Which countries have nuclear weapons and how many have they got? Here’s a quick guide to the world of nuclear weapon states. Click on the headings for further information on each country.
Countries recognised as ‘nuclear weapons states’ by the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
The British government began the research into developing nuclear weapons in 1940 and became the third country to successfully test a nuclear bomb in 1952. Along with Russia, USA, France and China, it is one of the five nuclear-weapon states under the NPT and a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
The UK’s only operational nuclear weapons system is called Trident and it consists of four nuclear submarines, based at the naval base HMNB Clyde, around 25 miles from Scotland’s biggest city, Glasgow. The government maintains what it calls a ‘continuous at-sea deterrent’ (CASD), meaning that one of these submarines in on patrol somewhere in the ocean at all times.
Each submarine can take up to 16 missiles, which in turn can each take up to 8 nuclear warheads, although the government currently limits what each submarine takes to five missiles and 8 warheads meaning it can carry up to 40 nuclear warheads. One British Trident warhead is estimated to have a yield of 100 kilotons. This is 8 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima and 4.5 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Nagasaki.
The UK government will decide on the future of the Trident programme in 2016, with the cost of renewal estimated to be around £100 billion over 30 years. Find out more and let us know what you think about this at our Talking Trident page.
Russia inherited the former Soviet Union’s nuclear stockpile and has over 8,000 nuclear warheads, making it the owner of the largest arsenal of nuclear weapons in the world. As one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, they are recognised as one of the 5 countries with nuclear weapons in the nuclear weapon Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
The Soviet’s became the second government to successfully develop and detonate a nuclear weapon in 1949 after concentrating their efforts heavily in the aftermath of the Second World War. In addition to funding research into the area, the Soviet Union also benefited greatly from successful operations to spy on the American nuclear project to steal their nuclear secrets.
The first country in the world to develop nuclear weapons under the Manhattan Project, the Americans also are the only country to have used nuclear weapons as an act of war, in 1945, dropping two nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing an estimated 120,000-250,000 people.
The USA is a close second behind Russia when it comes to huge nuclear arsenals, with around 7,700 nuclear weapons in it’s armoury. Like Russia they are a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a recognised nuclear state under the NPT.
The French government has the third-largest nuclear force in the world and has warheads which can be delivered from land, air or sea. It was the fourth country to test a nuclear device in 1960 and currently has around 300 warheads at it’s disposal.
France is part of the elite club of nations which are recognized as nuclear states by the NPT and sit on the UN Security Council, along with Russia, United States, United Kingdom and China.
China became the first nuclear power in Asia after successfully testing a nuclear weapon in 1964. The true size of it’s nuclear stockpile is a state secret and estimates vary wildly, however a commonly accepted figure is between 200-300 warheads.
Countries with nuclear weapons, not recognised by the NPT
North Korea declared in 2009 that it has developed it’s own nuclear weapon after years of trying (it started it’s nuclear programme in the 1950s). Although they signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty in the 80s, it withdrew in 2003. Becoming the only country to ever leave the treaty after signing.
It has developed a small array of nuclear bombs, probably less than 10, and it is disputed whether or not it has a missile capable of carrying such a weapon over a long distance. Because of the secretive nature of the state, it is difficult to say for certain what the nuclear capabilities of North Korea truly are but it is clear that they have tested nuclear weapons in underground facilities as recently as 2013.
Pakistan never signed the NPT and began developing it’s own nuclear weapons programme in the 1970s although it did not manage to test a weapon successfully until 1998. The fact that it’s neighbour, India, had tested a nuclear weapon in the 1970s provided extra motivation for Pakistan to develop an arsenal of it’s own.
It has around 100-120 nuclear weapons and the ability to deliver them to a range of around 4,500km which would reach deep into neighbouring countries.
India has not officially declared the size of it’s nuclear arsenal but it is estimated to be in control of 90-110 warheads. The programme started in the late 60’s, with the first test taking place in 1974, meaning India became the sixth country to successfully test a nuclear weapon, the second in Asia, and the first country to develop it’s own nuclear weapons since the signing of the NPT, of which it is not a signatory.
It has a no ‘first-use’ policy, meaning that in theory, India would not use it’s nuclear weapons unless it was itself the subject of a nuclear attack. It has missiles capable of delivering it’s nuclear weapons up to 5,000-8,000km away, meaning it could reach major powers in the region including China.
The Israeli government maintains a policy of ‘deliberate ambiguity’, over it’s nuclear weapons programme, meaning it neither confirms or denies what it’s situation is. It is likely that they possess around 80 warheads but given the secrecy of the programme it is very difficult to provide an accurate estimate.
It is thought by some to have conducted a joint nuclear test with the South African Apartheid government in the late 1970’s, although neither party ever confirmed this.
In 1986, Mordechai Vanunu, a former Israeli nuclear technician revealed the details of Israel’s nuclear weapons programme to British media, for which he was later sentenced to 18 years in prison, 11 of which were in solitary confinement. To this day he is still subject to conditions such as not being allowed to meet with foreigners and not being allowed to leave the state of Israel.
Countries formerly possessing nuclear weapons
South Africa is the only country to have ever successfully developed nuclear weapons and voluntarily dismantled them. Under the Apartheid regime, a small stockpile of nuclear bombs were built, but they were dismantled before the transition to majority rule in South Africa in 1989. Check out our video commemorating 20 years since the International Atomic Energy Agency declared South Africa ‘nuke-free’ here.
Belarus had 81 single warhead missiles stationed on its territory after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. They were all transferred to Russia by 1996. In May 1992, Belarus acceded to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
The newly independent Kazakhstan inherited 1,400 nuclear weapons from the Soviet Union as well as a nuclear testing facility. It transferred all the nuclear warheads it had to Russia by 1995 and since signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
After the disintegration of the USSR, Ukraine found itself in possession of the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal. There were 176 launchers of intercontinental ballistic missiles with some 1,240 warheads on Ukrainian territory. By 1996, Ukraine had voluntarily disposed of all nuclear weapons within its territory, disassembling them in Russia.