Since Russia first invaded Ukraine almost three weeks in the past, the specter of nuclear weapon use has risen.

This was made clear on Feb. 27, when Russian President Vladimir Putin introduced that his nation’s nuclear forces had been positioned on “excessive alert,” the Related Press reported. The present state of affairs, based on the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, is a “nightmare state of affairs” delivered to life.

So, when Putin stated his nation’s nuclear weapons had been on excessive alert, what did he imply? Additionally, what number of nuclear weapons exist, who has them, and the way highly effective are they?

Nuclear weapons analysts estimate that the world’s 9 nuclear states—China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the UK and the USA—have round 13,000 nuclear warheads in complete, based on the Arms Management Affiliation. Nevertheless, this estimate relies solely on publicly obtainable info; there could possibly be many extra that states haven’t disclosed.

“We all know which international locations have nuclear weapons, however we don’t essentially know what number of nuclear weapons they’ve; Israel, as an illustration, doesn’t publicly acknowledge its program,” Anne Harrington, a senior lecturer in worldwide relations at Cardiff College within the U.Ok., instructed Dwell Science. “The variety of nuclear weapons China has can be a serious topic of debate.”


For the reason that finish of the Chilly Struggle, each the U.S. and Russia have diminished their respective nuclear arsenals, and their nuclear stockpiles are far smaller than they had been at their top. In 1967, the USA had 31,225 nuclear weapons, Homeland Safety Newswire reported. On the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, round “35,000 nuclear weapons remained at hundreds of web sites throughout an unlimited Eurasian landmass that stretched throughout eleven time zones,” based on a Harvard Kennedy Faculty report written by Graham Allison, a nationwide safety analyst on the faculty.

In the present day, Russia says it has 6,257 nuclear warheads, whereas the USA admits to having 5,550, based on a January reality sheet launched by the Arms Management Affiliation. Nevertheless, this drastic discount is “primarily attributable to them dismantling retired warheads,” Sara Medi Jones, a campaigner on the Marketing campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), instructed Dwell Science..

In reality, “there was really a rise in deployed warheads final 12 months [2021], and all 9 nuclear-armed states are both upgrading or rising their arsenals,” Jones stated.

“Though it’s tough to know definitively precisely how nuclear arsenals are altering, we assess that China, India, North Korea, Pakistan and the UK, in addition to probably Russia, are all rising the variety of nuclear weapons of their army stockpiles,” stated Matt Korda, a senior analysis affiliate and venture supervisor for the Nuclear Info Mission on the Federation of American Scientists.


As for the way rapidly a nuclear weapon could possibly be deployed and what number of are on “excessive alert,” there may be “a little bit of a spectrum,” Korda instructed Dwell Science. The U.S. and Russia preserve a portion of their nuclear weapons on immediate alert, that means they could possibly be able to launch “in underneath 15 minutes,” he stated. A 2015 paper by the Union of Involved Scientists estimated that the U.S. and Russia every had round 900 weapons on such hair-trigger alert.

Different international locations—together with China, Israel, India and Pakistan—preserve their nuclear weapons in central storage, that means they must be taken out and “mated to their supply programs in a disaster,” Korda stated. This might take days, and even weeks, to rearrange.

And others, akin to the UK, have nuclear weapons “deployed always on ballistic missile submarines,” however these are saved in detargeted mode and would require “hours or days to be delivered to launch-ready standing,” Korda stated.


Nuclear weapons range of their damaging energy. In the USA’ present nuclear arsenal, essentially the most highly effective bomb is the B83, which has a most yield of 1.2 megatons, making it 60 occasions extra highly effective than the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945. Based on the Nuclear Weapon Archive, 650 B83s are in “energetic service.”

Nevertheless, the damaging functionality of the B83 pales as compared with essentially the most highly effective bomb ever made: the Soviet Union’s “Tsar Bomba,” which had a yield of 50 megatons—round 2,500 occasions extra highly effective than the weapon that destroyed Nagasaki. The Tsar Bomba was a one-off designed to showcase the Soviet Union’s army may, and thus far, no additional iterations of the weapon have been made.

Hydrogen bombs, such because the B83 or Tsar Bomba, make the most of nuclear fusion, whereas atomic bombs depend on fission. By way of damaging capability, there isn’t any comparability: Hydrogen bombs have the “potential to be 1,000 occasions extra highly effective than an atomic bomb,” based on a Time journal article reprinted with by the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum.

One other key distinction is whether or not a nuclear weapon is categorized as “strategic” or “nonstrategic,” Korda stated.

Strategic weapons can “attain from Moscow to Washington, D.C., whereas nonstrategic, tactical nuclear weapons have shorter ranges,” stated Samuel Hickey, a analysis analyst on the nonprofit Heart for Arms Management and Non-Proliferation.

“On the floor, it appears logical to imagine that ‘nonstrategic’ weapons have decrease yields and that ‘strategic’ weapons have increased yields,” Korda stated in an electronic mail. That’s often, however not at all times, the case.

And even “low-yield” weapons have the capability to be extremely damaging. The US’ new “low-yield” W76-2 submarine-based warhead, proposed and developed underneath the Trump administration, has a yield of roughly 5 kilotons. Compared, the “Fats Man” bomb that the U.S. dropped on Nagasaki had a blast yield of 21 kilotons and is estimated to have immediately killed round 40,000 folks. Many hundreds extra died because of long-term well being results, akin to leukemia, straight attributed to the bomb.

“There isn’t any approach to make use of one [nuclear weapon] with out escalating a disaster and murdering civilians,” Hickey instructed Dwell Science. “Simply this previous January, the leaders of China, France, Russia, the UK and the USA collectively affirmed that ‘a nuclear battle can’t be received and mustn’t ever be fought,’ as the results of a single weapon detonation can be catastrophic.”


Whereas every nation has its personal particular storage system, storage amenities are usually blast-resistant and are sometimes buried underground to “restrict the injury of an unintentional detonation and to guard from an assault,” Hickey stated.

In the USA, nuclear weapons are “saved underneath cryptographic mixture lock to stop unauthorized use,” Hickey stated. In idea, solely the president has the authority to sanction their use, however based on Hickey, “if the cryptographic code is enter or bypassed, the nuclear weapons could possibly be armed in a matter of minutes.” Nevertheless, Hickey additionally confirmed that these weapons would should be “affixed to a missile or deployed on an plane” so as to be launched.

On condition that the launch of a nuclear weapon would, in all probability, be met with instant retaliation and will result in all-out world nuclear battle, is there an opportunity that each one nuclear weapons could possibly be decommissioned for the larger good? May there ever be a future with out nuclear weapons?

“I don’t suppose that is going to occur,” stated Holger Nehring, chair in modern European historical past on the College of Stirling in Scotland. “Nuclear weapons are primarily a type of deterrence towards nuclear assault, so states haven’t any actual curiosity in eliminating them. Totally eliminating nuclear weapons would imply a really excessive degree of belief between all states within the worldwide system, and that is unlikely to be achieved.”

Andrew Futter, a professor of worldwide politics on the College of Leicester in England, agreed. “We’ve in all probability reached some extent now the place additional large reductions are unlikely,” he instructed Dwell Science.

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