indicating a continuing nuclear arms race in South Asia.
The modest reductions made by the US and Russia and the further reductions agreed to by the two countries in the New START agreement are offset by their commitments to modernizing their nuclear arsenals and improving their systems of delivery. A SIPRI media statement pointed out that “both countries currently are deploying new nuclear weapon delivery systems or have announced programs to do so, and appear determined to retain their nuclear arsenals into the indefinite future.”
Regarding India and Pakistan, the SIPRI statement pointed out that they “continue to develop new ballistic and cruise missile systems capable of delivering nuclear weapons” and that both countries “are also expanding their capacities to produce fissile material for military purposes.” Other experts have done simulations of a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan with 50 to 100 Hiroshima-size nuclear weapons and have estimated that it could lead to a blocking of sunlight and lowering of temperatures, causing widespread drought and crop failure, resulting in some one billion deaths in the region.
While there are some ten percent fewer nuclear weapons in the world from 2010 to 2011, it is not time to breathe a sigh of relief at what has been accomplished. The overall trend is toward fewer nuclear weapons, but weapons and delivery systems that are more highly modernized – what the US refers to for itself as a “safe, secure and effective nuclear stockpile.” In reality, the only type of stockpile that will meet the criteria of being “safe, secure and effective” will be a global stockpile of zero nuclear weapons. Any number other than zero will continue to present unacceptable risks to humanity. What is needed now is a new treaty, a Nuclear Weapons Convention, for the “safe, secure and effective” elimination of all nuclear weapons. The US and Russia, the countries with the largest nuclear arsenals, should be providing the leadership to achieve this goal.